New research reports low land-use efficiency in communally owned land in eastern Indonesia. But as Stein Kristiansen and Linda Sulistiawati find, it is underuse rather than overexploitation of commonpool resources on agricultural, pastoral and forest land that is the problem.

Communal ownership of agricultural, pastoral, and forest land is typical in poor and peripheral parts of Indonesia, as elsewhere in Asia.

Only five per cent of Indonesia’s land area is formally registered for private ownership or user rights, and only a fraction of that is freehold property. With population growth, local expectations of welfare improvement, and external commercial interests, pressure on land and livelihoods is increasing—as is the number of land conflicts.

In research spanning 18 peripheral sites in East Nusa Tenggara and Maluku, two of Indonesia’s poorest provinces, we investigated the roles of three types of institutions—liberalised land markets, the state government, and local adat (customs or traditions)—in balancing the goals of increased land efficiency, livelihood security, and conflict avoidance.

We found that land efficiency, measured as the annual total production value per area of land, is typically much lower for communally owned land than for commercial plantations or pasture. As the potential value of land goes up, the number of land conflicts is increasing—both within families and among villages.

Livelihood security, however, is seen as strong and stable, and the vast majority of villagers reported seeing no environmental degradation and said they have access to enough land and tools to make a ‘decent living’. Agricultural land typically belongs to clans or villages; individuals or families have stable user rights but generally no chance of obtaining official freehold titles. The distribution of user rights and control of land use is governed by traditional institutions (adat).

The vast majority of our 640 survey respondents did not regard privatisation (the freedom to buy and sell land) as the right path to greater land-use efficiency. Yet most people said that their village could produce more economic value from agriculture, grazing land, or forests if the land were distributed or used in another way. Respondents in most places reported extensive areas of ‘sleeping’ land that could potentially be used productively.

If user and harvest rights were distributed permanently and more equitably among families, many areas of common agricultural, grazing, or forest land could be used more efficiently. The skepticism about free markets for land-ownership transactions is based on the fear of escalating land conflicts and the marginalisation of poor people in places where working the land is the only way to make a living.

Instead of the ability to buy and sell land, people generally want permanent user rights. For 95 per cent of respondents, the main reason for certifying land would be to avoid land conflicts in the future. Having the option to sell the land after certification was important for less than four per cent of respondents.

State government institutions are also mostly distrusted as instruments for higher land-use efficiency and sustainable livelihoods. We heard many examples of corrupt practices and government–business relations that have undermined ecological sustainability and benefited only a small elite—particularly in the use of forest areas, where the state government claims ownership, but also in the distribution of farm land in state-sponsored irrigation schemes. Customary law is a more respected instrument for organising land user rights and solving land disputes than national laws and formal judicial institutions.

Most people in our study areas pay much respect to adat institutions, as represented by customary law, clan elders, and traditional communal assemblies. As many as 90 per cent of respondents said that productive land in their village is distributed according to ‘fair principles’, of which communal consensus and ancestral obligations were considered the most important.

At the same time, most respondents said that land in their village could be distributed more equitably or given on more reasonable conditions. The main argument held for having an improved system of land distribution is the need to spread land user rights more evenly among village families.

Many also say that land user rights should be distributed more fairly among genders. Young people—especially women—see a need to amend local traditional institutions to meet new demands for participation and democracy and revised principles of justice. Adat reflects old standards of social stratification, gender inequality, and local economic exploitation, and the local elite’s capturing of such institutions may prohibit economic progress.

The Indonesian government should acknowledge and register communal land ownership with specified and registered family user rights and inalienability. Such registering could also be used to make productive communal land taxable, which would increase local government income and could enhance land-use productivity.

Stein Kristiansen is based at the Universitetet I Agder, Norway and Linda Sulistiawati at Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia. 

This article is based on the the authors’ recent publication in the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies: ‘Traditions, Land Rights, and Local Welfare Creation: Studies from Eastern Indonesia’.