Readers Forum

Letter: Adequate land for
oil palm estates

I would like to comment on a statement: “More than 15 million hectares of degraded land suitable for plantation development, oil palm estates continue to push into so-called High Conservation Value Forests.” (“Greenpeace victory is a good lesson for oil palm sector and govt”, The Jakarta Post, May 25).

Much of the territory making up modern Indonesia was a Dutch colony for more than 350 years, until it became independent in 1945.

As a small country, the Netherlands could only send out a relatively small Dutch contingent to its colonial administration service. In order to manage the huge territory the Dutch empire relied instead on a system of alliances with local political entities, usually governed by customs.

Pragmatism therefore compelled the Dutch empire to partially acknowledge customary law for political convenience.

However, during the 19th century Dutch planters began to establish large plantations (tobacco and other crops) on fertile Sumatran soil.

To facilitate plantation expansion the colonial government passed the 1870 Agrarian Law which allowed the colonial government to provide planters with land leases for up to 75 years.

The law included a Domain Declaration (Domeinverklaring), which stated that all land not under clear ownership was considered state land.

Communities’ rights over land were not recognized as these were based on customary law, which was not recognized as proof of ownership in Dutch law.

Under the customary system of land ownership, rights to fallow land and secondary forests were retained by whoever had first cleared the land.

The Domain Declaration led to the establishment of 2.5 million hectares of plantations in the Dutch East Indies by 1938, and resulted in farmers who had owned land becoming landless laborers akin to serfs.

Plantation contracts issued under the 1870 law authorized planters to clear “empty land” in order to set up plantations. Contracts established in 1877 and 1878 stated that concessionaires should be granted a specified amount of “wasteland” (woeste grond).

The terms “empty land” and “wasteland” referred to those areas which communities considered to be their uncultivated common lands.

In this manner, the 1870 law led to fallow and common land being considered state land. After it became independent, Indonesia inherited the doctrine of state control over “wasteland” from its former colonial rulers.

To this day, the concepts of “wasteland”, “degraded land” and “empty land” are used to justify plantation expansion. For example, the Dutch Federation of Oils, Fats and Margarines stated in 2004 that “in Indonesia more than 10 million hectares of land is lying waste, much of which is suitable for palm oil expansion. Hence there is no need to convert forest.”

The operations manager of a major plantation company told a Friends of the Earth campaigner in 2006 that their interest was only in converting “degraded land”. In short, the term “degraded” is synonymous with idle, marginal, unproductive, empty or wasted, and is derived from the similar colonial concept and model.


Norman Jiwan
Bogor, West Java

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