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The Trends of Agrarian and Natural Resources Conflicts in the 20th Century

by Courtney Bristow*

When I was at Huma, I interested in opening the books of Carol Warren and Anton Lucas (ed), Land for the People (2013). In this final chapter, editors Carol Warren and Anton Lucas finalise their text by exploring how agrarian law reform has been slow to move against the government and corporate land-grabbing, and its subsequent effects on the local people. Their analysis begins with the Reformation era and the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98. This chapter frames the conflict regarding local people and their land rights against the background of the economic crisis and government land-grabbing to attempt to mitigate the effects of the sudden economic downturn. They combat these claims by highlighting the Indonesian food crisis that revealed the issue of “sleeping” or neglected land. Instead, they argue that this accumulation of land actually served as a way to secure investors.

It is at this point that the authors explore the advantages and disadvantages of large-scale investment versus smallholder ownership in Indonesia. They argue that despite the potential benefits of large-scale investment, due to issues such as, “superficial consultation processes, inadequate legal redress, neglect of environmental and social safeguards, discretionary approval process, lack of transparency, monitoring, and enforcement,”[1]in the Indonesian context, it has the potential to do more harm than good for the local people. This diminishes arguments that such investment has aims of reducing poverty, given that is likely to produce the opposite outcome. The authors examine the apparent contradiction between Indonesia’s revolutionary heritage and the guiding principle of social justice in Pancasila, and the ineffectiveness of the law reform movement. They attribute the failure of the law to protect its citizens to combinations of “bribery, elite political connections, and perverse interpretations of the law by the courts.”[2]They use examples from the text’s previous chapters to highlight this, where in many cases the aggrieved individual often found that instead of having their issue resolved, they instead faced criminal charges.

However, the chapter, and by extension the book, ends on an optimistic note. Warren and Lucas illustrate the changes and reforms that have been made, such as the constitutional court decision requiring the “resolution of conflicts with customary communities before confirmation of forest status,”[3]and other NGO and activists’ groups continuing to write and propose reforms. Since writing this in 2013, further strides have been made, such as the recognition of ownership over 8,800 ha of customary forest, when in 2016 and 2017 President Joko Widodo granted hutan adat ownership certificates to the Indigenous people.[4]In their final remarks they acknowledge the ongoing challenges that will still slow social reform, but conclude that by building on the work being done, a way forward may be found, for the “elusive common good.”[5]

One critic of the text is raised by Christopher Atkinson in his review of the text, where he argues that in its discussion, the viewpoint of developers and the government is very rarely expressed.[6]As Atkinson rightly points out, in this chapter and throughout the book, the views of the local people and smallholders are clearly voiced, while the chapter rarely expresses the justification by the other parties.[7]The expression of both perspectives might have added further depth to this chapter.

Overall the text does well to summarise the economic and systematic barriers that strip local people of their land rights and prevent the reduction of poverty – particularly the issue of government and corporate land grabbing and reducing the autonomy of smallholders. However, the more optimistic note they end on reveals a potential way forward, to bring about land rights reform to Indonesia. Taking a fresh look at this chapter, it is interesting to see what reforms and changes have been made, and what problems still exist. It is a useful chapter to provide a recent background to what remains a very prominent issue in Indonesia.

Despite some shared commonalities, the Indonesian struggle for land rights differs significantly from that of the Indigenous Australians particularly due Australia’s use of the Common Law system. Unlike Indonesia, which has relied on Government law reform to make any legal change, Indigenous Australians were able to pursue law reform through challenges to the High Court, to have their land rights recognised, most prominently through the historic Mabo (No. 2)case. It was following this decision that the Government implemented the Native Title Act(1993), which established the National Native Title Tribunal and gave jurisdiction to the Federal Court to process Native Title applications. Similarly, to Indonesia, conflict stills exists, particularly where the government or a corporate wish to use the land for their natural resources, such as mining coal. Native Title is also difficult to establish, as it relies upon there having been a continual practice of culture in that place, which in many cases was not possible due to the violent disruption by the colonisers. Furthermore, Indigenous communities do not have the right to veto Government decisions regarding their land; they can only negotiate. The struggle to strengthen Native Title and associated rights continues to this day, with social justice activists calling for stronger legislation to reinforce and secure Indigenous land rights in Australia.


 

[1]Warren, C., & Lucas, A. (2013). Agrarian Resources and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. In C. Warren, & A. Lucas, Land For The People (pp. 372-389). Ohio: Center for International Studies Ohio University, p. 376.

[2]Ibid, p. 378.

[3]Warren, C., & Lucas, A. (2013). Agrarian Resources and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, p. 379.

[4]Sawitri, A. S. (2018, September 12). Indonesia still behind in indigenous peoples land recognition . Retrieved January 28, 2019, from The Jakarta Post: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2018/09/11/Indonesia-still-behind-in-indigenous-peoples-land-recognition.html

[5]Warren, C., & Lucas, A. (2013). Agrarian Resources and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, p. 381.

[6]Atkinson, C. (2014). Book Review. International Journal of Rural Management, 10(2), p. 202.

[7]Ibid.


Bibliography

Atkinson, C. (2014). Book Review. International Journal of Rural Management, 10(2), 199-202.

Human Rights Working Group. (2008).Unveiling Racial Discrimination and Impunity in Indonesia.Jakarta: Human Rights Working Group.

Sawitri, A. S. (2018, September 12). Indonesia still behind in indigenous peoples land recognition . Retrieved January 28, 2019, from The Jakarta Post: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2018/09/11/indonesia-still-behind-in-indigenous-peoples-land-recognition.html

Warren, C., & Lucas, A. (2013). Agrarian Resources and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. In C. Warren, & A. Lucas, Land For The People(pp. 372-389). Ohio: Center for International Studies Ohio University.

 

*Courtney Bristow is a student at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Interested in environmental law and the struggle of indigenous peoples, as well as international relations and relations related to environmental policy. Now, she is doing internship at Huma office, Jakarta.

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