Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Contested Land: An Analysis of Multi-Layered Conflicts in Jambi Province, Sumatra, Indonesia

Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Contested Land: An Analysis of Multi-Layered Conflicts in Jambi Province, Sumatra, Indonesia

Article excerpt


The Indonesian island of Sumatra has been known for decades for its vast planta- tion industries, based on key cash crops like rubber, oil palm, and industrial timber (mainly gamelina, sengon, and acacia). Since the 1970s, the lowland rainforests of Central Sumatra have been largely converted into timber, rubber, and oil palm plan- tations, after the Indonesian government had assigned almost the entire area for log- ging. Between 1985 and 2008, Sumatra's forest resources had been cleared with an average speed of 542,000 hectares per year, resulting in a natural forest cover of only 29 percent in 2008, compared to 58 percent in 1985, and hence a strong increase in CO2 emissions (WWF Indonesia, 2010, p. 15). Beside the conversion of forests into large-scale agro-industrial development projects, resource extraction (such as coal and gas exploration and exploitation) has been and still is a key development strategy (Jiwan, 2013, p. 73). As the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs of the Repub- lic of Indonesia (2011) states, the

Sumatra Economic Corridor is expected to become 'The Center for Production and Processing of Natural Resources as The Nation's Energy Reserves'. Suma- tra's strategic location can propel it to become 'The Front Line of The National Economy into The European, African, South Asian, East Asian, and Australian Markets'. (p. 51)

With this economic policy and the integration of the region into globalized mar- kets, fundamental land use related transition processes still take place and land prices substantially increase (Potter, 2001, p. 313). Combined with socio-economic change and high population growth rates (also due to in-migration from other parts of the In- donesian archipelago), these processes have contributed to socially and spatially frag- mented land use patterns, consisting of patches of primary forest, jungle rubber, as well as rubber and oil palm plantations. Due to new actors entering the politico-eco- nomic stage, transformation takes place leading to new forms of re-territorialization (Tomlinson, 1999, pp. 148-149). Access to land becomes more and more contested as various actors with different economic intentions and socio-cultural backgrounds are getting involved in land claims. In this regard, Jambi province, Central Sumatra, stands as an example for a highly dynamic conflict arena1 where borders between the local and the global become indistinct. Conflicts over land and other natural resourc- es are becoming worse. In 2010, Zazali (2012, p. 12) counted approximately 100 land use and forestry conflicts of varying intensity in the province. Conflicts are escalat- ing in intensity because of the growing range of parties involved, like communities, NGOs, corporations, and governmental institutions (Zazali, 2012, p. 12).

The present article has two objectives: Set against the background of the wider conflict arena of Bungku village, the paper will first describe and analyze land con- flicts between a group of indigenous people, the Batin Sembilan,2 and the interna- tional oil palm company PT Asiatic Persada. Particular attention is given to the path dependency of present land conflicts and thus the changes in land tenure regulations over time will be described in detail. Following the argument of Peluso and Lund (2011), the paper will secondly show that within this highly dynamic conflict arena of Bungku village "new frontiers of land control are being actively created" (p. 668). The advancement of the conventional frontier to a post-frontier concept will be in- tertwined with the "theory of access" (Ribot & Peluso, 2003). The theoretical concept will thus be applied to the empirical insights by showing that access to land is con- stantly contested, leading to an ostensible state of equilibrium in post-frontier areas.


The research interest in frontiers can be traced back to 1893 when Frederick Jack- son Turner described the violent land seizure in North America in his book The Sig- nificance of the Frontier in American History (Turner, 1893). …

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