Indonesia’s bid to become a tourism paradise sidelines land rights

Developing new tourism hotspots beyond Bali has given rise to conflicts with local communities who have been forcibly displaced for projects in which they’ve had little or no say.

lake toba indonesia
Lake Toba in North Sumatra, Indonesia. The government is building a slew of infrastructure in the area, including a new international terminal at the regional airport and a “glamping” site for upscale camping. Image: sydeen, CC BY-SA 2.0

President Joko Widodo’s focus on building tourism hotspots has created an increasingly hostile environment for indigenous communities and land rights activists in Indonesia, a new report says.

There were 83 recorded land conflicts triggered as a direct result of infrastructure projects across the country in 2019, according to the report from the NGO Consortium for Agrarian Reform, or KPA. That figure is more than five times the 16 land conflicts linked to infrastructure projects recorded in 2018.

KPA secretary-general Dewi Kartika attributed this “drastic increase” to the government’s intensified push to build infrastructure as part of the Widodo administration’s wider economic development programme.

“We predicted this [increase] last year because there are a lot of nationally strategic projects that entered the land acquisition stage last year,” Dewi said at the Jan. 3 launch of the KPA report in Jakarta. “This process was the one that caused many agrarian conflicts to flare up.”

Tourism push

A major part of the infrastructure push is the government’s ambition to catch up with regional neighbors such as Thailand and Malaysia as a key tourist draw. Indonesia recorded 13.6 million foreign tourist arrivals from January to October 2019 — a far cry from the record 39 million that Thailand attracted throughout the year.

The Widodo administration’s main strategy to compete has been to develop “10 new Balis,” a programme to foster tourism hotspots across the country that can prove as popular as the resort island of Bali, by far Indonesia’s main tourism destination.

Among these prospective sites is Lake Toba, located in the caldera of an active volcano in North Sumatra province. To draw tourists there, the government is building a slew of infrastructure including a new international terminal at the regional airport and a “glamping” site for upscale camping.

The campsite will connect to a nearby village through a 1.9-kilometer (1.2-mile) road. But the planned road runs through the ancestral homes and graves of the indigenous Na Opat people, who have lived there for generations and whose identity is strongly tied to their land.

The community was evicted, and in April 2019 its members were barred from attending the inauguration of the campsite. In September, they clashed with road construction crews driving excavators and backed by the police and the military. At least one person injured in the incident.

The community has pleaded with the government for recognition of its land rights, sending letters to the president and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. But there has been no response to date.

“The government has never acknowledged us,” Togi Butarbutar, a member of the Na Opat community, said as quoted by local media. “They disrupt our community and treat us like squatters. And that makes us even sadder. It’s cruel.”

Stormy islands

Another land conflict highlighted in the KPA report centers on the Mandalika coastal region on the island of Lombok, next to Bali. The government is building a 4.32-km (2.68-mi) circuit in Mandalika to host the MotoGP racing series from 2021. At least 145 households in two villages will be relocated to make way for the circuit.

Some locals have opposed the project by erecting fences around some of the affected plots. They say they haven’t received compensation from the Indonesian tourism board and that they rely on the land to access the road network.

“The locals feel disadvantaged because they’ve become victims of land acquisition for the construction of a circuit that’s integrated into the tourism area,” Dewi said.

What we must learn is that if we can’t meet the rights of the local people, then this can hamper the rights of our tourists as well.

Bambang Iriana Djajaatmadja, cooperation director, Law and Human Rights Ministry 

German motorsports media outlet reported that at least one farmer still owns 0.6 hectare (1.5 acres) of land in the middle of the site. The farmer and several others are reportedly taking part in a sit-down because they’re worried the circuit developer will bulldoze the land before they’re getting paid.

A similar conflict has erupted in Bali, where 50 families and a resort developer have squared off over a 144-ha (356-acre) site in one of the most fertile parts of the island. PT Ubud Resort Duta Development says it’s the rightful owner of the land, having obtained the necessary permit in 1997.

But the families say they’ve cultivated the land for generations, and that the developer hasn’t done anything with the land since acquiring the permit.

It was only in 2019 that the company announced it would begin developing the land. No concrete plans have been announced, although locals say they’ve heard a new golf course is in the pipeline. The conflict escalated in November, when workers backed by hundreds of police officers drove bulldozers in the village to clear the families’ farms. The families formed a human shield to block them, with the women staging a topless protest.

Rising trend

These tourism development hotspots accounted for at least nine cases of land conflicts last year, Dewi said. A common factor in all these cases is the government’s failure to include local communities in the development planning, according to a study on four of the “10 new Balis” by the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM). ELSAM researcher Blandina Lintang Setianti said most locals didn’t know the details of the development plans in their areas, given that public discussions only involved local officials.

“The right to information of many people [was] violated, as they are not even aware of the tourism master [plan] for their area,” Lintang said as quoted by local media.

The government has acknowledged the importance of engaging local communities. Bambang Iriana Djajaatmadja, in charge of cooperation at the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, said tourism development shouldn’t come at the expense of the violation of the rights of local people, including their land rights.

“What we must learn is that if we can’t meet the rights of the local people, then this can hamper the rights of our tourists as well,” he said.

Even so, the general situation looks unlikely to improve soon, according to Dewi.

“The escalation of agrarian conflicts in the first term of the Widodo administration increased significantly compared to the last five years of the [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono administration,” she said, referring to the previous president.

The KPA recorded 2,047 land conflicts during Widodo’s first term, from 2015 to 2019 — an increase of 56 per cent over the number of cases during Yudhoyono’s second term, from 2010 to 2014. The number of people facing criminal prosecution under Widodo also rose 13 per cent to 1,298 — mostly farmers, indigenous people, and land rights activists.

The conflicts under the current administration were also more intense, 757 injured compared to 590 under Yudhoyono, although more were shot and killed under the former president (72) than the current one (55).

But during Widodo’s tenure, the use of force by the state against land rights activists and local communities has intensified year after year. In 2019, the KPA recorded 211 people injured, 24 shot and 14 killed, compared to 132 injured, six shot and 10 killed in 2018. The NGO identified the police as the most violent state actor, involved in 37 cases.

“The brutality of the state apparatus was very dominant [in 2019],” Dewi said.

‘Buckle up’

Activists warn of worse to come as Widodo woos investment from abroad to boost Indonesia’s economy. The president has made no secret of his hostility toward regulations that he sees as hampering investors. In a speech last July, he threatened action against anyone found doing so, saying, “I will chase, I will control, I will check and I will beat [them] up if necessary!”

The language used has raised concerns among environmental and indigenous rights activists, who say there are plenty of justifiable reasons to oppose or at least slow down development projects that involve the clearing of forests and customary lands.

The police have said they will improve how they handle land conflicts, including reducing the use of force against protesters. Endar Priantoro, a senior officer in the police’s general crimes department, said the KPA report would serve as a reminder to the police force.

“Basically all police officers are the same: they want to handle all problems without resorting to violence,” he said. “The policy of the current national police chief is to prioritise not using [criminal prosecution to resolve land conflicts].”

However, Rukka Sombolongi, the chairwoman of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), said indigenous communities across the country still needed to brace for the likelihood of even more land conflicts and greater persecution as a result of the government’s increasingly pro-investor policies.

“I’ve told indigenous communities to buckle up,” she said, “because we’re going to go through a storm of investments.”

This story was published with permission from

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