Efforts To Provide Land For Small Farmers: A Historical Viewpoint

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In Indonesia, there are rice fields and dry land or plantation land. In line with this, farmers in Indonesia are divided into rice and plantation farmers. However, the area of rice fields in Indonesia, according to estimates by Rahardjo (2017), is no more than 11 percent of the land in Indonesia. The rest (around 89-90 percent) is plantations, with export crops, such as rubber, coffee and cocoa. The rice fields are more dominant in Java, although there are also plantations on the island of Java; and there are also rice fields outside Java. The plantations are generally divided into two parts based on the pattern of business management and cultivation, namely smallholder and modern plantations (ondernaming).

The rice farmers in Java are small farmers who are often called peasants. Historically they were victims of forced cultivation (cultuurstelsel) implemented by the Dutch East Indies Government. The sugarcane plant which produces sugar is a mainstay commodity for the Dutch East Indies Government. Through the development of sugarcane in the Dutch East Indies, the Netherlands was able to rebuild its economy which was destroyed by the chaos in Europe that destroyed the Dutch economy. For the Dutch Government, the development of the sugarcane industry was very profitable; one of the reasons is the existence of cheap labor in Java, namely farmers who are used to growing rice. In agronomical and agro-ecological practice, the process of planting sugarcane is not much different from planting rice. The farmers who are accustomed in planting rice are certainly familiar with the process of planting sugarcane. That is what the Dutch government took advantage by implementing the forced cultivation system (cultuurstelsel), where the farmers were forced to set aside their energy to plant sugarcane; or even some farmers’ rice fields are also used to plant sugarcane.


Peasant, Farmer, and Subsistence

Peasant in simple terms is often defined as small farmers with narrow land, traditional management, and very simple technology, even having a high dependence upon nature due to not being able to treat nature. According to Wolf (Rahardjo, 2017), the peasant is agricultural product producers who work the land effectively, who do work as a living, not profit-oriented business. However, the size of the land area – the size or narrowness of the land – is not the main indicator for peasant. In this context, Firth (Rahardjo, 2017) states that peasant is an economic reference. What is meant by peasant economy is a small-scale system, with simple technology and equipment, often only producing for themselves who have a subsistence lifestyle. Therefore, subsistence is a characteristic attached to peasant.

Referring to Scott (revised edition, 2019), the subsistence farmers in Southeast Asia are oriented merely towards meeting basic needs, not market and profit oriented. This is in line with the limited resources owned, such as narrow agricultural land. The peasants often even think merely about fulfilling their daily needs, without being able to see the future. Therefore, according to Scott, this subsistence is economical. However, in this context, Wharton (Rahardjo, 2017) distinguishes subsistence into two forms, namely subsistence of life and subsistence of production. The first is naturally cultural, namely a minimalist lifestyle, considering enough with what exists without thinking to develop oneself. Second, production subsistence – which is economic in nature – namely the activity of producing goods which is only oriented towards meeting the needs of individuals and families, without being market oriented, profit, and monetization. The degree of subsistence, by itself, can be measured based on the level of commercialization and monetization in a production activity. In line with this, the subsistence agriculture is an independent and self-sufficient unit in which all production is only to meet the needs of the family, nothing is sold, in addition to the absence of outside producers of goods and services.

The opposite of peasant is a farmer who is attached to an entrepreneur. Therefore, farmers are often referred to as agricultural entrepreneurs, namely profit-oriented commercial farmers. These two farmer groups in Indonesian history have faced each other, which illustrates the dualism of the economy, and illustrates the gap between the two farmer groups.


The Phenomena of Economic Gap

         The peasants in the Dutch East Indies – particularly in Java – played a big role in the recovery of the Dutch economy. Van den Bosch is considered the most instrumental in restoring the economy. Borrowing Furnivall’s words, Geertz revealed, “The real measure for van den Bosch’s greatness is the revival of the Netherlands …” (Rahardjo, 2017: 83). As is known, van den Bosch was the governor general of the Dutch East Indies who implemented a forced cultivation system.

The sugarcane plant which is laid over the farmers’ rice fields has strengthened the peasantry conditions for Javanese farmers. The benefits obtained by farmers from the implementation of the forced cultivation system – such as irrigation facilities and roads built by the Dutch government to launch the sugar cane industry – were not comparable to the benefits the Dutch received. The sugarcane plantations that are managed in a modern way are the main export crop of the Netherlands, which is included in the very profitable line of modern capitalism. On the other hand, the peasant who work for sugarcane plantations or who set aside part of their rice fields are still rice farmers with general characteristics as peasant who have not experienced any development except the number that increases. In this context Geertz suggests the term agricultural involution, where the farmers do not experience change, their agricultural land area has relatively not increased, while the number of smallholders is increasing. Geertz revealed:


“There can be no doubt that in the Forced Cultivation System that is the byword that the Dutch are getting bigger in wealth while the Javanese are increasing in number, starting to settle into a sociological reality …” (quoted from Rahardjo, 2017: 85)


Seeing the phenomenon of small farmers as “victims” of forced cultivation system side by side with very profitable modern sugarcane plantations, Boeke sees the existence of economic dualism in pre-modern capitalism Java, which has a long impact on the socio-economic life of Javanese farmers.


Become Slaves of Landlords

So far, the forced cultivation system is often seen as a factor that can strengthen peasantry of smallholders in Indonesia. However, in fact the existence of private plantations (ondernaming) in the Dutch East Indies due to Dutch policies also had an impact on the inequality and dualism of economic life in Indonesia.

As it is known that land in Java is consists of rice fields and dry land or plantations. Most of the dry land was controlled by the Dutch East Indies Government based on the stipulation that land where there was no owner or no one who claimed to have rights to the land, automatically the land belonged to the state. When the Netherlands experienced very severe economic difficulties in the 19th century due to chaos in Europe, and to overcome this, the Dutch Government established a policy to sell plantation land in Java and outside Java to foreign private companies. Therefore, referring to Soemardjan (revised edition, 2008), in the 19th century there were around 1 150 thousand hectares of plantation land in Java and Sulawesi which transferred ownership to British and Chinese people due to sales by the Dutch Government. This, by itself, gave rise to large foreign private plantations that applied modern management and technology according to the standards of the time against traditional smallholder plantations with simple management and technology. Therefore, the phenomenon of peasantry and economic dualism is not only between rice farmers and sugar cane plantations, but between smallholder plantations and large private plantations.

These private plantation owners are only oriented towards the maximum profit without paying attention to the welfare and safety of workers on the plantations or on the land they control. This was reinforced by the special rights they had, where the Dutch Government not only sold the rights of plantation land but he sold special rights to landlords. In more detail, the special rights of the landlords – as set out in the definition of “pertuanan” (bossy) in Article 1 of Law no. 1/1958 concerning Abolition of Particular Land – is: (1) the right to appoint or authorize elections and dismiss village or village heads as well as other general heads at the plantation location; (2) the right to demand forced labor or collect compensation for forced labor from residents at the plantation location; (3) the right to levy fees, either in the form of money or agricultural products from the population; and (4) the right to establish markets, to charge fees for using roads and crossings.

With power over the population they own, the Chinese Landlords and some British landlords put pressure on the population. This has made landlords first class citizens against the inferior and powerless of inlanders (indigenous people).


Agricultural Land for Farmer

         The recovery of the Dutch economy – as a result of forced cultivation – has prompted them to buy back agricultural land that has been sold to private companies. However, the process of buying back the plantation land is processing very slowly. According to Soemardjan’s record (revised edition, 2008), until the fall of the Dutch East Indies Government, the buyback of plantation land had only been around half of the approximately 1 150 thousand hectares of land. The Government of the Republic of Indonesia continues the policy of buying back the plantation land. However, the land buyback policy turned out to be not easy, and of course it required quite high costs.

         In order to accelerate the reclaiming of private plantation lands, and to provide land for indigenous farmers, the Government issued Law No. 1/1958 concerning the abolition of private lands. The law full of revolutionary nuances was passed on January 13, 1958, signed by the Acting President of the Republic of Indonesia, Sartono, and promulgated on January 24, 1958 signed by the Minister of Justice, G. A. Maengkom.

One important thing in this Law, as stipulated in Article 3, is the statement of the elimination of private land and the revocation of land rights which are specially granted to land owners; and at the same time a statement that all these private plantation lands belong to the state. More clearly, Article 3 of this Law emphasizes:


“Sejak mulai berlakunya Undang-undang ini demi kepentingan umum hak-hak pemilik beserta hak-hak pertuanannya atas semua tanah-tanah partikelir hapus dan tanah-tanah bekas tanah partikelir itu karena hukum seluruhnya serentak menjadi tanah Negara.” 

(“Since the enactment of this Law it is in the public interest that the rights of the owners and their particular land rights over all private lands and former private lands because the law all of them simultaneously become State lands.”)

Stipulation of Law No. 1/1958 can be considered as revolutionary steps to provide agricultural/plantation land for local residents. Prior to enacting this law, the Indonesian government had actually legalized Law no. 13/1948 on April 26, 1948 in Yogyakarta, and is considered to be valid since April 1, 1948, signed by President Soekarno together with the Minister of Home Affairs Soekiman; and announced on 27 April 1948 by the Minister of Justice A.G. Pringgodigdo. The contents of this law emphasize that all land in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta and Surakarta controlled by about 40 Dutch sugar companies was taken over by the Indonesian government, and provided for local Indonesian farmers. This action is intended to end the dualism and the gap between strong, large and modern sugarcane plantations and small unorganized farmers. Furthermore, the sugarcane plantation companies managed by the Indonesian government after the departure of the Dutch could enter into cooperation contracts with local farmers who owned the land rights.

That was the initial policy regarding land management on the legacy of the Dutch East Indies Government in Indonesia, where these land management steps needed to be studied carefully.



Rahardjo (2017), Pengantar Sosiologi Pedesaan dan Pertanian [Introduction to Rural and Agricultural Sociology] Yogyakarta: Gadjah Mada University Press.

Semardjan, Selo (revised edition, 2008), “Land Reform in Indonesia,” in Sediono M.P. Tjondronegoro and Gunawan Wiradi (editor), Dua Abad Penguasaan Tanah: Pola Penguasaan Tanah Pertanian di Jawa dari Masa ke Masa [Two Ages of Land Tenure: The Pattern of Agricultural Land Control in Java from Time to Time]. Jakarta: Yayasan Obor Indonesia;

Scott, James C. (2019), Moral Ekonomi Petani: Pergolakan dan Subsistensi di Asia Tenggara [Moral Economy of Peasant: Upheaval and Subsistence in Southeast Asia], Jakarta: LP3ES.

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