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La terre d’en face

Patrice Levang

Summary. The land beyond (Tanah sabrang)

Transmigration in Indonesia

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1With a population of 180 million in 1990, Indonesia displays substantial demographie imbalance between the ‘inner islands’ (Java, Madura and Bali) and the ‘outer islands’ of the archipelago (Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Irian Jaya). Java alone houses 60 percent of the population of Indonesia in 7 percent of the total area of the country. The imbalance is longstanding, since in 1905 the Dutch colonial government attempted to correct the situation by organising an agricultural colonisation programme for the peripheral islands under the name of Kolonisatie. After independence, this programme was continued until the present day as Transmigrasi.

2Transmigration is intended to be both a social policy and a development policy. It is aimed at helping the poorest people, landless peasants, urban unemployed and everybody suffering from exclusion. It is also aimed at developing the outer islands, at cultivating their immense unused areas and turning uncultivated land into fertile, productive farms. It is accessorily intended at contributing to the establishment of national unity by enhancing the integration of tribal populations in the Indonesian Nation.

3The history of transmigration since 1905 has had its ups and clowns and its hopes and disappointments. During the euphoric phases, the programme speeds up and the zeros rush into rows in the planners statistics, but thousands of families of colonists find themselves in difficulty. During the phases of doubt, priority is awarded to correcting past mistakes and improving the quality of the colonisation centres. The quantity versus quality dilemma has been found to be insoluble. The establishment of high quality infrastructure is the prime factor for the success of a colony but results in a high cost per family installed and hence a decrease in the total number of families relocated. However, as it is conceived, the programme is only of interest if it covers a large number of migrants, assuming maximum reduction of the installation cost per family.

4The multiplicity of the programme’s objectives and motivations (and their fluctuations according to overall policies) makes it difficult to draw up a balance after 90 years of its existence. The objective of reducing the Indonesian demographic imbalance has never been attained. The programme officially relocated 6.4 million persons from 1905 to 1990. During the same period, the population of Java increased from 30 million to 108 million! Transmigration has had a more distinct effect in the outer islands. Lampung province had a population of 150 000 in 1905 and 6 million in 1990, 78 percent of whom were migrants or children of migrants. The geopolitical role of the programme can be seen clearly. Even if the integration of autochthons and migrants is imperfect, the numerical importance of the latter acts as a decisive brake on any separatist inclination.

5Transmigration has had its champions and detractors since it began. Those in favour obviously include all those involved in the programme and all those who may reap a benefit of some kind from the operation. The critics consist of those who consider that transmigration should be stopped because it does not perform its mission and those who consider that it succeeds too well! The second category includes the defenders of tribal societies threatened with acculturation and the defenders of tropical forests threatened with clearance.

6In fact, the debate sets aside the important question of whether transmigration is a policy suited to the problem/s that the public authorities wish to solve. The author considers that the difficulties encountered by transmigration are not the results of problems of implementation but of the ambiguous design of the programme from the beginning. Indeed, justification of transmigration is based on simplistic reasoning that has never been questioned: (1) overpopulation = misery and (2) underpopulation = underdevelopment. Comparison of propositions (1) and (2) produces an ‘obvious’ solution: the people without land should be taken to the lands without people. The new equation is expressed as: social policy + development policy = transmigration.

7The first proposition is derived from the combination of a Malthusian view of the effect of population growth and a homogenising, static view of Javanese peasant society. The second implies that the natives of the outer islands are ‘incapable’ of using the rich potential of their natural environment. Both of them are wrong. Finally, the third fundamental error of the designers of the programme was that only one development model was chosen: the intensive farming of food crops.


8It is first necessary to analyse the opposition between people without land and land without people in order to perceive the fundamental ambiguity of transmigration. Java has not always been ‘overpopulated’. However, the population grew steadily during the nineteenth century and then increased rapidly in the twentieth century. Population densities in Java kindle imaginations even more. However, the refrain is always the same. With 219 persons per sq. km in 1900, Java was dangerously overpopulated; in 1990, with 818 persons per sq. km, Java was still overpopulated. Although the population had meanwhile more than tripled and per capita income had increased considerably, overpopulation was still the cause of peasant misery.

9The Javanese rural world attempted to adjust rice production to population increase from the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards, but the land was all used by 1930. Any increase in rice production henceforth required improvement of irrigation to allow two crops per year. The increase in population and rice production remained parallel until 1942. They then diverged substantially with the Japanese occupation, the struggles for independence and the Sukarno administration and only closed again with the implementation of the Green Revolution from the end of the 1960s onwards.

10The inner islands are not overpopulated. However, their large populations mean that not all pensants have access to land ownership or can ensure their subsistence by farming alone. Land ownership (and the social status linked with it) is still the main motivation of transmigration applicants. The ministry can refine its selection criteria but transmigration will always only interest landless peasants, day labourers and small sharecroppers, that is to say unskilled farmers. An ideal colonist—young, vigorous, intelligent and enterprising—will have better things to do than apply for transmigration.


11In contrast with Java, the low population density of the outer islands is accompanied by extensive forest cover. The causes of the underpopulation of the outer islands have always been the subject of much controversy. It seems particularly difficult to determine the respective shares of ecological, sanitary, economic, social, cultural, political and other factors.

12Whatever the reason, the facts are undeniable: the outer islands possess the land resources lacking in Java. Unfortunately, these resources are rarely suitable for agricultural colonisation projects. Indeed, the best land has already been appropriated by the autochthons. Non-appropriated land resources are mainly in three categories: land with difficult access (far from natural lines of communication), land of mediocre fertility (podzols, acid soils, Imperata wasteland) and land that is difficult to farm (marshland, thick peat and potentially acid sulphate soils).

13The cropping Systems used by the autochthons in Sumatra and Kalimantan are not very intensive (slash and burn cultivation, agroforestry) and are wrongly considered as being archaic or even primitive. On the contrary, they are an excellent adaptation to the constraints and potential of the natural and human environment of these regions. The differences in the perception of their environment by the Javanese and autochthons in the outer islands can lead to serious conflicts. For a Javanese, a plot of forest regrowth is a scandalous wasteland. For a Dayak, forest fallow is the main guarantee of a high return for his labour. The former sees only free land whereas for the latter it is inalienable property. Conflicts of interest are not limited to relations with the autochthons. The Ministry of Forestry, the forestry companies, large plantation companies and, more recently, the defenders of tropical forest and native peoples also exert contradictory pressures.

14In the worst case, transmigrants may be considered as despoilers. However, as a whole, the autochthons view the arrival of colonists fairly favourably. But they do not fully imagine how quickly they will be totally submerged by the flood of immigrants and they do not realise that they will soon form no more than an ethnic minority in the land of their ancestors.


15For the central government it is unthinkable to propose an ‘archaic, expensive and dangerous System’ such as slash and burn to transmigrants. As the main vehicle for agricultural development in the outer islands, transmigration should promote ‘modem’ Systems—that is to say intensive ones. The ministry technocrats have always professed boundless faith in technique and the ability of man to tame nature. Like Boserup, they consider population growth to be the driving force behind agrarian evolution, expressing this in simpler terms as ‘transmigration = intensification’. For them, agricultural intensification is more a dogma than a paradigm. This faith in transmigration is seen in the choice of cropping Systems proposed to transmigrants: intensive, continuons rice growing on 2 ha per family under irrigation, tidal effect or upland rice. Weeds will grow? Hoeing and ploughing will deal with them. Chemical fertility deficiencies? We shall apply fertiliser. Pests? Pesticides. Cost? The transmigrants provide the labour and inputs are subsidised. No doubt that the success of Javanese agriculture can be transposed to Sumatra or Kalimantan. No doubt that Javanese and Balinese farmers are better than those of the outer islands.


16In addition to a permanent option for intensive farming Systems, there has been a succession of four main types of project in the recent history of transmigration: irrigation projects, Coastal marsh developments, rainfed food crops and perennial crops.

17After the experimental phase of Kolonisatie the Dutch administration reached the conclusion that only irrigated projects were likely to succeed. The colonial administration had not the slightest doubt that Javanese farmers were incapable of growing anything other than lowland rice. However, the role of irrigation is more complex than it would appear at first sight.

18From the agronomic point of view, control of water results in a whole series of benefits for the soil and the crop. Even without high yielding varieties, fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide, irrigated rice growing gives yields of some 2 tonnes of paddy rice per hectare year in and year out and with a stable work load known beforehand. From the économic point of view, irrigation enables farmers to improve labour productivity and, above all, to reduce crop risks. This relative crop security seems decisive. Indeed, security induces the confidence that is essential for the farmer to be able to make an investment. This alone can convince farmers to take credit. This is also the reason for the strong over-valuing of land in rice zones. A rice field is more than a resource for production as it also serves as an insurance policy. A farmer who is obliged to stop work because of illness, disability or age will have no trouble finding a sharecropper who will provide him with a regular income equivalent to half the harvest. Finally, from the social point of view, becoming the owner of a rice field gives access to the higher levels of Javanese peasant society. Being a member of one of the founding families of the village ensures prestige reserved for an elite. Although there is no doubt that irrigation is essential for transmigration, the attraction for irrigated rice growing is such that one might wonder if transmigration is truly essential for irrigated developments.


19In turning the Coastal marshes of Sumatra and Kalimantan into rice fields, transmigration aimed at creating new Indonesian rice granaries. The Coastal marshes cover large, uninterrupted areas, are easily accessible from the sea or rivers and have rarely been appropriated by the autochthons, whence the almost complete absence of conflicts of interest. In spite of the difficulty of operations, spontaneous Bugis and Banjar immigrants have proved in both Sumatra and Kalimantan that these marshes can be converted into productive rice fields and coconut plantations. For the administration, where Bugis and Banjar had succeeded, Javanese and transmigration could not fail. The first trials led to a gigantic development project for all the Coastal marshes in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The first two five-year plans (1969-1974 and 1974-1979) awarded priority to the transmigration projects of the pasang surut type (literally ‘flood and ebb’). The name pasang surut shows that the irrigation and drainage of the rice fields are driven by tidal movements. The projects were expensive because primary and secondary canals had to be dug, but as the latter were also used for transport purposes, no road infrastructure was provided.

20The generalisation of the model soon resulted in catastrophe. Transmigration frequently operated behind the zones already developed by Bugis and Banjar. In most cases, development was performed in areas not taken by the spontaneous migrants because of a deep layer of peat or insufficient tidal amplitude. The situation became difficult in most centres but not desperate. Twofold selection occurred in time. The least favourable locations were soon abandoned (zones upstream of networks and areas with a thick peat layer) and the least enthusiastic migrants left, passing their land to others, thus allowing the use of more extensive techniques better suited to the environmental conditions. There is no doubt that transmigration had improved the standard of living and social status of the colonists still at the centres ten years after they were opened. However, they remember long years of adaptation and many abandons. The bitterest of them talk in terms of sacrificed generation.


21Towards the end of the 1970s, the need to attain the ever more ambitions objectives of the plan required that the installation cost per family should be reduced to a minimum. The hopes placecl in Coastal developments had been disappointed and a new model was favoured—upland farming food crop projects. Thanks to progress in agricultural science, absence of irrigation was no longer considered to be a handicap. Use of Chemical fertilisers was considered to overcome the problem of mediocre soil fertility.

22The extension of Green Revolution recipes to cover upland farming was nevertheless more difficult than expected. The migrants did not adopt the intensive cropping Systems that were recommended. The authorities ascribed the refusal to their lack of technical skill and capital. This explanation does not stand up to examination since even well-off colonists with a high level of technical skills rejected the models proposed. In fact, the latter were not as good as their designers claimed. Intensive rainfed cropping involves high input and labour costs and it is difficult to forecast crop yields under pioneer conditions. Firstly, migrants have very incomplete knowledge of their new environment and its soil and climate—in short, of its production capability. Secondly, rodents, wild boar or even elephants can suddenly reduce several months’ work to nothing. Is it surprising under these conditions that farmers hesitated to use credit for the purchase of tire inputs that were essential for intensive cropping? The cropping Systems proposed were refused because of the high level of risk.


23Convinced that the plantation Systems such as FELDA in Malaysia were unsuited to Indonesian conditions, transmigration officials started by only introducing perennial crops as a complement to food crops. The Batumarta centre was to serve as a trial. The colonists’ enthusiasm for rubber growing surprised everybody. Javanese farmers’ ‘attachment to age-old traditions’ did not stand up for long to the attractions of rubber growing, with its high, steady and reliable return and above all a 25-fold better return on family labour than for food crops. Only the investment cost could then slow the generalisation of the model.

24Batumarta proved that a transmigration centre could be profitable. It is becoming fully envisageable to ask the private sector to become involved in transmigration. Transmigrants have enormous advantages over ordinary workers for plantation companies. As they own their plots, they have to repay the credit awarded for planting. They form a stable labour reserve that can be used as required. They are not permanent employees and cannot claim rights front the companies. Not only is field management not controlled by the colonists, but they have no control over the plantation companies. However, the latter do not hesitate to appeal to the police to force the colonists to respect their undertakings. What has become of the social objectives of transmigration in this new context?


25Although it proposes alternative models for farming, transmigration provides only a single response to multiple problems, but is this solution finally the right one?

26Like the great movements of agricultural colonisation in the world, transmigration is first of all the search for an outlet for the excess population of the inner islands. It is also occasionally a way of indemnifying the victims of natural catastrophes and compulsory purchase and more rarely a method for removing undesirable persons (Depsos projects). Transmigration is obviously a way of achieving better distribution of the labour force by enabling access to land for those who have none. It is a way of farming the outer islands with the introduction of intensive farming practices that are more productive and less demanding in terms of land area. By homogenising space and facilitating the integration of minorities, transmigration enhances national development. Finally, it makes a contribution to national defence by preventing separatist inclinations and populating frontier zones.

27The agricultural colonisation of an area is never the resuit of chance or the work of a group of isolated adventurers. It is always a voluntary, conscious action aimed at modifying the distribution of a population in an area. Agricultural colonisation is the expression of the clearly expressed determination of a State to develop the country. Intervention can take many forms but whatever the level of this, agricultural colonisation is above all performed by strong States with structured, centralised organisation.


28The maintaining of transmigration is becoming rooted in history. As post-war Transmigrasi relayed the Kolonisatie of the colonial period, Kolonisatie was only the last avatar of the Javanese agrarian kingdoms.

29Lowland rice is not the last stage of the intensification of an agrarian System under the effect of population growth but the deliberate choice of a type of development. The control of water and the social organisation that are both an inherent part of the model make it possible to prevent famine and to assemble the conditions that enhance population growth. This cropping System is already extremely labour-intensive and hardly suitable for further intensification. Under these conditions, any population increase results in an increase in the areas cultivated as rice fields. The Javanese agrarian kingdoms initially formed only small isolated clearings in the vast tropical forest. Little by little, the landscape became reversed and small islands of forest remained at the edge of vast cultivated zones. The concentric Javanese kingdoms were organised in such a way as to gradually extend their boundaries, incorporating the barbarian populations at the periphery to enable them to adopt the ideal model and accede to civilisation. Transmigration is an excellent way of spreading this ideal model from the centre to the peripheral areas. As a resuit, adopting the model of the centre necessarily involves supporting transmigration. Doubting transmigration would mean doubting the ideal model.

30Every rose has a thorn and the strength of transmigration is also its main weakness. Transmigration is based on dogma and escapes all rational analysis. As the general concept cannot be attacked, failures can only be occasional and resuit solely from errors in performance. The reason for the failures is in turn lack of means, management inadequacy and, more generally, the general lack of motivation of migrants, their low level of technical skills or their ‘laziness’. Consciously or unconsciously, the real causes of the failures remain unknown.

31The single model applied in the agrarian kingdoms spread steadily and successfully to all the inner islands. Application to the outer islands by means of transmigration was more difficult, as if the Javanese agrarian development model were only suited to Java. In spite of the difficulties, the model was perpetuated unchanged for over 75 years. However, the situation has changed considerably in the past ten years or so.


32The exceptional industrial development in Indonesia in the past decade is in the process of attaining the first objective historically assigned to transmigration: relieving population pressure in the Javanese countryside and reducing rural poverty. Industrialisation has succeeded in just a few years where transmigration has failed for three-quarters of a century. Rural exodus has drained the countryside of a multitude of smallholders who hardly covered their own requirements and is also enhancing the modernisation of Javanese farming. Applicants for migration are already becoming rare in the traditional recruitment zones. Will transmigration still have a reason to exist when the landless farmers have been recycled in industry?


33From the beginning, transmigration was conceived on the basis of three wrong views of the problem to be solved and the solutions to be provided: a wrong view of the Javanese peasantry and its capacity for adaptation in the face of population increase, a wrong view of the physical environments and of the autochthonous populations of the outer islands and finally a wrong view of the ability of the public authorities to control the physical and human environment. Java was considered to be dangerously overpopulated both in 1905 and 1990. Announced many times, the Malthusian catastrophe has nevertheless not occurred.

34At the edge of the ‘civilised’ world, far from the light shed by the ‘centre’, transmigration aims at helping ‘backward’ peoples. Transmigration is both a social policy and a development and geostrategic policy, but as it considers that salvation for peasants lies only in farming, it is above all an agrarian policy.

35The initial question was whether transmigration is a policy suited to the problem/s that the public authorities wish to solve. As the problem to be solved was badly formulated, the programme had little chance of providing an effective solution. Today, the country no longer needs to keep on the land a host of farmers who barely subsist. On the contrary, agricultural production must be modernised in such a way that fewer farmers can feed an increasingly numerous urban proletariat. Is there a role for transmigration in this new situation? Yes, if agrarian policy succeeds in changing into a regional development policy.

© IRD Éditions, 1997

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