Land disputes pitting small-scale farmers and big capital interests are common across Indonesia. Image: Facebook

JAKARTA – When President Joko Widodo presided over limited celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence on August 17, he was wearing the traditional dress of the indigenous Atoni people from the South-Central regency of West Timor, part of the East Nusa Tenggara island chain.

It was a nice touch, the costume and its red nunkolo chain motif described in intricate detail in a State Secretariat press release. But what happened a day later in the same far-off region of eastern Indonesia left the gesture decidedly hollow.

According to video evidence supplied by the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), police and paramilitary forces raided the Pubabu indigenous community, displacing more than 600 people and destroying 47 homes in the latest climax to a long-simmering land dispute.

The Association of Customary Leaders Seeking Truth and Justice (ITA PKK), a legally constituted local activist group is seeking to reclaim 3,780 hectares of dry savannah forest, the former site of Australia’s Besipai aid project, aimed at improving the province’s cattle raising industry.

The dispute underlines why property ownership causes more social conflict in Indonesia than any other issue. By prolonging the stand-off, ITA PKK leaders are effectively turning it into a test case for customary rights that could resonate across other parts of the country. 

The root of it all can be traced back to 1958 when the central government effectively nationalized land that had belonged to a baffling proliferation of kingdoms, sultanates and duchies across Indonesia that predated Dutch colonization of the East Indies in the late 1700s.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) attends the 75th Indonesian Independence Day Commemoration Ceremony at the Merdeka Palace, Jakarta, August 17, 2020. Indonesia Presidency /Handout /Anadolu Agency via AFP Forum

One such domain was Amanuban, which Australian National University historian and anthropologist James Fox says was one of 19 small kingdoms spread across West Timor when Indonesia secured its full independence in 1950.

Although Anamuban was under the nominal rule of the Nope family, the rival Nabuasa clan and its network of allies controlled a large swathe of territory stretching from its Lasi mountain stronghold in a wide arc through southwestern Timor.

Settling in Pubabu in the latter part of the 19th century, the descendants of the original Nabuasa settlers, including many of the 1,600 people living in four villages within the Bespai project area, have the longest nominal claim to the land.

“All the resident groups within the territory acknowledge the political and historical primacy of the Nabuasa clan and trace their original rights to settlement in the region to the delegatory authority of former Nabuasa leaders,” anthropologist Andrew McWilliam wrote in a 2007 study.

To clear the Australian project’s way in the early 1980s, responsibility for the vast stretch of state-owned savannah land was signed over from the Forestry Ministry to the Agricultural Ministry’s livestock department.

Sources who worked on the Bespae venture say it focused on building small clay-lined dams, key to storing rainwater and sustaining herds of cattle, but which initially benefited villagers who previously had to walk long distances to the nearest water source.

In what has become a familiar story, the project eventually proved unsustainable because of a lack of up-keep. “There’s a stack of reasons sustainability isn’t achieved in these projects,” says one livestock expert. “Sadly, it is almost inevitable.”

After the Australians left in 1987, the land remained in provincial government hands under a 25-year lease. But when that came up for extension in 2012, ITA PKK leader Benyamin Selan reclaimed the rights to the land, including 1,000 ha of forest at its center.

Selan’s family, which once occupied the western part of the Amanuban kingdom, migrated south to the more fertile agricultural land around Pubabu in the early 20th century, long after the Nubuasa had settled in the area.

Tribesmen in West Timor. Image: Facebook

But AMAN representative Andre Barahamin argues that inter-marriage among the clans has always been so commonplace that it is wrong to differentiate between original settlers and those who arrived in the area in later years. 

In fact, as a meo, a warrior class traditionally regarded as the guardians of customary forest, Selan’s family was among the groups which agreed to the land being used for the cattle project in the first place.

Certainly, they are more aggressive than the Nabuasa, whose customary role is as amaf, orcultural and spiritual leaders. That, among other reasons, explains why Selan and his followers have taken the lead in occupying the land.  

Apart from occupying the forest, officials claim Selan has mobilized outsiders to plant unauthorized gardens and build animal pens inside the Besipae project area, forcing the provincial livestock agency to temporarily relocate its office.

In early 2013, according to official accounts, the local government won the support of the majority of the Besipae villagers to prevent the so-called “squatters” from expanding their activities or bringing other non-residents into the area.

But former aid workers say many local residents are reluctant to challenge authority or assert their indigenous rights because of their past links to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), whose foothold in the area went back to the 1920s.

When the PKI was outlawed following an abortive coup in Jakarta in 1965, it triggered a bloody army-led purge across the country that claimed an estimated 500,000 lives. Hundreds are known to have been killed in West Timor.

West Timor indicated by red pointer on a map of Indonesia. Image: Facebook

Even as late as the 1990s, the local residents were still required to attend indoctrination sessions on the anniversary of the September 30 putsch, which the government and military have always blamed on the communists.  

It wasn’t until 2017 that West Timor governor Viktor Laiskodat ordered Selan’s followers to vacate the site to make way for a new local government program combining cattle raising with the cultivation of tamarind and medicinal kelor trees.

At the same time, the district administration offered them 800 square meter plots of land and employment in the rejuvenated livestock breeding program. The original residents were promised community-based title deeds.

Selan continues to reject the offer despite the peace-making efforts of Frans Nabuasa, a descendent of the early settlers. But as Fox points out: “In Timor, rights are deeply nested in a succession of settlement events. Founders would never be expected to speak. They are the silent ones.”

Last February, police and military evicted the dissenters and moved them to a resettlement area prepared by the local government, but only months later they reoccupied the project facility. Tougher action followed on August 18. 

AMAN, which claims to represent 15 million indigenous people across Indonesia, says there are many examples of communities who have found themselves in areas classified as state forest or set aside for palm oil and other crops.

Experts say the government may realize land security is key to effective development and protecting the environment, but it is falling well short of ambitious targets for land reform and meeting the rights of marginalized indigenous communities.  

In fact, AMAN representatives claim those efforts are now threatened by the passage of the long-delayed omnibus bill on job creation that was introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this year.

A rice field in West Timor. Image: Flickr

One of the amendments would eliminate an article in the 2014 Plantation Act requiring firms to use 30% of their land concessions within three years and to complete 100% of planting within six years, or risk having the land deemed as “abandoned” and seized by the state.

Activists point to the situation in Papua, where about 1.2 million hectares have been handed out in concessions, but only 300,000 ha has been opened up for cultivation. The remainder, they say, should be handed back to the people.

They argue that the bill, which also aims to scrap environmental impact studies as prerequisites for the issuance of business permits, could prove disastrous for the environment and create even more conflicts over land and resources.