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Indonesia should make land acquisitions more transparent and participatory

Several studies have revealed forced land acquisitions in Indonesia lead to conflicts and loss of income of displaced persons. Reuters/Beawiharta

Indonesia should make land acquisitions more transparent and participatory

In the past few days, activists in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, have been posting articles, videos, and statements concerning conflicts in land acquisition process in Kulon Progo regency for the New Yogyakarta International Aiport (NYIA). In the videos, farmers refused to sell their lands and receive compensation. They said the compensation was a one-sided decision imposed on them by force.

Kulon Progo’s case is the latest example of land acquisition in Indonesia that creates conflicts between the people and developers and/or the government.

Until 2019, the two remaining years of Indonesia’s Joko Widodo administration, there are at least 245 national strategic projects to be completed. From Aceh in the west to Papua in the east, infrastructure projects in the Indonesian archipelago are being built in speed.

Jakarta, Banten, West Java and South Sumatra — where the 2018 Asian Games is slated to be held — will further see constructions of supporting infrastructure. There will be an airport train within Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and from Manggarai station. The mass rapid transit (MRT) in Jakarta is in progress. A light rail transit (LRT) in Palembang and Jakarta-Bogor-Depok-Bekasi and the Palembang Indralaya (Palindra) toll road are also in the works.

Economists support Joko Widodo’s infrastructure agenda and the progress has been visible. But amid the flurry of land acquisition, ground-breaking events and constructions, the people who have to give up the land they live on to make way for the projects have very little power to ensure their livelihoods are secure.

Human cost

Land acquisition is the most-challenging phase of infrastructure development. In fact, this is also acknowledged by Coordinating Minister for the Economy Darmin Nasution when he mentions that 44% of problems surrounding infrastructure projects are about land acquisition.

Those who have to relocate are often poorly compensated. In some cases they don’t receive any compensation at all. These people may have to move to places far from public services and economic centres. They lose sources of livelihood and struggle to adapt in new social environments.

Studies have revealed that forced land acquisitions in Indonesia have led to conflicts and loss of income of displaced persons.

In one project implemented under Soeharto’s New Order regime, displaced persons lost around 50% of their income even after receiving cash compensation. In today’s post-Soeharto era, the situation is almost unchanged.

‘Take it or leave it’

Indonesia does have laws and regulations that are intended to protect people affected by land acquisitions.

But these laws and regulations do not ensure transparency in land-acquisition processes. Under these laws, affected people also have very little room to negotiate for fair compensation.

Developers are required to hold meetings with affected communities. But these forums have become a mere formality. Affected persons often cannot negotiate for their preferred compensation in these meetings because developers have set the type and amount of compensation from the start.

The law on land acquisition and related regulations require developers to disclose certain information in their land-acquisition plan. They must disclose the purpose of the project, the location, the duration of the land-acquisition process and sequence of activities.

But developers are not required to disclose their proposed options for compensation and resettlement. This information is actually very important for affected persons to consider when accepting or rejecting a land-acquisition plan.

Affected persons are not given a chance to propose alternative solutions. For example, a community living by the Ciliwung River in Kampung Pulo, Jakarta, had proposed, with the assistance of urban activists and architects, to build an “elevated village”. This would have allowed them to live by the river and the government to continue with its plan to widen the river to accommodate stormwater.

The Jakarta administration rejected the proposal. To mitigate flooding in the Indonesian capital, the administration went ahead with clearing riverside slums and relocating residents to low-cost apartments in East Jakarta.

The “take it or leave it” principle has made the forums a place where affected people can only passively respond to proposed compensation decided by developers for them. To challenge a developer’s decision, affected persons have to go to the district court.

Amid the speeding up of massive infrastructure constructions, land procurement executors get pressures to quickly acquire lands. The pressure comes both from the government and the public, which want to see new infrastructures built quickly. Thus, citizens who have to give up their lands become victims of the pressures.

For land owners who are not happy with the compensation, the executors would give the money to the local district court, called “consignment” system. This allows the land acquisition executors to ignore land owners’ demands and let the district court deals with them.

To fight the executors’ decision on consignment, land owners have to file a lawsuit to the district court. For disadvantaged land owners who do not have enough legal knowledge, the legal process is not only costly but also intimidating.

Since the implementation of land procurement regulations in 2012, I made a brief study on 25 decisions on land procurement on the Supreme Court website. I found many citizens lost their case in the court and failed to get proper compensation. I also found that in cases where the citizens won in the district court, the Supreme Court would overturn the decision.

This number has yet to include the cases connected to the Kulon Progo new airport, which reached 222 cases handled by Wates District Court.

The citizens lost their case usually because they did not have enough evidence to argue for proper compensation. In contrast, the executors would present an expert witness, a land appraisal officer, at the court to back their proposal.

This system could harm the citizens’ right. In Kulon Progo case, such system is even called one-sided and a way for the developer to usurp the farmers’ lands. After their lost their case in the court, they are ordered to leave their houses and lands and intimidated in the process.

Transparency and participation

Indonesia should have better regulations to ensure transparency and participation of affected people in every stage of the land-acquisition process.

Affected persons should have the chance to review the amount of compensation in meetings with developers. Project developers must also discuss resettlement plans with affected persons.

Involving affected communities would mean a longer process. But mutual discussion can provide better solutions, meaning projects have positive outcomes for both project developers and affected persons.


Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include latest developments in Indonesia’s infrastructure planning.

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