Land Use and Ownership

Indonesia Table of Contents

Roughly 20 million hectares, or nearly 10 percent of Indonesia's total land area, were cultivated in the 1980s, with an additional 40 million hectares of potentially cultivatable land, primarily in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Smallholder cultivation of both food and estate crops predominated, accounting for about 87 percent of total land under cultivation; large plantations accounted for the remaining 13 percent. The pattern of cultivation and landholding in modern Indonesia reflected the distinctive natural ecosystems of Java and the Outer Islands, and the profound impact of colonial agricultural practices.

Java was the center of intensive rice cultivation on sawah or flooded cropland. This cultivation demanded rich volcanic soils and a fairly low gradient to permit water control, and supported a dense sedentary population. The Outer Islands ecosystem of swidden, a type of dryland agriculture known also as slash-and-burn agriculture, was practiced on the less fertile forested land with a diverse range of crops such as cassava, corn, yams, dry rice, other vegetables, and fruits. Small forest plots were cleared, harvested for a few seasons, and then permitted to return to forest. Because of the far lower productivity per hectare of land than sawah, swidden cultivation could only support low population densities. However, swidden farmers were also able to adopt commercial tree crops such as rubber and coffee and were the major suppliers of these important agricultural exports Java supplied most rice and through intercropping on sawah and cultivation on unirrigated land, most other major food crops.

In his classic study Agricultural Involution, anthropologist Clifford Geertz has given the most eloquent interpretation of the impact of colonial agricultural practices. In the late nineteenth century, agricultural "involution"--a reduction to former size--was centered in areas of Dutch sugar cultivation, primarily in Central and East Java. Here, the dense population supplied seasonal labor for sugar fields and mills and was still able to grow sufficient rice, even though the most fertile land was devoted to sugar cultivation. The village economy provided an equitable if marginal subsistence for all villagers through such labor-intensive techniques as double cropping, improved terracing, careful weeding, and harvesting with small finger-held blades rather than sickles. These practices continued through the early 1900s, a time when many rice-based agricultural economies such as Japan were increasing labor productivity in rice farming, a practice that released peasant labor for employment in more rapidly growing industries. On Java, the village rice-based economy experienced "involution," the absorption of a rapidly growing population that had limited outside opportunities in the foreigncontrolled plantation economy.

On the Outer Islands, the Dutch plantation economy was far less intrusive, coexisting as an enclave among the small-scale swidden cultivators. As a result of the sparse local populations, foreign planters had to import workers, usually Javanese or Chinese. The government of independent Indonesia confronted the task of agricultural modernization with this difficult inheritance. Densely populated Java was far behind in rice technology, yet improvements in rice productivity per worker could have pushed millions of households out of their only source of livelihood. Vast expanses of land remained uncultivated on the Outer Islands, but increasing cultivation there was limited by the natural characteristics of the tropical forest.

Under Sukarno's leadership in the early 1960s, these problems were tackled with a highly visible yet ultimately ineffective land reform. The land reform was part of a larger and more successful effort to modernize the colonial legal system of landownership. Under the Dutch, a dual system of land laws permitted nonIndonesians to register and obtain title for lands on the basis of Western civil law principles, whereas Indonesian ownership was governed by adat (custom), based on unwritten village practices. The dual system was intended to protect peasants from the alienation of their land. However, the more flexible, communal-based adat system also permitted the Dutch to rent communal village lands for sugar cultivation by contracting only with the village headman (penghula). In 1960 the proportion of settled land still recognized only under the adat system, with no formal survey or title, was 95 percent.

The Basic Agrarian Law, enacted in 1960, was a comprehensive legal effort to modernize Indonesian landownership. The law recognized previous ownership rights under both adat and Western systems, but provided a new certification process under which land was to be surveyed, mapped, and registered. All unclaimed land reverted to government ownership. Land certification, however, was not compulsory and registration was still far from complete by the end of the 1980s. The law also set limits on the size of landownership, depending on the population density of the region and the type of land. In areas with over 401 people per square kilometer, rice fields were limited to a maximum of five hectares and a minimum of two hectares. Absentee ownership was forbidden.

Some concentration of landownership had followed the collapse of the colonial sugar cultivation system on Java, but in essence the problem was one of land shortage, not distribution. By the standards of sawah cultivation, a wealthy landholder possessed three to five hectares, so the maximum of five hectares left very little surplus land. Only a small amount of land was redistributed before Suharto's New Order shifted the emphasis of agricultural policy away from land reform towards increasing production. The 1983 agricultural census showed that about 44 percent of all farm households were either landless or operated holdings too small to meet more than subsistence requirements. The average landholding on Java was 0.66 hectares, and ranged from about 1.5 to 3 hectares in other parts of the archipelago.

By the 1980s, the New Order had achieved undisputed success in expanding rice production, but the distribution of benefits among villagers was still debated. Some observers suggested that only already prosperous farmers benefited from the new technology. Disputes continued in part because conditions varied in different parts of Java, yielding different results in village-level studies. However, by the late 1980s, sufficient evidence had been gathered to show that the benefits from increased rice production, together with growing employment opportunities outside agriculture, had reached even the landless or near landless population.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress