Strait Times, 3 desember 2010
MATA JELI: A PERSPECTIVE ON INDONESIAN AFFAIRS
SEVERAL weeks ago, as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was about to make a speech, observers saw tears in the President's eyes.Dr Yudhoyono stopped for almost a minute, biting his lip twice as he fought back the tears.'I was very moved by what I saw just now,' he told his audience. The President had just witnessed farmers receiving certificates of ownership for their land.
After composing himself, Dr Yudhoyono went on to declare that the goal of his government was 'for the people of this country to become landowners, owners of the land and water, and the natural wealth that lies within it'.
The international media largely ignored the incident, which took place in Cilacap, Central Java, on Oct 21. But some sections of the Indonesian-language press saw the episode as real news.
Any government programme designed to provide more land to the country's burgeoning underclasses has the potential to affect millions. And if the President feels strongly enough about the matter to shed tears over it, so much the better.
Approximately 15.6 million households in Indonesia are classified as smallholders (average size 0.36ha) or landless rural families. Assuming an average household consists of five people, this implies that around 78 million citizens are dependent upon the sector.
The President's concern for farmers dates back to 2007, when the government launched its Land for Justice and People's Welfare programme. Official efforts, however, still seem small relative to the scale of the problem. This year, the aim is to distribute 142,000ha of land scattered over 389 villages in 21 provinces.
The programme is supported by the World Bank as part of its Land Management and Policy Development Project, which aims to improve land tenure security. But the government's focus on handing out certificates of ownership to those with longstanding claims and who are already working the land has attracted criticism.
Mr Gunawan Wiradi, an expert on land issues, argues that real reform involves completely altering 'the structural ownership and use of not only land, but also land holdings, including plantations, large ranches and agribusiness plots'.
Reformers point to huge imbalances in land ownership and use. Official statistics, for example, show that there are currently 9.4 million ha of oil palm concessions in the country, of which smallholders control only about 2.9 million ha.The amount of farmland has also declined significantly over the years due to the conversion of productive land to non-farming purposes, including commercial and industrial activities.
Such expansion has often been accompanied by disputes, mostly about compensation paid to farmers.
Responding to demands for a large- scale land redistribution programme, Deputy Agriculture Minister Bayu Krisnamurti argued last month that the idea would not work. This was because of the relatively low availability of agricultural land, especially land owned by the state. Another problem, he said, was the lack of a legal framework.
Critics dispute both points. Speaking to me in Jakarta early last month, Mr Iwan Nurdin of the Consortium for Agrarian Reform cited national land agency (BPN) statistics showing that the country had about 7.1 million ha of degraded production forest that could be distributed.
There was, he said, another 1.5 million ha already identified for redistribution by the BPN based on criteria outlined in a law passed by Parliament in 1960.
This law, ignored by the New Order regime because of its communist associations, empowers the state to compulsorily acquire land from absentee landlords and peasant farmers owning more than 10ha. The land, together with that owned by the state, was then to be distributed to landless farmers or those whose current plots were too small.
Suggestions that Dr Yudhoyono is all emotion and no substance when it comes to land redistribution may be a little unfair. In his Cilacap speech, he revealed that he had ordered the BPN to identify and register millions of hectares of abandoned farming land for possible redistribution.
Mr Iwan conceded that the problem of Indonesians holding multiple identity cards makes it difficult to identify absentee landlords. He also acknowledged that the need for compensation payments would make any land reform programme potentially very costly.
Other problems include the lack of detailed information about how much land in the country is suitable for farming.
But critics say that these problems should not prove insurmountable for a president who feels strongly about the matter.
Exactly how smallholders can be expected to match the efficiency of the country's large palm oil and rubber plantations is not clear. But by focusing on products such as soya beans, meat and milk (of which the country is currently a net importer), such farmers could contribute to national food security. Giving large numbers of landless Indonesians a stake in the economy also has the potential to lift millions out of poverty.
Perhaps, then, emotional scenes like the one in Cilacap would no longer seem quite so newsworthy.