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COMMENTARY: Who will benefit from Jokowi's land reform?

  • Adisti Sukma Sawitri

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Tue, February 21, 2017 | 08:53 am
COMMENTARY: Who will benefit from Jokowi's land reform? On the edge: A family of the Orang Rimba tribe lives in a flimsy hut deep in the jungle of Jambi. The Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) said indigenous people in Indonesia had often suffered discrimination and human rights violations by the government, especially on land disputes. . (thejakartapost.com/Iman D.Nugroho)

The government has made a bold move with its plan to grant people wider access to land under its agrarian reform.

More than 9 million hectares, comprising roughly 4.5 million hectares of degraded forest and 4.5 million ha of uncertified plots, will be owned by citizens under land objects for agrarian reform (TORA), while another 12.7 million ha will be managed by indigenous people.

The government has introduced the land reform as part of its equity policy, which aims to ensure equal access to land, infrastructure and basic services and reduce widening inequality.

While the plan may gain nods from development economists and proponents of a welfare state, a closer look at the program is necessary to avoid failures of past agrarian policies.

Indonesia has seen a long record of land conflicts and citizens deprived of the rights to their land in favor of the rise of the plantation and mining sectors.

As most land gained state forest status during Soeharto’s New Order, logging and mining exploitation became rampant during the authoritarian regime. The military, as virtual guardians of the state forests, together with exclusive concessions to businesses became the pillars of natural resource management. Those living inside and around the forests were excluded.

There was no distribution of wealth as taxes, forest product fees and charges amounted to only a small part of profits secured in the exploitation. And under the centralized system, the revenues went mostly to the central government in Java.

Decentralization and regional autonomy in the post-Soeharto era have led to a commodity boom, which vaulted the country as the world’s largest producer of palm oil.

But despite Indonesia benefiting from strong economic growth and becoming resilient to global economic crises, people continued to be evicted from their lands.

The complex concession mechanism, in which local administrations and the central government jointly hold the authority to issue permits, further pushed deforestation and land expansion upward, as regional heads and ministries separately granted land and business concessions, instead of coordinating with each other before issuing a permit.

The poor resource management was partly responsible for the massive annual forest fires that sent haze across the region.

The new TORA reform policy should serve as momentum for a new paradigm that puts people and sustainability as its main principles, leaving behind exploitative, myopic forestry management in the past.

It should streamline the complexity of the land tenure system, acknowledging and protecting people’s rights and ending past conflicts while mitigating future ones.

The police and the military that have been guarding the interests of state and company concessions now should in turn use the law to protect the people.

The private sector, which has been playing a pivotal role in plantations, is also subject to reform. Companies should respect residents’ right to their land and treat them as partners in achieving common welfare.

The global recession and the recent trend of populism emerging across the West have shown that the economic growth strategy that leaves people behind is not sustainable.

The Indonesian experience tells the same story. Led by market forces, the private sector in a plantation economy would lead to monoculture that, if left unsupervised, would be detrimental to people and the environment, which would eventually hurt businesses.

Aside from the forest fires that peaked in 2015, the country has seen the overexpansion of oil palm plantations, leading to oversupply and plunging prices. Better business practices and downstreaming the industry is inevitable if the industry wants to stay for the long run.

Toward the downfall of Soeharto in 1998, a massive expansion of rice fields under Program Lahan Gambut (PLG, peatland program), which had converted 1 million hectares of peat forests in Central Kalimantan to feed domestic dependence on the crop, also led to one of the country’s worst forest fires.

Under the strong support of law enforcement, the government, firms and the people should work together.

Low productivity, as the result of low skill among farmers, has been a major problem in the agriculture and plantation sector. As people begin to embrace their land tenure in the latest agrarian reform, they will need assistance from the government and the companies on how to attain necessary skills and loans to cultivate their land.

A set of land taxes, including progressive tax and capital gain tax, are in the pipeline to prevent brokering and speculation to resell plots in the TORA program. But will these planned measures prevent the transfer of ownership from the people to businesses? If people are left untrained, they will eventually give up the land to avoid paying taxes.

The agrarian reform should not be meant as another charity program that helps people only in the short run but keeps them poor in the long run. Hence, building a partnership to empower farmers is critical in the program.

The abundant experience and technology of today provide the government with innovations necessary in the reform. With stronger government and law enforcement than ever, it is surely possible.

As a forester by training and former agroforestry entrepreneur, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo knows about these problems all too well.

All now goes down to the classic question: Is the government willing to remain committed to its people?

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