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FOCUS December 2007 Volume 50

Indonesian Peasants Today

Aliansi Petani Indonesia*

* Aliansi Petani Indonesia (API) is a national organization of peasant federations in Indonesia.

The peasants are the backbone of the agrarian sector in Indonesia. They have that status since the colonial period till the present. And yet since colonial period, they have largely been deprived of freedom - freedom from oppression and poverty. While they produce the food for the people, they have not been recognized as heroes/heroines who could share the prestige of the country before the global community. Rather than allow them to suffer in poverty, their prosperity should be considered a national priority.

The Indonesian peasants today are struggling, much like in the past. The Indonesian military inflict violence on them regarding land disputes. Indonesian agri-business companies patent their seeds and force them to respect it. They face legal prosecution for breeding their own seeds.[1]

Just like other countries that were former colonies, agrarian reform was used as the means to address the plight of the peasants. But their situation has not changed.

Land disputes

Agrarian conflicts occur in the country to the prejudice of the peasants. With a law on agrarian reform largely unimplemented, the lands tilled by peasants are not protected from take-overs by agricultural plantation companies.

In one case in Lengkong district, West Java province, peasants suffered from violence inflicted by company security forces and members of the military. They were arrested, detained, intimidated, forced to leave their homes, and their farms destroyed.

The company has been enjoying the protection of the law on plantations (Law No. 18, 2004). This law became an easy tool for big private companies to intimidate and remove the peasants from the land in order to establish agricultural plantations. The Indonesian peasants rightly denounce this law for being biased against them.

The law's provisions on lease agreements are proof of the support that the government gives to plantation companies, at the expense of the peasants who become victims of human rights violations. Peasants likewise suffer from the increasing number of conversion of agricultural lands into non-agricultural purposes. These land conversions affect agricultural production to the point that Indonesia may face food crisis in the next decade.[2] The alarming rate of conversion of paddy fields into non-agricultural use affects not only rice production but production of sec- ondary crops (peanuts, soybeans, corn, and vegetables) that farmers produce during dry season.[3]

With the liberalization of the agricultural market, Indonesia became a big rice importer. It also has to import corn, soya, sugar, orange, shallot, cattle and many other commodities because the agricultural sector could not meet the demand. If the conversion of agricultural lands to other purposes continues, agriculture and its produce will become history.

But the peasants know that their survival entirely depends on their own efforts.

The case of Pasir Randu[4]

Peasants tilled the land of Pasir Randu in Cianjur town, West Java province until a Dutch company controlled the area during the Dutch colonial period. While the Second World War disrupted the operation of the company, it returned to the area after the war ended. In 1965, another company (PTPN VIII Pasir Nangka) entered the area and established a clove plantation with the peasants as workers. With low price for cloves, the company did not do well, and the clove trees were subsequently abandoned and workers laid-off. Twenty people were left working in the plantation in the 1980s. In the 1990s it was down to four people. The area has turned into a forest as a result. The company clearly failed to fulfill its obligation to turn the land it was leasing into commercial use. In 1997 the peasants decided to reclaim the two-hundred-ninety-hectare land and to till it for their livelihood.

Through their own organization, the peasants petitioned the government to recognize their right to the land. They argued that since the company was no longer in a position to operate a plantation, its lease agreement should be cancelled and the land given to them.

Because the government was taking time to decide on their petition, and with the approval of the plantation company the peasants improved the facilities on the land (irrigation system and roads) using their own resources and started to till it.

While their right to the land had not yet been recognized by the government, the peasants knew that if they did not take action their situation would be even worse. They now benefit from tilling the land again.

Causes of the problems

Land disputes arise because long-term land leases unjustifiably displace peasants who till the land. The law on foreign capital investments (Law No. 25, 2007) allows multinational companies to use agricultural land to the prejudice of the peasants. Agricultural plantation companies compete with the peasants on unequal terms.

The government resorts to importation to satisfy the demand for agricultural products in the domestic market instead of optimizing the use of good agricultural system. It prioritizes the importation of agricultural products rather than aim at increasing the income of the peasants by helping them improve agricultural production, supporting their training in agricultural skills and new technology, and repairing/building agricultural infrastructures.

This situation leads to a number of human rights violations, namely:

1.Obligation to respect
The government tolerated the intimidation, expulsion, torture and other human rights violations suffered by Indonesian peasants. This government stance violates the human rights law (Law No. 39, 1999) particularly the provision on  the obligation of the government to protect the right of people to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
It likewise violates the obligations of the state of Indonesia under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

2.Obligation to protect
The government failed to protect the peasants from being deprived of water and other publicly-owned natural resources by big plantation companies. The government violated the human rights law as well as its obligation under the ratified international human rights treaties to promote, protect and realize human rights through legislative and other measures.

3. Obligation to fullfill
The government failed to fullfill the rights of the peas- ants to work and to live humane lives under the human rights law and the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It also failed to fulfill the right of the peasants to own agricultural land individually or collectively under the agrarian reform law.

The alternative solutions

It is important for peasants to strengthen their organization to be able to push for genuine agrarian reform. Such reform must fulfil the economic, social, political and cultural rights of the peasants, and support rural women to become active participants in the power structure of rural societies.

Importation of agricultural products (rice, sugar, corn and soy) should stop in order to prevent its negative impact on the Indonesian peasants. Coordination with civil society organizations in other countries is needed for an international campaign with the World Trade Organization to protect the peasants from being driven out of the agricultural industry.

Agriculture is an important component of developing countries and thus should be valued beyond economic terms. Governments and the international community should recognize the rights of the peasants to the land as well as to their culture, and that no law should be enacted allowing the appropriation of natural resources away from public ownership.

For further information, please contact: API, l. Saleh Abud No. 18-19, Otto Iskandardinata, Jakarta 13330, Indonesia; ph (6221) 819 9749; 851 9611; fax (62 21) 850 0052; e-mail:; www.api


1. Hira Jhamtani and Dey Patria,Indonesian farmers prosecuted for breeding their own seeds, in

2. See "Indonesia may face food crisis in next 10 years: Minister," The Jakarta Post, 12 December 2007, in

3. See Fahmuddin Agus and Irawan, "Agricultural Land Conversion as a Threat to Food Security and Environmental Quality," Jurnal Litbang Pertanian, 25(3) 2006.

4.For more details on the Pasir Randu experience, see Land Reclaiming Experience of Indonesian Farmers in