Indonesia’s social experiment that went wrong

At the age of 35, farmer Toto Sulistio is already a millionaire.

Over the last year, he has made 10 million rupiah (S$2,000) selling kelapa sawit or palm oil to a local firm, which, in turn, exports it to neighbouring countries.

Mr Sulistio’s bounty was so good that he has built a new house and bought himself a Honda motorcycle.

But 10 years ago, he had nothing. His wife and three sons were living hand to mouth when he left West Java for a 40-hour journey to Pekan Baru in Riau, under a radical social experiment called transmigration.

The government offered him a 2-ha plot in an oil-palm plantation in Sungai Pagar, 20km from the city. Like thousands of other transmigrants in the area, he has never looked back.

“I have never been happier,” he says.

But Mr Sulistio’s experience is but an exception to the rule, in an otherwise-much-maligned policy. Indonesia’s efforts at transmigration, while having its share of pluses, have been deeply negative in its consequences.

Without doubt, it has brought dividends, especially in resource-rich Riau: Proud landowners now earn more from rice and palm oil than they ever did in Java.

But in most other provinces, it has destroyed forests, robbed indigenous tribes of land and spurred widespread corruption.

That is not all.

Scenes of human carnage and the mass exodus of Madurese immigrants in Central Kalimantan are a manifestation of the policy’s failure at demographic engineering.

Aceh, Maluku, Irian Jaya and other eastern Indonesian islands are also facing the brunt of political backlash.

The after-effects of the policy have become a thorn in the side for Jakarta, which is grappling to clear up mistakes of the past, even as transmigration as a policy has now ceased to exist with the birth of regional autonomy.

Ironically, the mass movement of humans was once the only way to defuse the population time-bomb of Java – one of the most densely-populated places on Earth.

It began early last century as a Dutch colonial exercise. It was based on the idea that the under-populated, outer-lying regions could house Java’s teeming millions.

But it was former President Suharto who gave it that extra push to secure the archipelago’s boundaries.

Millions were relocated over three decades in a policy that was planned centrally and bankrolled largely by oil revenues and US$560 million (S$950 million) in World Bank loans, only to be pulled out in the late 1980s, following growing criticism of the project.

To be fair to Jakarta, transmigration had also been driven by economic imperatives.

It was aimed at boosting food supplies and spreading the benefits of economic development. Economic planners had calculated that Java could not remain the engine of growth forever.

Over time, the government linked transmigration to the development of new growth centres, especially in Riau and the eastern provinces of Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, Nusa Tenggara Timor and Irian Jaya.

It pumped in money and developed infrastructure to provide enough pull factors to draw entrepreneurs, investors and workers from other islands.

On the surface, this made the programme more attractive. The longstanding approach then was to provide new immigrants with land, tools, seeds and a basic infrastructure to help them begin new lives.

The development of new plantations, timber and industrial estates, and fishery projects was planned.

New businesses would mean jobs and income for many. It would also mean roads, bridges, houses and telephones in remote areas previously cut off from the world.

But wretched planning threw a spanner in the works.

Take Central Kalimantan, for example. In 1995, Jakarta poured US$430 million into a project there, hoping that a 1.4-million-ha site in Kapuas would be transformed into Indonesia’s new rice basket. How wrong the planners were.

It turned out to be the most expensive debacle in transmigration history. After a year of removing loads of mud and carving out canals for irrigation, contractors produced little more than a rat-infested wasteland.

For the 15,000 Madurese and Javanese immigrants trapped in poor living conditions, farming was not an alternative. Acidic peat soils made agricultural production in their settlement impossible.

That forced many to head for the cities and other areas in the province, marginalising the indigenous Dayak villagers even more as the Madurese took over their land and carved out a niche for themselves in the economy.

As the Dayaks began to settle in towns along the edges of the forest, the slights they felt were more local – from land disputes, petty crime, and a certain pushiness that was ascribed to those Madurese who were perceived increasingly as outsiders.

Strangely enough, the government failed to understand the growing Dayak resentment.

It kept sending in more Madurese to the region, compounding the problem that eventually led to massive rioting there recently.

The political downslide of transmigration is not confined to Kalimantan.

In under-developed Irian Jaya, up to 200,000 people have resettled there since the 1970s, incurring the wrath of locals. The main problem, as with the Dayaks in Kalimantan, is land ownership.

In Irian Jaya, regard for the land has more to do with its place in local culture than its contribution to material wealth. The indigenous tribes lost much of their land after the government destroyed vast tracts of forestry to build transmigration areas.

Irianese resentment eventually took the form of the separatist Free Papua Movement, which attacked immigrant settlements and foreigners working for the Freeport copper mine.

In Aceh, Javanese domination of the economy has caused resentment there.

It was inevitable that as calls for independence gained ground in the restive province, the “Javanese colonisers” were the first targets to be chased out.

Indeed, with regional autonomy coming into force this year, the fate of the transmigrant looks even bleaker and the headache for the central government more severe.

Coupled with the ravaging effects of the economic crisis, local districts want to spend money on the native poor rather than help outsiders, who, they say,is the responsibility of the government. As a result, the displaced migrants are becoming even more dependent on a cash-strapped Jakarta already crying out for investors to break the cycle of dependency by providing funds and retraining.

A more immediate problem – as the bloody saga in Central Kalimantan has shown so clearly – is to resettle families dislocated by violent conflict erupting throughout the country.

Most of the predominantly Javanese refugees in all the different flashpoints have nowhere to go except back to their hometown: Java.

Ethnic identity, after all, is still the strongest bond in a country made up of more than 300 groups.

Riau has been touted as another possible alternative, being one of the few provinces to escape the scathing effects of transmigration.

But given the murderous scars of being rejected elsewhere, one wonders whether there will be any takers this time – even if it offers them the promise of becoming a millionaire like Toto Sulistio.

A moving experience

INDONESIA’S effort at transmigration in the regions of Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, Nusa Tenggara Timor, Irian Jaya and Riau (above), has both benefits, as well as deep negative consequences.

It has brought dividends, for example, in resource-rich Riau, with proud landowners earning more from rice and palm oil than they ever did in Java.

But in most other provinces, it has destroyed forests, robbed indigenous tribes of land and spurred widespread corruption.

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