Who owns the land? – Peasant struggles in Indonesia

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Bern-WC, November 2011

In December 2008 about 500 cops and hired thugs attacked the Suluk Bongkal, a hamlet in the province of Riau, and drove away its inhabitants. Two military helicopters bombed the hamlet with napalm to burn down the 700 huts. Two children were killed, 200 people were arrested, the other people were able to escape. The Sinar Mas Cooperation had ordered this attack.

In Indonesia only a small share of the land has an ownership title attached to it – on the main island Java it is about a third of the total land, on the smaller islands it is even less. There are hundreds, if not thousands of disputes, but not many of them become public.. People get killed (in the first half of 2011 there were at least seven victims) or injured. There are numerous arrests. But all of these struggles remain confined to a local level and there are hardly any direct links between them.

Domination, Exploitation, Land Grab – A Short Summary on Peasant History

Indonesia could be paradise: a tropical climate, fertile soil, water in abundance. This might be one of the reasons why during pre-colonial feudalism it was inconceivable that ‘land could be owned by someone’. Feudalism is characterised by personal, direct relations of rule and domination. In order to uphold these relations the feudal regime needs ideology (religion) and weapons, which are only available for one of the sides.

In Europe, as a legacy of the Roman Empire, there had always been a close relation between rulers/ruled and ‘their land’ – this is despite mass migration and numerous expulsions due to wars and feuds etc. The peasants worked on ‘their land’ and it stayed this way – in principle – even when master changed. The peasant paid him a share of what he had wrenched from his soil, a feudal tax e.g. in the form of the tithe for the monasteries.

In Indonesia, a feudal lord did not own land, he owned peasants and entourage. These had to pay a head tax. When the Raja allocated a new territory to one of its inferiors, the latter would bring ‘his peasants’ with him and expel the local population. Land was then allocated to the individual peasants for them to yield their head tax. (Onghokham, 11f) A notion of land as property did not exist, neither amongst the rulers nor the ruled. Given the low population density it was always possible for people to access land somewhere else.

The head tax was paid per village and the village head had to make sure that conditions were right for generating the tax. Irrigation of the paddy fields were usually a common effort of the whole village; also the land was administered in common, meaning, by the village head. In some cases the land was re-allocated after each harvest, in some cases only once the ‘former owner’ had died. (Kano, 60)1

The notion of land ownership was introduced by the colonial powers. The Dutch VOC only administered a minor share of the total land directly. The VOC forced the feudal lords to pay taxes, so that initially things did not change much – apart from the fact that exploitation of the peasants increased. Only the British (during the Continental System 1806-14) introduced western law and the idea of land property. They assigned the total land to the state, meaning to the feudal class, which in turn could lease it to the village heads, who in turn leased it to the peasants (Vlekke, 300). The Dutch later on snatched the land back from the feudal lords by paying them a small apanage – the feudal lords hardly grasped what it was that they sold. This resulted in the village heads and local regional administers (‘Bupati’) becoming rich while the mass of peasants were impoverished. Many died during the dreadful famines and epidemics. The peasants did not just put up with this, but they resisted – either by fleeing or by taking part in uprisings. During the 18th and 19th century in nearly ‘every year’ there were local peasant rebellions (Mustain, 125). Unlike for example on the Philippines, in Indonesia private large landholdings never developed. Therefore, at the end of the colonial era the Republic of Indonesia inherited an enormous ‘nationalised’ land property. 2

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