A land rights battle for Indonesia’s Rempang Island
Author: Asrul Sidiq, ANU
Indonesians living on Rempang Island are protesting against the construction of a multi-billion-dollar Chinese glass factory. To make way for the Rempang Eco-City project, 7500 local inhabitants must move. This Indonesian National Strategic Project (PSN), backed by a Chinese company’s US$11.5 billion investment, seeks to transform the island into a major industrial, commercial and tourism hub.
Despite living on the island for generations, the local inhabitants lack legal land ownership. The project holds potential for economic development and job creation, driven by the abundance of quartz sand resources — a vital component in glass and solar panel manufacturing. But the situation underscores the need for transparent and inclusive decision-making processes that consider the rights and interests of local communities.
The local community has occupied the area for decades. The investigation carried out by the Indonesian Ombudsman has revealed that the old villages located on Rempang Island existed long before the Memorandum of Understanding between the government and Chinese investors was established in 2004. The Agrarian Reform Consortium has reported that there is a problem with overlapping tenure in Rempang due to inadequate land governance.
To solve the problem of overlapping tenure, the Government of Indonesia launched the One Map Policy (OMP) in 2011 after spatial data differences became known nationally in 2010 during the REDD+ conference. But the OMP is not functioning well due to both political and technical issues.
The OMP’s effectiveness is hindered by poor land administration and a lack of coordination between ministries. This has resulted in unclear information, making it difficult to achieve the desired outcomes. Overlapping responsibilities among multiple agencies and institutions have also caused a domestic power struggle, creating a significant obstacle to the effective implementation of the policy.
The government could establish a dedicated institution directly under the president’s supervision. This institution should be responsible for coordinating and implementing the OMP and given the necessary authority to ensure that all stakeholders work together towards the same goals.
But the difficulty in identifying customary forest boundaries has slowed the policy’s progress. Although the current government is making efforts to uphold the policy by recognising the rights of local people and implementing Agrarian Reform, there is still a need to put in more serious efforts to pursue these initiatives, as the progress made so far is limited.
To reduce land ownership inequalities and empower communities through redistribution, ownership, legalisation, and control over land, Indonesia launched a new reform called ‘Lands Subject to Agrarian Reform’ Tanah Objek Reforma Agraria. Understood as ‘agrarian reform’ in Presidential Regulation No 86 of 2018, this program involves land distribution and legalisation to solve the insecurities and complexities of tenure structures.
The government also issued Government Regulation No 43 in 2021, which aims to address the issue of spatial inconsistencies, forest zones, permits and land rights. Before this regulation, there was no standard procedure that ministries or agencies could follow to resolve the problem of overlapping land rights. This regulation can serve as a catalyst for the OMP, which will help to resolve overlapping spatial data. For example, when resolving a land ownership case in a forest area, it is important to compare the year of the letter of land ownership issuance with the designation year of the forest area.
An added complication is that the current two-dimensional maps created do not accurately represent the complex social relationships and tenurial dynamics involved. The policy could incorporate ground-truthing as a crucial step to ensure that maps accurately reflect the actual conditions on the ground. Ground truthing involves a process of verification and direct on-site checking. This is particularly important in Indonesia, given its diverse geography and the need to consider local communities and environmental factors.
Public consultation is also a critical component of spatial planning, and it is legally mandated by various laws, including the 2007 Law No 26 on Spatial Planning. These laws establish a framework to involve the public in the planning process and emphasise the importance of transparency and inclusivity.
The Indonesian Environmental Forum has pointed out that the development of Rempang Eco-City does not conform to national and regional spatial planning documents. Despite this, the project’s special status as a PSN allows it to be implemented without requiring it to be written into a spatial planning document.
Investment in domestic industries requires the involvement of local communities. Communities are not necessarily against investment, but they should not be forced to relocate unwillingly. It is crucial that relevant agencies conduct appropriate consultation and mediation with legitimate community representatives in compliance with Indonesian regulations.
Public participation, as required by Indonesian regulations, is often a mere formality with little substance or purpose. The effectiveness of public consultation relies on the commitment of implementing authorities and the active engagement of various stakeholders, including local communities and civil society organisations. The main question left to be answered is whether the government can shift its focus towards greater community participation while implementing the PSN.
Asrul Sidiq is PhD student at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.