Turning the Tide in Indonesia’s Chronic Land Conflicts
Inggrid Galuh Mustikawati
The early months of 2012 have seen several violent land disputes in Indonesia. The latest ones — in Bima, West Nusa Tenggara, and in Mesuji, Lampung— both involve a mix of local residents, private companies and the government, and they both have roots in land seizures. They also resemble most present-day conflicts, in that they are the direct consequence of unjust policy choices, widening socioeconomic gaps and increasing competition over scarce resources.
Knowing this, what can we do to prevent further violence? The government, which is ultimately responsible for all land-use policies, holds the key.
Late last year, three civilians were killed in a clash with security forces during a protest over gold prospecting activities in Bima. Weeks earlier, farmers from Mesuji presented a video to legislators that they claimed showed security forces murdering residents in a bid to evict them from their land.
But there are also good examples of conflict resolution in Indonesia. Aceh and Poso in Central Sulawesi, both wracked by years of violence, come to mind. In these cases, the government proved it was capable of ensuring a win-win outcome. Compromise was crucial in both cases, in addition to keen observation of the realities on the ground.
But these examples are exceptional. Every region has different social and cultural characteristics, and peace must always be seen as a process that needs monitoring, not as a given. The proper approach to conflict resolution anywhere must consider local wisdom and involve everyone who may be directly or indirectly affected by the conflict, including women, children and other marginalized groups.
Ad hoc “solutions” are unlikely to last, since they rarely address the roots of the problems. And in Indonesia’s decentralized political landscape, the people are clamoring for bottom-up solutions rather than the top-down settlements of old.
But money still talks. Those eyeing access to scarce resources, including mining companies, have proven they can more easily secure favorable decisions to protect their prize with bribes than by dialogue with people whose rights may be violated by their operations.
Action is needed in at least four areas to address the root causes of conflict.
First and foremost, the issue of licensing is crucial. The government needs to rearrange existing laws and overlapping regulations. For example, there are overlaps in the licensing of plantation areas that are targeted by both mining and forestry operators.
Elsewhere, protected forests have been used in ways that threaten environmental sustainability, a practice that can often be traced back to unfinished spatial plans at the provincial level.
Proper licensing not only affects conflict resolution, but also investment. When investors have to deal with long and complicated licensing procedures, including compensation payments, and then are still confronted with overlapping licensing, they will think twice about coming to a certain area.
And when investments are finally made, other problems often arise because of licensing ambiguity. Local people’s rights to land are often not respected. Companies may obtain licenses to exploit a certain area from the government, but customary land rights are often overlooked in this process.
Local communities also often experience the negative side effects of exploitation, such as pollution. It is these kinds of license-related problems that create dissatisfaction with pro-investor government policies.
Second, the National Land Agency (BPN) needs to be reformed. With land conflicts happening all over the country, it is fair to question the BPN’s role in the situation. Where is the BPN when a conflict over land arises?
As a nondepartmental government agency that reports directly to the president, the BPN has been tasked with coordinating across sectors at both the national and regional levels. The agency should manage land use in such a way that guarantees the people’s welfare. It is well positioned to solve disputes over land, but in many cases, the BPN has acted on behalf of investors, neglecting the public interest.
Third, all government bodies involved in land-related decisions must get together and streamline their procedures. It is important to establish continuous coordination between the BPN, the Forestry Ministry, the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry, regional authorities and other stakeholders to prevent overlapping responsibilities and jurisdiction — problems that are at the root of overlaps in licensing.
Fourth, the process of drafting bills related to land-use issues needs to be constantly monitored. Only then can we prevent the House of Representatives in Jakarta from passing bills into law that turn out to be counterproductive out in the regions.
One final, necessary step to prevent an explosion of land conflicts across the archipelago is to guarantee the neutrality of law enforcement officers. This is essential to ensure justice.
The crux of the problem is that the people at the grassroots level will always bear the brunt of bad regulations and bad policies, and it is clear the licensing issue should be part of any solution. We can hardly expect officials to uphold the law when they are faced with a variety of overlapping licenses in the same area that might all be legally sound documents.
A lot of work is needed to end the cycle of violence over land rights. But with centralized licensing, a revitalized BPN that prioritizes the people instead of investment, streamlined government procedures and the supervision of land-related bills at the House, we might just be able to turn the tide.
Inggrid Galuh Mustikawati is a researcher at the Habibie Center in Jakarta.