New Internationalist

Paradise Promised

November 1987

This feature was published in the November issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

new internationalist
issue 177 - November 1987

Paradise promised
To slum dwellers and peasants in overcrowded Java
the promise of land, a house and a new life on Indonesia's
outer islands is hard to resist. But the reality is somewhat different...
Marcus Colchester traces how the world's biggest transmigration
programme has turned heaven into hell.

He felt nervous as he boarded the big-bellied Hercules transporter, its roaring engines frightening the children. But there was no turning back now. The decision had been made. And a new life awaited Sarinem Wiroyorejo and his family in the rainforests of the island of Sumatra.

When they arrived several hours later they were given two hectares of cleared land, a simple wooden house and enough tools, food and pesticides to set themselves up as subsistence farmers. Within 12 months these hard-working pioneers had managed to produce seven tons of rice from their plot.

'This year we will be lucky to get three tons, despite the use of fertilisers,' Sarinem now laments.

What has gone wrong? Much the same as in north-western Brazil or any other part of the world where the great green hoax is being played out. However fertile they may seem, tropical rainforests have extremely delicate ecosystems that simply cannot support either arable or pastoral farming for any length of time. Methods that produce good harvests in Java can produce next to nothing in the forest wildernesses of the outer islands.

Sarinem was relatively lucky. Some transmigrants have got into such dire straits that rural women have turned to prostitution in the islands' new towns and there are even cases of families selling their children. Others have saved what they can and returned to the poverty of their original homes.

One such migrant is Ibu Praptiwijono, a 36-year-old mother of six. Persuaded by government propaganda she and her husband decided to transmigrate in 1978.

'We were offered a place in what they said was a rice-growing area. We'd always wanted to be able to eat rice, so of course we accepted. Off we went to South Kalimantan, full of optimism.'

They tilled the land and planted the seeds they had been given but the soil was too sandy and nothing grew.

'We tried not to lose heart. When the second year came we could no longer expect to receive rice seeds. There was no choice but to start eating cassava again, just as we had always done.' But what most bothered Ibu Praptiwijono was that there was no school for her children. So, like thousands of others, she gave up and returned home. 'Even if the children only eat cassava now, at least they can go to school, that gives us hope. Let us pray they'll make a success of their lives when they grow up.

In spite of such stories of failure, applicants for transmigration are not in short supply. Three million have migrated during the past five years, urged on by exaggerated government promises and posters extolling the virtues of rugged frontier life. The chance of owning a house and two hectares of land can prove irresistible to hapless squatters in and around Jakarta. 'You would not be able to obtain such facilities if you waited till the end of the world,' Jakarta's Deputy Governor exhorts a group of transmigrants undergoing brief training before being sent off to South Sumatra.

Not all the migrants leave their homes so willingly. For those whose lands have been expropriated by development schemes like dams and mines on Java, transmigration is their only offer of compensation. City vagrants, prostitutes and leprosy sufferers have also been rounded up and urged to join the programme.

Much of the funding for this expensive scheme is provided by the United Nations agencies, the World Bank and other major development institutions - all of which are committed to pumping money into the flagging Indonesian economy.

With over two thirds of the country's 165 million people crowded onto only seven per cent of the national territory, the move to resettle people onto the more sparsely inhabited outer islands appears to make sense. But appearances are deceptive. Not only do the fragile forest soils produce little, but outside links with markets for their produce are poor. Surpluses are left to rot unsold.

Reluctantly the international support agencies are beginning to admit that the ambitious plan doesn't make sense. At $10,000 per family, the costs far outstrip any benefits, while even the settlers themselves are, on average, worse off than the people on Java. In fact it is only by doing casual labour off the farm, usually in the towns, that the majority of migrants can survive.

This puts an added strain on the women who stay on the settlements while their husbands are away. Socially isolated on their individual homesteads, many struggle to feed their families. Not only do they lack government services such as schools and clinics, but they have also lost the support network of friends, neighbours and relatives that lightened the burdens of life back home.

Sometimes migrants are forced by crop failure to move deeper into the forests to clear fresh plots by slashing and burning. The bounty is short-lived. Heavy tropical rains soon wash away the few nutrients the burnt forest gave to the soil and it is soon time to move on again.

The forest loss has reached worrying proportions. A recent study by three Indonesian Government departments concluded that transmigration was the single most dangerous threat to the nation's forests and is likely to cause the loss of an area of forest the size of Belgium during the current five-year plan.

But those who have suffered most from the programme are the tribal peoples who live in the forests of the outer islands. Their land has been expropriated. Deprived of territorial rights they are 'compensated' by being resettled on their own lands. In the new settlements they are a despised minority, expected to adjust to an alien way of life almost overnight.

These tribal people have every reason to feel bitter. As Paulus, chief of the Benyum tribe of the Nimboran valley in West Papua, pointed out 'To this day we have not received any of the compensation which the Government promised'. Many have abandoned the settlements and returned to what is left of their lands. One who has remained explained: 'We feel like foreigners here'.

Conflicting concepts of land-ownership underlie the yawning culture gap. For the Papuans, land is not an economic commodity to be bought and sold. Rather it is the source of their being a cultural heritage bestowed on them by their ancestors which the living hold in trust for generations yet to come: those whom they refer to as 'our children who are still in the soil'.

For these people, transmigration is nothing less than a Government-sponsored invasion of their lands which forces them to give up their culture and traditions. In West Papua this has led to clashes between local peoples determined to retain control of their lands and Government soldiers intent on 'development' whatever the costs. Thousands of refugees have fled across the border into Papua New Guinea, bearing horrific reports of massacres, rape and the pillage of their communities by the Indonesian military.

Despite the problems, Government commitment to transmigration has not waned. As it has manifestly failed to satisfy its stated aims of alleviating the lot of the Javanese poor, the programme's underlying objectives have become clear. Jakarta's military regime wants to have total control over the far-flung empire of 3,000 islands that it inherited from the Dutch. Trans-migration is essential to this welding together of the archipelago into a single unified nation state. And there is a strong racist element in this policy, with Javanese migrants being urged to settle on the lands of the racially distinct Papuans and intermarry with them. In the words of the governor of the territory: 'This will give birth to a new generation of people without curly hair, sowing the seeds for greater beauty.' It will also help to obliterate tribal culture, which is seen by the authorities as an obstacle to development

In recent years the transmigration programme has come under fire from international human rights and environmental organizations, calling for a suspension of international aid. Even the US Senate has criticized the World Bank for its continued funding of the scheme.

In response to this - and a deep recession in the economy - the Indonesian Government announced earlier this year a 65-per-cent cut in its transmigration budget. Now the Government is trying to achieve its goals more cheaply, by 'privatizing' transmigration. The idea is to increase the number of 'spontaneous' migrants, those who move within the government's overall programme but at their own expense.

Finally realizing the futility of trying to transpose inappropriate farming systems from Java to the outer islands, the settlers are now being encouraged to enrol as smallholders on vast rubber and palm-oil plantations. Meanwhile, to ease the sudden shortage of cash, the Government is offering tax incentives to private investors. But what about the pawns in this giant chess game?

Marcus Coichester is a project director of Survival International.

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