‘Land mafia’ makes its mark in a Sumatran village’s fight against oil palm firm

  • A government agency in Sumatra issued land titles to villagers in 2020, only to rescind them this year on the grounds that a palm oil company already holds the concession for that land.
  • The flip-flop has revealed a litany of irregularities in the land-titling process and strengthened suspicions of a “land mafia” at work securing community-occupied lands for big businesses.
  • The National Land Agency says more than 100 of its officials are suspected of being part of this mafia, but has done little to address the problem, and continues to violate a Supreme Court ruling that could bring greater transparency to land ownership across Indonesia.
  • Activists say the land mafia have been emboldened by the government’s pro-business policies, including directives to make it easier for investors to secure land for projects.

JAKARTA — In 2020, residents of Suka Mukti village in southern Sumatra paid 10 million rupiah each, about $700, to a government agency to obtain titles to their land — a process that is officially supposed to be free. This year, the same agency declared the certificates illegal because, it says, the land falls inside a concession held by a palm oil company.

The fiasco has shone a light on the corruption and opacity that cloud the land-titling process in Indonesia, and the role of a “land mafia” in keeping it that way to serve the interests of big businesses.

“According to the regulations, land certificates are free,” says Roni Septian, head of advocacy at the Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA), an NGO. “From that alone, we can see how corrupt the practices of the land agency are. That’s concrete evidence of how sophisticated the land mafia is.”

He adds the Suka Mukti case is just the tip of the iceberg, with the land mafia operating throughout Indonesia.

“Millions of farmers have had their lands robbed from them because the government manipulated data,” he says.

Oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Interior of an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Land titles taken away — twice

The village of Suka Mukti, in Ogan Komering Ilir (OKI) district, South Sumatra province, was established by settlers from Java in 1981. They were part of the national government’s “transmigration” program, which aimed to entice people away from densely populated Java by offering them land in other parts of the archipelago.

From 1983-1985, the local government issued land ownership decrees for the 450 Suka Mukti families, but in 1991, the village chief rescinded the decrees for 191 of those families. The reason given was that their lands would be upgraded to “plasma” plantations, which meant they’d be cultivating oil palms and selling the crop to a palm oil company, essentially ensuring them a guaranteed buyer and price.

But the village head instead sold the land to various third parties, including palm oil company PT Treekreasi Marga Mulya (TMM).

Since then, the villagers fought to reclaim their land, and in 2019 applied to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to carry out an assessment to determine whether they qualified to seek titles to the land. The assessment concluded that the lands didn’t overlap with any existing concessions, so the villagers duly applied for land certificates to the South Sumatra land agency in 2020.

In March that year, they finally obtained their certificates from the agency. But while the process is supposed to be free of charge, the villagers say they had to pay 10 million rupiah per certificate, for the 36 certificates issued.

Now, those certificates are gone. In June 2020, a signboard went up on the land declaring that TMM held the concession to the area, and listing the number for a right-to-cultivate permit, or HGU — the last in a series of licenses that oil palm companies must obtain before being allowed to start planting.

This year, in move reminiscent of how the villagers lost their ownership decrees the first time around, a land agency official visited the village and asked for the certificates back so that they could be “secured.”

“As a layman, I knew nothing,” says Abu, one of the villagers. “So we handed over our certificates.”

On July 9, the South Sumatra land agency sent the villagers a letter telling them their certificates had been revoked: their lands overlapped with TMM’s concession, and the company had obtained its HGU permit back in 1997, trumping the villagers’ 2020 title deeds.

A signboard declaring that palm oil company PT Treekreasi Marga Mulya held the concession to an area in the village of Suka Mukti, in Ogan Komering Ilir (OKI) district, South Sumatra province, Indonesia.


The agency’s flip-flop has raised a host of questions for the villagers and others scrutinizing the case, primarily over why it issued the certificates in the first place if the land was already part of an existing concession.

“When we came to the local land agency, they said there’s no HGU and thus the agency was ready to issue the land certificates [for us],” Abu said.

Pius Situmorang, a lawyer representing the villagers, says there’s a suspicion that TMM doesn’t actually have an HGU permit for the land in question. He notes that a sign on the same plot of land claims it’s owned by one Shodiq (likely the OKI deputy district head, Dja’far Shodiq, according to Pius). He adds another part of the contested area was recently acquired by the government for a planned toll road running through the area, and for which the government has paid compensation to some of the villagers.

“There’s no way there’s an HGU permit for that land if there’s already a plasma plantation there owned by an individual, and land procurement done by the state, in which the compensation money was paid out,” Pius says.

Julius Ibrani, secretary-general of the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association (PBHI), says the land agency’s issuance and swift revocation of the villagers’ certificates points to gross negligence within the bureaucracy.

“Even if we ignore [the allegations about the land mafia], there’s still maladministration perpetrated not by the locals, but by the government,” he says.

This then raises the question of whether there will be any consequences for the maladministration, says Sandrayati Moniaga, a member of the National Commission on Human Rights.

“Are there any sanctions for the officials involved? If there are, does it mean [the villagers] will be compensated for the revocation of their land certificates?” she says.

Officials from the National Land Agency, to which the provincial land agency reports, have promised to carry out an investigation of the Suka Mukti case.

Forest cleared to make way for palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

‘Make, manipulate and falsify’

The HGU permit ascribed to TMM has also raised questions, including over whether it even exists.

Pius, the Suka Mukti villagers’ lawyer, notes that three different permit numbers have been cited. In the land agency’s letter informing the villagers their certificates had been revoked, it gave the HGU number as 45. But the number on the signboard erected on the land after the villagers had obtained the permit is 11. And the number in a document sent by TMM to the villagers lists the permit number as 1.

“There’s clearly a scheme to blur the numbers of the permit,” Pius says. “What’s clear is that there are differing numbers of permit. This is proof that there’s no transparency from the land agency, resulting in this mess.”

Roni from the KPA says TMM’s HGU permit wasn’t registered in the land agency’s information system.

“So it’s very easy for the land agency to make, manipulate and falsify HGU permits that result in the loss of people’s rights over their lands,” he says.

The South Sumatra land agency has failed to explain the differing numbers. Firdaus, the director of land conflict at the National Land Agency, said that based on information gathered by the national government, the HGU permit owned by TMM was originally numbered 1, before it was changed to 45.

The National Land Agency has itself come under fire for refusing to make HGU data public — in flagrant and continued violation of a 2017 Supreme Court ruling ordering it to do so.

Each HGU permit includes details such as land boundaries, coordinates, and the size of the concession, as well as the leaseholder’s name.

In 2015, the NGO Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) sued the National Land Agency to release the data. In 2017, the Supreme Court declared that HGU documents are public information and ordered the agency to make them publicly available. The decision was upheld on appeal in March 2021, yet the agency continues to hold out. It says it has discussed the matter with the office of the chief economics minister (who holds zero sway on judicial matters) and come to the conclusion that HGU data cannot be shared with the public because of the need to protect national interests.

Rights commissioner Sandrayati says cases like Suka Mukti could be prevented if the National Land Agency just does what the court ruled.

“The Supreme Court has already ruled that the [HGU] document is a public document,” she says. “So where’s the exact location of the [TMM] HGU? [Reveal it] so that we don’t have to debate endlessly.”

Oil palm fruit being transported away from plantations.

Pro-investment mafia

A more transparent land-titling process would have prevented the palm oil company from claiming the land in the first place, Sandrayati says.

As part of the government’s transmigration program, the Suka Mukti villagers were not informal settlers; they would have arrived in 1981 with all the necessary documents ready, giving TMM no chance of obtaining an HGU in 1997.

Yet somehow, the land ownership decrees issued by the local government from 1983-1985 weren’t registered by the national government — and hence wouldn’t have been flagged in any application for an HGU permit for that particular area.

Sandrayati says that if those decrees had maps attached with them, the villagers could use them to reinforce their claim to the land.

“If not, then it’s going to be difficult to know where the overlaps [between the villagers’ lands and the concession] are without having the coordinates,” she says.

Roni of the KPA says this opacity in the process provide a space for the land mafia to operate, and that they’ve been by the government’s pro-investor policies, which include making it easy for companies to secure land — in many cases land that’s already occupied by local or Indigenous communities.

“President Joko Widodo [recently] said he would sack police chiefs who are not pro-investment,” Roni says. “So it’s the government itself that encourages the practice of the land mafia. These land mafia are protected by security personnel and the police because they’ve been ordered [by the president] to secure investments.”

The head of the National Land Agency, Sofyan Djalil, recently said at least 125 officials in his agency were believed to have been part of this land mafia since 2016. Some of these officials face criminal investigations; the rest have been slapped with administrative sanctions or simply moved to other positions.

The villagers of Suka Mukti in South Sumatra, Indonesia, occupied the disputed land in protest against palm oil company PT Treekreasi Marga Mulya.

‘Intimidation, terror, criminalization’

For the Suka Mukti villagers, the ordeal continues. Deprived of the titles to their land, they have since Oct. 29 occupied the disputed land in protest, and say they now face pressure from the police.

“There’s been a lot of efforts to intimidate us,” says Syahrul, a villager. “The Ogan Komering Ilir police have been safeguarding the company in its harvesting activities.”

The villagers have been reported to the police by TMM and the Suka Mukti village chief, Sutamar, who accuses some of them of falsifying his signature on documents needed to obtain their land certificates. TMM’s complaint to the police, meanwhile, is about the villagers’ occupation of the contested land.

On Nov. 11, four police officers came to the home of one of the villagers and demanded to see his land certificate, without producing a warrant. On Nov. 20, police summoned some of the villagers for questioning about how they were able to obtain the land certificates from the local land agency in 2020.

Prior to the questioning, a local police officer reportedly told some of the locals not to get involved in the conflict because any holders of land certificates would be arrested.

All these allegations, if true, constitute attempts to criminalize the villagers and silence them, another tactic of the land mafia, according to Gina Sabrina, a project manager with the PBHI, the legal aid association.

“There is intimidation, terror, physical occupation of land such as erecting boards, and efforts to criminalize [the villagers],” she says.

At the same time, TMM is harvesting palm fruit on the contested land in violation of an agreement made with villagers for both sides to not carry out any activities in the area, Syahrul says.

Barita Uli Lumbantobing, a lawyer for TMM, said the villagers don’t have a legitimate claim to the land and reiterated that the company obtained its HGU permit in 1997. He added that the villagers’ occupation of the land had disrupted TMM’s operations.

The police meets the villagers of Suka Mukti in South Sumatra, Indonesia, who occupied the disputed land in protest against palm oil company PT Treekreasi Marga Mulya.

30 years disenfranchised

Sandrayati, the right commissioner, says all parties should refrain from doing anything that could further inflame the dispute.

“The National Land Agency has to declare that there’s a conflict [in the contested land] and they [the company] must therefore stop its activities first in order to create peace there,” she says. “The villagers also have to be calm first to cool the situation down. The National Land Agency can ask the police to create order and peace, and to not side with a particular party. We need to ensure the police are truly neutral here.”

Abu, the villager, echoed the call for not aggravating the tensions and for the police to not take sides.

“Don’t disturb the villagers who are at the location. The police have to be neutral, don’t side with the party that has money,” he says.

He says the government should work to resolve the conflict as soon as possible, given that the villagers’ lack of formal land ownership has now lasted for more than 30 years.

“We’ve been a victim for 30 years, yet we really want to cultivate our own lands,” Abu says. “I ask the president to solve our conflict with the company and the land mafia. Don’t let us, the common people, be victims of the land mafia. If this persists, our country will be destroyed. When will we be free of [the land mafia]?”


Banner image: Excavator working in an oil palm plantation in Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.