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Land bill at centre of unrest in Indonesia

In recent weeks, activists have been calling lawmakers to scrap a controversial bill that defines new crimes that critics say could be used to imprison indigenous citizens for defending their lands against incursions by private companies.

In late September, international news outlets caught flak for their coverage of Indonesia’s largest mass protests since the 1998 uprising that led to the fall of the dictator Suharto.

Headlines published by the BBCCNNReuters and other foreign media implied the demonstrations, involving tens of thousands of people in major cities across the country, had arisen in response to a proposed new criminal code that would ban sex before marriage.

“I did not get tear-gassed so Australians could keep having sex in Bali,” one netizen wrote on Twitter, among a barrage of reactions to the reductive reports. “This is about the future of the country.”

Scrapping the criminal code changes — which also include new penalties for insulting the president and providing information about contraception — was just one of the protesters’ demands, enumerated in a seven-point declaration that has circulated online.

They also want the government to repeal a new law weakening the nation’s anti-corruption agency, stop forest fires in Sumatra and Borneo, and withdraw troops from Indonesia’s easternmost Papua region, where a military crackdown against separatists has been going on for decades.

Also on the list: scrap a proposed new law governing land use.

Though the land bill has gotten scant media coverage, observers say it is among the most potentially transformative of a raft of controversial legislation on the verge of being passed into law.

The bill defines new crimes and introduces increased penalties that, critics say, would make it easier for authorities to imprison rural citizens for defending their lands against incursions by developers. It would also allow plantation companies to retain vast land concessions for longer periods of time.

Most damningly in the eyes of critics, the bill sets a two-year deadline by which citizens must register their lands with the government, or else watch them pass into state control, where they could be redistributed as part of President Joko Widodo’s land reform programme or licensed out to private firms.

But indigenous groups seeking formal recognition of their lands already spend at least that long, and often far longer, jumping through bureaucratic hoops. The two-year deadline would therefore constitute a “knockout blow” for the nation’s embattled indigenous rights movement, Erasmus Cahyadi, deputy secretary-general of AMAN, Indonesia’s main advocacy group for indigenous peoples, told Mongabay.

Since 2013, when a landmark Constitutional Court ruling struck down the state’s claim to indigenous peoples’ forests, President Joko Widodo has recognised the rights of 55 indigenous groups to forests spanning a total of 248 square kilometers (96 square miles). But AMAN says it has mapped more than 77,600 square kilometres (30,000 square miles) of land it says belongs to 704 indigenous communities.

“The bill is contrary to the spirit of the constitution,” said Arman Muhammad, AMAN’s law and human rights director.

The bill’s supporters argue its passage is necessary to support President Widodo’s flagship land reform program.

Widodo, who was elected to a second five-year term in April, has promised to give rural communities greater control over 217,000 square kilometers (84,000 square miles) of land. But progress has been slow.

As of October, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which controls around half of the nation’s land, had only distributed a total of 28,000 square kilometres (10,800 square miles), far short of its target of 127,000 square kilometres (49,000 square miles).

“It’s hard to find land for the agrarian reform [programme],” Democrat Party lawmaker Herman Khaeron said at a recent panel event in Jakarta.

To solve that, Herman said, the bill calls for the creation of a new body called the Land Management Agency to acquire, manage and distribute land that had gone unclaimed by citizens during the two-year window, that therefore automatically fell under state control.

The bill says the agency will function as a “land bank,” implying it will be able to generate an income from leasing or selling lands, while still operating as a “nonprofit,” according to the bill. The agency must guarantee the availability of land for “social interests” as well as “development interests.”

The language in the bill is vague, but critics fear the agency would treat land as a commodity to be sold to powerful investors at the expense of ordinary citizens.

“Who would be able to access this land bank? Small farmers? Of course not,” Eko Cahyono, a researcher in the Department of Human Ecology at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), told Mongabay. “The ‘land bank’ would serve those with big capital, companies and development projects.”

Other provisions in the bill would benefit corporations at the expense of rural communities, critics say.

The bill would allow plantation companies to hold a right-to-cultivate permit, known as an HGU, for 90 years, up from 60 years under the current rules.

We were all so upset and disappointed. The state is supposed to protect us, but they’re killing us.

Mando Maskuri, community organiser

It would also let oil palm firms wait longer before providing smallholdings to local communities, a requirement under existing laws.

Furthermore, the legislation stipulates prison time of five to 15 years for anyone who makes an “evil agreement that gives rise to a land dispute,” and a jail term of two years for those who “obstruct an employee and/or law enforcement officer from carrying out tasks in the land sector.”

The latter provision could be used to “criminalise indigenous peoples, activists or anyone who tries to organise” against a land grab, Dewi Kartika, the secretary-general of the Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA), an advocacy group, told reporters in Jakarta recently.

“It grants the police legal legitimacy to criminalise anyone,” she said. “Of course this will be interpreted to the maximum extent possible, to freely arrest anyone. For example, if residents try to stand in the way of their land being used to build an airport.”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Indonesian villages are embroiled in conflict with natural resources firm, with community members often resorting to physically blocking bulldozers or even setting fire to company facilities.

On Sept. 26, a 21-year-old college student in Kendari, the capital of Southeast Sulawesi province and one of the cities where mass protests took place in September, was shot dead by police. Another student in Kendari, 19-year-old Yusuf Qardhawi, died of blunt-force head injuries after a protest turned into a violent riot.

“We were all so upset and disappointed,” Mando Maskuri, 23, a community organiser who joined the protests in Kendari, told Mongabay. “The state is supposed to protect us, but they’re killing us.”

Residents of Mando’s home island of Wawonii are involved in conflict with mining firms that hold permits to operate on their lands. As elsewhere in Indonesia, locals tend to lack documents backing their land claims, making it easy for the state to bring in corporate investors without their consent.

Many people in Wawonii are trying to register their lands with the state, Mando said. But he fears the land bill sets an unrealistic timeline that will eventually cause residents to lose their lands, forcing them to migrate to other parts of the country.

At the height of the protests in September, deliberations on the land bill and other controversial legislation were postponed. The lame-duck parliament was nearing the end of its session. New lawmakers have since been sworn in.

In their final hour, however, the previous lawmakers agreed to “carry over” the land bill to the current parliament session, meaning deliberations can be resumed from the same stage by the new batch of legislators, rather than having to start all over again.

Nearly half of the 575 lawmakers for the next five years are businesspeople who are affiliated with at least 1,016 companies, including mining and oil palm, according to an analysis by investigative journalism outlet Tempo and Auriga Nusantara, an NGO.

President Widodo says he wants to revise at least 74 laws to make them friendlier to investors; many observers have said laws pertaining to the environment are on the list.

If lawmakers try to pass the land bill, opponents could file a judicial review in a last-ditch attempt to oppose it, said Eko, the researcher.

In the meantime, Mando says he is ready to take to the streets again.

“If parliament tries to pass the bill, there will be massive resistance from farmers, fishermen, and civil society groups,” he said.

This story was published with permission from

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