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Willem van der Muur

Adat land rights: the solution for land conflicts in Indonesia?

Land conflicts between farmers and government authorities or large plantation businesses are an everyday occurrence in many countries in the Global South. The same is true for Indonesia where thousands of land conflicts have been going on for years without a solution being found. In these types of conflicts, civil communities often invoke their traditional right to land, but how likely will such a claim succeed in practice? PhD Candidate Willem van der Muur defends his doctoral thesis on 9 January.

At the heart of many of the current land conflicts in Indonesia lies the government’s claim to more than 70 percent of all land, particularly in areas outside Java such as Sumatra, Borneo and Sulawesi. These disputes often lead to violent confrontations between farmers and the police or the military. 'This research is focussed on long-term land conflicts, in which citizens claim that as a traditional community, or adat community, they are entitled to land that has been confiscated by government bodies or plantation businesses', according to Van der Muur. 'Since the fall of Soeharto in 1998, claims to land rights are increasingly made in the form of an appeal to collective adat community rights. In the early 1990s a large social movement arose, the so-called adat movement, which strives for the recognition of adat community rights.'

Currently the Indonesian government recognises the adat land rights explicitly in the law. Van der Muur's research is focussed on the question: Under which circumstances have claims to adat land rights been recognised by the government, and to what extent has the acknowledgement of these rights contributed to solutions for land conflicts?

Willem van der Muur

Fieldwork

Besides literature research, Van der Muur also conducted fieldwork in Indonesia, amongst others in the districts Bulukumba and Sinjai (South Sulawesi). 'I stayed for a long time in villages where such conflicts were in progress. I interviewed farmers, civil servants, judges, activists and plantation managers. In addition, I analysed court cases and other forms of dispute resolution, with the principal aim of discovering under which circumstances claims by local farmers to agricultural land were formally recognised by the government as being traditional 'adat land'.'

Van der Muur concludes that only in a few cases were farmers’ claims recognised. 'Only in one of the seven cases I investigated, were adat land rights recognised. The community in question, however, was not involved in a conflict with the government or a plantation business in relation to the land claimed. In addition, a number of leaders in this community worked as civil servants in the regional government and this made the process of formal recognition of adat land rights easier.'

A broader interpretation

Although adat land rights are recognised by law, they are often not granted. 'The government has discretionary powers to exclude groups, with the argument that they are not traditional enough to be viewed as an adat community. In addition, claims to adat land rights have less chance in conflict situations where influential private or public actors are involved.'

In his conclusion, the researcher calls for more flexible and inclusive ways of formal acknowledgement. 'If more communities want to be considered for formal recognition of their land rights, a broader interpretation of the concept adat community and adat law community is needed.' Van der Muur suggests, for example, a system in which recognition of land ownership would follow after having occupied or worked the land for a certain number of years.

Text: Floris van den Driesche
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