Farmers, fishers and local folk a casualty in Indonesia’s embrace with vested interests

It is up to Jokowi to create the kind of legacy that he wants to leave, says New Mandala Indonesia Fellow Iqra Anugrah.

JAKARTA: I met Sugeng, a fisher and a community organiser in my research trip to Kendal District, Central Java earlier this year before the Indonesian general elections.

In my quest to find out what ordinary rural citizens think about the impact of electoral politics on their livelihood, I asked Sugeng what he thought about President Joko Widodo or Jokowi as he is known in Indonesia.

To my surprise, he complained about Jokowi’s building of highways for cars that his motorbike-riding neighbours won’t use and factories in coastal areas that might endanger fisherfolk livelihood. To him, these were misplaced priorities for Indonesia.

Sugeng wasn’t alone in complaining. I spoke to local activists in East Kalimantan, one of the provinces most affected by corporate-led environmental degradation.

They told me how mining businesses with ties to Jokowi and leading politicians backing him destroy the environment and people’s livelihood in rural areas.

Back in 2014, many rural voters and civil society actors expected that Jokowi would fight for the interests of marginalised citizens, especially those residing in rural areas, in his first term.

Yet, he disappointed many of them. Beholden to the interests of his own party elites and oligarchs supporting him, he failed to implement the much-needed reforms that his voters and civil society actors demanded.


In his campaign trails and televised debates, Jokowi repeatedly boasted about his achievement in building infrastructures in far-flung provinces and promoting rural development through schemes such as land ownership certification and high-tech farming.

But a closer look reveals that his track record in his first term is mixed at best.

Jokowi promised to implement a wide-ranging rural development reform agenda, but he soon succumbed to the pressure of vested interests benefiting from the expansion of big businesses into rural areas. He was unable to achieve substantial changes in Indonesia’s high-stakes land, rural development and maritime policies.

On land policy, Jokowi promoted the legalisation of individual land ownership as his answer to inequality in ownership of and access to land faced by many small and poor rural households.

While individual land ownership might benefit smallholders and landless peasants to some extent, it could also pave the way for the expansion of big agribusinesses and plantations in rural areas at the expense of farming families – a global phenomenon occurring in countries transitioning into market economies such as post-Soviet Russia and developing countries worldwide.

Jokowi also did little to address land conflicts when rural citizens brush up against a mighty state apparatus and corporate big wigs.

His presidency witnessed a continuation of such land conflicts, where natural resources are exploited and mined by big conglomerates, at the huge expense of the quality of life for local communities and sustainability while environmental activists and community leaders fighting for land rights are persecuted and criminalised –  a persistent scourge which has plagued Indonesian politics for decades.

His other rural development policies, particularly infrastructural development and the provision of a state budget for village governments across the country, while well-intentioned, are also prone to misuse and corruption by local elites, which may inadvertently exacerbate rural inequality and poverty.

Jokowi scored a little better in the area of maritime development, thanks to his maverick Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Minister Susi Pudjiastuti and her cracking down on illegal fishing in Indonesian water territories.

But his administration also oversaw the expansion of big investments such as mining, land reclamation, tourism and plantations in coastal areas, making the economically precarious lives of the fishers even more challenging.

In short, Jokowi had largely failed to live up to his promises in his first term.

What made Jokowi unable to implement much-needed reforms that many marginalised rural citizens and activists have been pushing for? To answer this question, one only needs to look at the political coalitions surrounding Jokowi.


Since the very beginning, Jokowi was held captive by the more senior politicians in his party – he might be the president, but he still had to secure their political support. Furthermore, a number of his advisors, such as Luhut Pandjaitan and Hary Tanoesoedibjo had owned big mining businesses that financed Jokowi’s campaign.

It is clear Jokowi is beholden to these political elites whose support is crucial for the stability of his administration, giving him little political space or muscle to address pressing social and environmental issues.

This does not mean that his contender in the 2019 presidential election, Prabowo Subianto, offered a better policy proposal. Prabowo had claimed he wanted to promote a variety of renewable energies, but his team did not specify how such a policy could be implemented.

Moreover, both Prabowo and his vice-presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno also have extensive ties to extractive industries and own several mining businesses, not to mention Prabowo’s questionable commitment to inclusivity and proclivity to resort to identity politics, making his populist rhetoric meaningless.


Entering his second term, the issue of environmental and natural resource governance will continue to present many challenges to Jokowi.

Out of these many problems, three issues are most pressing: Indonesia’s continuing dependence on the extractive industry, the declining quality of rural livelihood, and the need to promote an alternative vision of rural development.

First, Indonesia’s long-time dependency on extractive industry such as mining, oil palm plantation, and timber has created ample corruption opportunities for business and political actors.

This dependency is a legacy of developmental policies from the Suharto’s New Order era, which facilitates collusive relationships between economic and political elites at the expense of marginalised citizens.

A typical pattern of this quid-pro-quo exchange can be seen in local electoral politics: Mining companies will help financing aspiring district head candidates, who in exchange will more liberally issue licenses for their campaign financiers.

This practice perpetuates the dominance of natural resource-extracting businesses in Indonesia’s local economies and stymies the development of a more vibrant and diverse rural economy.

It perverts local politics because local and national politicians benefiting from such businesses can wave away criticisms directed at them by activists and the local community or apply coercive measures.

Second, Indonesia’s current mode of development contributes to the rise of rural inequality and poverty.

The expansion of large-scale plantation, infrastructural development, and other forms of investments to rural areas has led to the accelerating rate of land conflicts, which in turn impoverishes local community and worsens the quality of rural livelihood.

Given all of this, promoting an alternative rural development scheme is necessary to protect the environment and promote a more sustainable livelihood for many in Indonesia.

Jokowi’s administration has since announced that they would make an existing moratorium on new forest clearance permanent.

But more can be done to manage the balance between large-scale plantations and smallholders, for instance, through the extension of the existing temporary moratorium on issuing permits for new palm oil plantation developments which ends in 2021.

Furthermore, local examples of how communities invent and implement community-based economic practices are numerous, including community-run enterprises, cooperatives, and credit unions in numerous fishing and farming villages.

Instead of relying on large-scale corporate expansion, perhaps Jokowi can learn a thing or two about alternative and sustainable development from these practices.

For Jokowi, the ball is now in his court. It is up to him to create the kind of legacy that he wants to leave – as a half-hearted reformer who capitulates to vested interests or a risk-taker who dares to challenge them.

Iqra Anugrah is a New Mandala Indonesia Fellow and an incoming Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.

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