The Multinational Monitor

October 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 10


Uprooting People,
Destroying Cultures

Indonesia's Transmigration Program

by Carolyn Marr

Despite objections by human rights and environmental organizations, the Indonesian government and the international lending community defend and continue the controversial transmigration program which moves poor farming families from the crowded islands of Java, Bali and Madura to less densely populated islands of the archipelago. Human rights organizations charge that the program destroys indigenous communities, and environmentalists focus on its ecological devastation, including deforestation. The Indonesian government dismisses these concerns, arguing that transmigration is necessary to reduce overpopulation and develop undeveloped territories, and asserting that everyone benefits from the program.

The government claims that families participating in the transmigration program do so voluntarily. Indeed, as its supporters describe it, the government's offer is very attractive. In theory, participants receive two hectares of land, a house and the basic necessities which enable them to build new, more prosperous lives in settlements with schools, health facilities and access to markets. The conditions in which transmigrants actually live, however, are less appealing. They are sent to Sumatra, Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), Sulawesi, the Moluccas and most controversially, the disputed territories of West Papua referred to as "Irian Jaya" by the Indonesian government) and East Timor where the land is infertile and there are few or no facilities. Most find their living conditions worse than on their native islands.

There is little public criticism of transmigration within Indonesia, where the government ruthlessly suppresses democratic organizations and press freedoms and imposes harsh prison sentences on those who dare question Indonesia's presence in those disputed territories. President Suharto's 25-year-old military regime tolerates no dissent.

Millions of people have already been resettled under transmigration, the world's largest resettlement program. And the program is growing rapidly. According to official data, between 1950 and 1986, 698,200 families (about 3.5 million people) were moved, most of them to Sumatra. In 1985, Indonesia intensified the program and announced a five-year transmigration target of 750,000 families (3.75 million people). When critics voiced objections, the transmigration department backtracked, saying, "We are realizing that it may now be impossible to achieve this ambitious target, because of unpredictable budgetary constraints and related problems." Nevertheless, the lack of funds was overcome by encouraging the participation of self-financing transmigrants. The target for the current five- year plan (1989-1994) is 550,000 families (2.5 million people), requiring an estimated 4.5 million hectares of land.

Population transfer or territorial management?

In 1987, Indonesia's Ministry of Transmigration claimed, "Transmigration is the name of the Republic's bold program to help spur the development of the sprawling island nation and give its poorest families the chance to own their land and significantly improve their living standards." It went on to list the aims of the resettlement program: to encourage development; raise living standards; generate new jobs; increase food and tree crop production; relieve population pressure; control environmental degradation; and foster greater national interdependence.

In fact, internal documents of the government's transmigration department acknowledge that transmigration does not achieve its publicly stated goals: it makes virtually no dent in the population pressure on Java and it exacerbates the country's environmental degradation instead of reducing it, as forests are destroyed to make way for the new sites.

The Transmigration Ministry does not mention, however, one of transmigration's most important goals: national defense and security. The World Bank makes the same omission in its justifications for continued funding. But at home, Indonesian officials have been very clear about it. In 1989, for example, Defense Minister General Murdani said that transmigration is not only concerned with population redistribution but is "related to the importance of territorial development," which means "spreading out human resources as a defense and security potential." Transmigration Minister Lieutenant General Soegiarto also included strengthening defense and security when he described the program's purpose. In practice, this means resettling ethnic Javanese in sensitive border areas. The government also plans to populate border sites with retired army personnel. One such settlement was established in 1986 on the island of Natuna, located in the China Sea between Borneo and Vietnam. And according to the head of the provincial transmigration office, 500 retired army families will soon be sent to the Malaysian border in West Kalimantan.


Transmigration promoters say the program is voluntary. But an official in the province of Aceh described transmigrants as "poor people who were thrown out of Java like rubbish." Indeed, some of those who end up at transmigrant sites, including beggars and vagrants, have been rounded up in some of the larger cities and bundled off to transmigration sites. One site established especially for this category is on the island of Buru, where thousands of political prisoners were sent in the wake of President Suharto's 1965 anti-communist reign of terror.

As part of a campaign to "modernize" Jakarta, government officials confiscated the vehicles of the becak (trishaw) drivers who throng the streets of many Javanese cities, and sent the drivers to start new lives as farmers on other islands. Some families join the ranks of transmigrants after natural disasters such as floods and volcanic eruptions destroy their land, while others--such as the families displaced by the World Bank-funded Kedung Ombo Dam in Central Java--are coerced into joining to make way for large-scale development projects. In Gresik, a major industrial zone of Java, people living on land earmarked to accommodate the expansion of a chemical plant have been offered transmigration as an escape from the increased pollution.

But the bulk of transmigrants are drawn from landless and poor farmers. On Java, where 60 percent of Indonesia's population lives on only 7 percent of the total land area, the population density is one of the highest in the world. Still, industrial and tourist projects gobble up more and more land, exacerbating the land squeeze and accelerating the marginalization of poor farmers. Transmigrants are lectured about the scarcity of land in Java and Bali as a justification for transmigration, while big business interests with ties to the Suharto family announce plans for luxury tourist resorts, golf courses, industrial estates and chemical complexes. Transmigration is primarily a "safety valve," designed to defuse pressure for the redistribution of land and for political change.

A catalogue of failures

A recent survey by a French consultant found that 80 percent of sites fail to improve the living standards of transmigrants. Even Indonesia's Transmigration Minister, Lieutenant General Soegiarto, admits that conditions in 903 sites throughout Indonesia concern the government. Similarly, the World Bank acknowledged this year that the expectation that transmigrants would raise their household incomes through the introduction of cash crops has not been met. The Bank reports that agricultural support services and supply of inputs are "inadequate;" access roads are "of poor quality and inadequately managed;" and the general management and coordination of the program is "weak."

The Indonesian daily, Kompas, recently outlined the problems faced by transmigrants on one of the earliest sites. Settlement began in Kurik, in the southern part of West Papua, even before the territory had been officially incorporated into Indonesia. Here, where the soil is rock-hard in the dry season and waterlogged in the wet season, the meager crops that can be grown are likely to be devoured by pests.

Women usually fare worse than men when families transmigrate; they have no part in the decision to transmigrate, and they receive no training or preparation for the move. Typically, the men are forced to leave the site, often for months at a time, to find work after the government support has run out. The women must stay behind to tend the plot and look after the children. Kurik, however, was an exception. There the women left the site--with the blessings of their husbands--to become prostitutes in the town.

Many transmigration sites have been abandoned altogether. One woman, living in makeshift accommodations in the provincial capital after leaving a settlement, says "the land was too acidic to grow crops and there were so many mice." She and other "failed " transmigrants eke out a living as rubbish recyclers. Others live on the rubbish dump itself. These people are not calculated in the rate of return to Java, which signifies the failure of the program and which is officially at least 15 percent.

Government spending on transmigration was cut during the mid-eighties slump in the price of oil, Indonesia's major foreign exchange earner. Falling revenues from the oil sector and the spiralling foreign debt left fewer funds for the program. A plan to save money by encouraging transmigrants to pay their way to the site (370,000 of the current 550,000 families target is for these so-called "spontaneous" transmigrants) was introduced and the program was directed away from the original food crop model to state-run or private plantations and processing projects for export.

Transmigrants working on these projects, which were first introduced in the mid-eighties, are given a house and 0.25 hectares for growing subsistence foods and are required to work on a plantation as wage laborers. After a number of years, the transmigrants are supposed to gain ownership of plantation plots and from then on sell their produce to a processing plant. In reality, projects rarely reach this stage; instead transmigrants are exploited as cheap labor.

The government responds to the failure of many sites by blaming the transmigrants themselves. Last year, Vice President Sudharmono told transmigrants in South Kalimantan who appealed to him for funds to improve their site that they should use their own skills and resources. "Don't rely only on the government and don't wait for divine intervention to overcome your problems," he said. Sudharmono surely would not approve, however, of the increasingly popular survival tactic which the transmigrants have developed on their own: families register as transmigrants, receive free government supplies for the six-month period, and then sell their land, return to Java and re-register as transmigrants to begin the whole cycle again.

Transmigrants as colonists

The families which are thrown out of Java and Bali are not the only ones to suffer. The indigenous communities and the environment at the transmigration sites are also victims of the program.

The government claims that the islands are appropriate sites for the new settlements because they are "virtually empty" or "underpopulated." But it is no accident that the population density is lower than in Java; the rainforests there cover thin soils which cannot sustain intensive agriculture without the massive and unsustainable use of fertilizers. The indigenous peoples of these islands have evolved strategies to live in and from the forests without destroying them, but they are being displaced by transmigration settlements. They are losing their land because the Indonesian government refuses to recognize their traditional land rights. And their indigenous cultural heritage is threatened with extinction by the large influx of outsiders.

Some indigenous groups have responded militantly to the invasion of their territory. A government official in Aceh expressed particular pity for transmigrants who he said had been "thrown out of Java," and were now being chased out of Aceh too--in fear for their lives. A recent upsurge of separatist violence in the province, where, alongside the military and police, transmigrants have come to symbolize Javanese domination of this fiercely Islamic region, has prompted thousands of settlers to abandon their sites. The violence is partly inspired by Acehnese opposition to the large mining, gas, oil and pulp and paper projects which are exploiting Aceh's resources but which are controlled by Jakarta. Many Javanese transmigrants in Aceh have returned to Java with all their portable possessions to escape attacksbythe Free Aceh Movement.

Attacks on transmigrants have also been reported at the Arso transmigration site close to the Papua New Guinea border in West Papua, where the transmigration program is widely seen as a direct attempt to outnumber the indigenous inhabitants. The indigenous people's resentment is justified; outsiders identify their traditional land as suitable for transmigration, clear their forests, destroy their sacred sites and deny them their basic needs. Then the government gives them the "choice" of joining a transmigration site where they will live as a minority group.

The notion that indigenous people am "backward" and "primitive" informs the policy of the Social Affairs Ministry, the government ministry reponsible for their interests. If not relocated directly on transmigration sites, many communities are resettled in transmigration-style accommodations locally, under the development program for "isolated tribes."

As "local transmigrants," they are expected to learn what are considered advanced agricultural techniques from the Javanese newcomers, whose intensive farming methods are generally not suited to the vastly different soils and climatic conditions of the islands.

The prejudice against traditional forms of agriculture runs deep; the government blames shifting cultivators for forest destruction despite the fact that they have used the land in a sustainable manner for generations. The same prejudice is found in the international community; before leaving to take up his post as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, John Monjo told the Committee on Foreign Relations that some of the residents of West Papua, "are virtually stone-age people ... [who] might do better" if they were able to live with Javanese and Balinese transmigrants who are "fairly advanced in their farming techniques."

Indigenous communities regard transmigration as a major threat. In the submission to the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, the Netherlands-based West Papua Volksfront said, "it is because of the transmigration projects and activities of transnational corporations that Papuans are forced to leave their ancestral homeland... Jakarta's homogenizing approach to development, i.e. the creation of a centralized state, poses a threat to the lifestyle and culture of the Papuans and therefore creates antagonism and social unrest."

The World Bank propping up transmigration

Despite the plethora of criticisms and problems, the World Bank has invested a total of US$500 million in the transmigration program since 1976. Campaigners have long sought to pressure the World Bank and other donors to withdraw their support, but the money keeps rolling in. In response to criticism, the Bank has limited its funding to the improvement of existing sites. But this simply enables the Indonesian government to spend more of its transmigration funds on establishing new resettlement sites.

Indonesia also collects large amounts of bilateral support for the program. Canadian funds are directed to transmigration in Sulawesi. German money funded a transmigration site improvement scheme in East Kalimantan, and Japan donated tractors and pesticide sprayers for sites in Sumatra. The UK government Overseas Development Administration has carried out a land satellite mapping project to identify suitable sites for transmigration.

Cheap labor

With the support of the World Bank, the Indonesian government is relying more heavily on transmigration as a component of its efforts to develop the non-petroleum sectors of the economy. Transmigrants are increasingly used as cheap labor, just as Javanese were exploited by the Dutch colonial administration under kolonisasi, the forerunner of the transmigration program which procured labor to work on plantations in Sumatra. Two hundred thousand families are destined for plantations under the current five-year plan. The transmigration department also plans to send 40,000 transmigrant families to work on new-style timber estate projects, 90,000 to fisheries and 40,000 to tertiary industries.

How successful these plans will be is uncertain. In March, transmigrants working on an oil-palm estate in Central Sulawesi protested about wages too low to buy basic necessities, and in East Kalimantan hundreds of transmigrants abandoned their sites to seek work elsewhere, as they could no longer survive on the wages paid by the company.

More certain are the effects of plantations, timber estates and other massive development projects on indigenous communities, since they deprive indigenous people of their subsistence resources. Recently, yet another product was made available for commercial exploitation. Sagindo Sari Lestari, a company owned by Indonesia's most powerful timber tycoon, Bob Hasan, has been licensed to process sago a staple food of many indigenous peoples for export from a 45,000 hectare concession in Bintuni Bay, West Papua. The government will bring 200 transmigrant families to the site to work for the company.

International parallels

Indonesia garners support for the resettlement program from many countries which have implemented similar plans. In a recent meeting with Transmigration Minister Soegiarto, Japan's ambassador to Indonesia praised the transmigration program and likened it to Japan's own scheme to resettle its northernmost island, Hokkaido, in the last century. Indonesia has also drawn parallels between transmigration and the homesteading program of the western United States a hundred years ago. Officials say the United States was "knitting together a continent and developing underutilized land into one of the most productive areas of the world." But these complimentary comparisons fail to point out that in each case, resettlement was achieved at the expense of indigenous people the traditional owners of the land. Like the indigenous Ainu of Hokkaido and the Native American communities in the United States before them, the indigenous people of the Indonesian islands are in danger of annihilation.

Carolyn Marr works in London on a project, managed by Survival International, which monitors environmental and development issues in Indonesia.

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