The Mesuji tragedy, which according a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, is a gross violation of human rights, illustrates well the absurdity of land reform in Indonesia and the brutality of the state laws, policies and apparatuses that are more inclined to large scale, highly capitalist corporations rather than to citizens.
At the heart of the Mesuji problem is land acquisition by large palm oil corporations to expand the palm oil plantation area to increase the production of Crude Palm Oil (CPO), which is currently a sought after product in the global market.
This expansion definitely faces challenges from the indigenous community that have inhabited the land for generations.
Studies have revealed the expensive social costs of expansion in the form of deforestation, destruction of large scale environmental system, alienation, imprisonment, impoverishment of local indigenous people, removal of indigenous people from their land and destruction of diverse floras faunas.
The expansion has also invoked communal conflicts, destroyed vast cultural heritages and customary forests upon which the people have written their history and built their places of worship.
In Indonesia, such problems are sensitive because the land titles of indigenous populations are largely founded upon customary laws.
Several World Bank reports reveal that only 40 percent of ownership in Indonesia can be proved by formal certificates.
Is proof of ownership by customary law a problem? I don’t think so. Do you need a formal letter to prove that the nose on your face is yours? Customary laws of humanity confirm that this nose belongs to you. Moreover, the ownership of land by customary law is recognized by the United Nations under Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
The international law clearly states that “indigenous rights to land derive from custom not from any act of the State which they may in any case predate.
These rights endure unless the State explicitly extinguishes these rights due legal process and provides appropriate compensation to the rights holders” (Colchester 2010).
Customary law is also recognized by the 1945 Constitution. Unfortunately, the agrarian law considers customary rights (hak ulayat) as weak rights and customary lands as state property that people must give way when the state wants them for development projects.
Therefore, many cases of land acquisition, including for palm oil industry, are conducted without the consent of the indigenous population and compensation. In fact there is an ordinance in 1999 that permits the titling of customary rights but there is no significant follow up for implementation.
Therefore, the potential for human rights violations in land acquisition for industry are pervasive. Since 2004, human rights organizations have reported widespread violations related to the issue.
But these violations are not as high profile as Mesuji case, because the latter involves brutality and a display of violence thanks to the advancement in information and communication technology, such as mobile phones and the Internet.
There are efforts to mislead the public by broadcast of beheading of people, which allegedly took place in South Thailand, but the controversy should not kill the main issue.
Whatever the political maneuvering behind the case, Sumatra is particularly burning now because the palm industry is flexing its muscles with high intensity on the island. The expansion is also increasing in Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Papua, but not at the same intensity as in Sumatra.
The message of the Mesuji case is that Indonesia should resolve the absurdity and the brutality of Indonesian agrarian policy, which benefits the business rather than the indigenous community. Logically, every investment should create prosperity to the local indigenous population.
In a conflict like this, it is very important to expand the concept of human rights to include the third generation of human rights, which recognizes collective and indigenous rights, as opposed to the first and the second generation of human rights, which emphasizes individual rights.
Whereas the first generation of human rights emphasized civil and political rights and the second generation of human rights civil, political, economic and cultural rights, the third generation places more emphasis on the problems of local communities, their collective rights as customary communities, indigenous people and the environmental dimension of development.
The third generation of human rights includes a broader aspect of human rights, such as group and collective rights, the right to self-determination, the right to economic and social development, the right to a healthy environment, the right to natural resources, the right to communicate and communication rights, the right to participate in cultural heritage and the right to intergenerational equity and sustainability.
In Indonesia, where each year it is reported that there are 700 to 1,000 cases of disputes between palm oil developers and local communities, the concept of the third generation of human rights is very important.
A number of countries have developed mechanisms to safeguard the third generation of human rights, such as Finland, Hungary and New Zealand. Indonesia, a country rich with ritual and cultural communities, should follow suit.
The tragedy also reveals the cheap values of humanity in this nation. To be a great nation, the nation should uplift humanity. “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence,” Martin Luther Jr. said.
It is mandatory for Indonesia to promote humanity in its agrarian reform. Otherwise, the nation will continue to deal with conflicts over customary land and show its corrupt, chaotic and immoral face.
The writer is a researcher at the Center for Cultural Pluralism, Democracy and Character Building, Semarang State University (UNNES).