Cover Image
close this bookCERES No. 135 (FAO Ceres, 1992, 50 p.)
close this folderFeaturing
View the documentFire in the mother lung: Indonesia's forests plan is imperfect, but at least it's a plan
View the documentTroubles of transmigration
View the documentTreating toxic ground
View the documentUnexpected harvest

Troubles of transmigration

It's been nearly a century since Indonesia embarked on what may be one of the most ambitious experiments in organized human migration the world has ever known, an undertaking whose historical importance puts it on the same level - in terms of both opportunities for growth and potential for disaster - as the Homestead Movement that opened the American West, or Brazil's attempts to settle the Amazon.

Transmigration - the relocation of thousands of families to planned settlements in the sparsely populated outer islands of the archipelago - has been a prominent feature of Indonesia's development since 1905, when the country was still under colonial rule. Conceived by the Dutch as a way of creating a labor pool for plantations in Sumatra, the program has served succeeding governments in many different ways.

But in the past 10 years it has run afoul of powerful environmental and human rights lobbies. Major international development agencies like the World Bank, chastened by criticism of their involvement, have frozen financing for new projects. Development workers are left asking what will happen to the thousands of people struggling to carve out an existence in remote settlements.

Fifth largest population

Indonesia's population of close to 185 million makes it the fifth largest nation on earth. Yet roughly 100 million of its people live on only seven per cent of the archipelago's land, resulting in a population density of 800 per sq km in Java.

Since independence, transmigration has been a key instrument of nation-building. In the 1950s, President Sukarno called for the resettlement of 1.5 million people a year, saying it was "a matter of life and death for the Indonesian nation". Although the program never came close to realizing such targets, it served other purposes just as important to the new nation's security. In the 1960s, under the slogan "One Unity of Security and Defence", settlements were strategically located close to the frontiers of neighboring countries in west and north Sumatra, north Kalimantan, north Sulawesi and east Irian Jaya. Most of the settlers were Javanese, and in some remote provinces they outnumbered natives. This so-called "Javanization" of local populations was seen by some as an attempt by the central government to suppress opposition in outlying areas.

Nowadays, however, most transmigrants are young families from the large population of poor, landless farm laborers in the countryside. They see the program as a chance to improve their lives, the possibility of owning their own land being a powerful enticement. For many years the number of applicants has far exceeded program quotas.

Once they make the decision to join, families have no control over where they will be sent. Each is given transportation to a homestead site, three hectares of land to farm, a small house and a 12-month supply of food, tools, seed and fertilizer. Support is withdrawn gradually, and at the end of five years settlements are supposed to be self-sustaining. They are then handed over to the provincial government as local villages.

Until the late 1970s the program's impact on the vast outer islands of the archipelago remained relatively light, involving a total of fewer than 1.3 million transmigrants. This changed dramatically with the appearance of the World Bank on the scene in 1976. The bank became the major source of international assistance, supplying both technical expertise and loans. In addition to providing more than US$ 635 million since 1976, the bank has even managed a number of settlements, intended as models, from the planning stages through to the housing of settlers.

In the eight years between 1979 and 1986 an estimated 4.5 million people were resettled. At its peak in the mid-1980s, transmigration was responsible for moving three-quarters of a million people a year from the overcrowded islands of Java, Bali, Madura and Lombok to new settlements in the sparsely inhabited outer islands of Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Irian Jaya.

A bete noire

But the exodus soon outpaced the government's ability to effectively manage it. In the mid-1980s, transmigration became the bete noire of powerful international human rights and environmental lobbies such as Friends of the Earth and Survival International, which charged that settlers were responsible for widespread deforestation, soil erosion, the displacement of native people and destruction of their indigenous cultures. Critics argued that the program went against the bank's own stated policy of endeavoring "to ensure that each project affecting renewable natural resources does not exceed the regenerative capacities of the environment" and not financing "projects that cause severe or irreversible environmental deterioration including species without mitigatory measures acceptable to the bank".

Soon embarrassing questions were being asked in the legislative assemblies of those Western countries which are the principal backers of the World Bank. Was the bank "financing ecological disaster" as the 1988 Friends of the Earth report claimed? Quietly Western governments began withdrawing support for further settlements. Routine applications for project loans became bogged down in technical discussions and endless consultants' reports.

In fact, some of the criticisms were either exaggerated or simply untrue. For example, it was claimed that transmigration was a principal agent of tropical forest degradation in the outer islands. But detailed mapping of the archipelago and its resources has shown that in almost all provinces land allocated to sponsored transmigration amounts to less than one per cent of the total forest area.

International condemnation has tended to focus on Irian Jaya at the extreme east end of the archipelago. Critics have focused on the Javanization of the territory, whose local people have strong ethnic links with neighboring Papua New Guinea. But, while Irian Jaya possesses the largest tract of undeveloped flat land in all of Indonesia, transmigration sites occupy only two per cent of cleared land and have received less than 125 000 settlers.

The facts were wrong

"While some of the criticisms had an element of truth in them, the majority were exaggerated. The facts as reported were wrong", said one consultant. But "it made the World Bank very nervous, and I think we're still feeling the reverberations of that attack. It's harder to get money for transmigration out of most agencies now. The Asian Development Bank, European Economic Community, even the British government, who have been part of the program since 1980, even they have got cold feet and cut back their program. They won't admit it - that it's because of transmigration's bad international press - but unofficially they would agree. It's a bit like a courtroom where an objection is sustained but the damage is done".

Badgered by critics, the government of Indonesia did a poor job of defending its program. Part of the problem, officials admit, is that the government itself did not have a very clear picture of what was going on during the peak period of resettlement. Many of the sites are located in remote areas, reachable only by boat, plane or helicopter. When settlers were being sent out at a rate of 100 000 a month, there were simply not the human resources to monitor all the activity.

Spontaneous transmigrants

To make matters worse, many of the settlers during this period were not even part of the official program. Many so-called spontaneous transmigrants, or "spontans", received little or no state support. They could choose their own destination and, because they migrated and established homesteads without help or guidance, the planning of settlements was thrown into chaos.

About 30 per cent of settlers between 1969 and 1974 were spontans. By the mid- 1980s, two out of three families were moving under their own initiative. It had been one of the objectives of the organizers to encourage people to make the move without state support, but having started the ball rolling, the question became: "How do we get it stopped?"

Nowhere are the problems of spontaneous transmigration more apparent than in Lampung Province of south Sumatra, where more than two million spontans have settled since 1971. There the Pandang-Sugihan Wildlife Reserve was designated a protected area in 1983 to save a herd of 200 elephants. The management plan called for the canal entrances to the reserve to be closed off to stop illegal logging by spontans. But the plan was never implemented. Boats full of spontans are still entering to systematically remove all the usable timber. In the process they are damaging the habitat to the extent that elephants are increasingly invading the neighboring Air Sugihan transmigration settlement.

The budget slashed

Another blow came when world oil prices plummeted from US$28 a barrel in 1983 to US$9.83 in 1986, cutting deeply into government revenues. The Ministry of Transmigration saw its budget slashed 44 per cent in 1986 and another 54 per cent in 1987, further crippling its ability to monitor new sites and provide adequate extension support.

Meanwhile, there was mounting evidence of problems within existing settlements. Some were completely cut off because roads built to dry season standards had washed out in the first rains. Settlers were unable to get their produce to markets or to obtain new supplies. Other sites had not had proper soil testing done. Settlers arrived to find the land sterile or the water unfit to drink. In some areas local people had not been fairly compensated for land taken to build settlements. Quarrels erupted along ethnic lines as locals rejected the Javanization of their provinces.

In 1987, the government, under pressure from all sides including its major ally the World Bank, brought a virtual halt to new settlement and undertook a survey of some 183 sites which were known to be experiencing difficulties. The team of international consultants found some 40 settlements in a state of crisis and recommended urgent attention. Their 1989 report is a frank account of the settlers' problems.

"Isolation and hopelessness"

" management and agricultural extension service generally lack the necessary skills and experience to perform their tasks satisfactorily. This initial problem seems to be compounded by a lack of financial and technical support. Low salaries, lack of adequate transport, equipment, operating budgets, demonstration and training material, etc. seem to instil a feeling of isolation and hopelessness....

"The availability of farm inputs constitutes a serious problem in most sites. The quality and quantity of the required inputs as well as the timing of their availability are far from optimum.

"...many transmigrants arrive on site with an incorrect impression regarding entitlements and prospects, e.g. that they are to receive one hectare of sawah land (irrigated rice field). This erroneous expectation results from a mixture of misinformation and misunderstanding which started and/or was reinforced during recruitment in the home village. The combined effect of negative influence and unbounded hopes in part reflects the relatively high rates of desertion and offfarm employment".

Other problems included poor roads, inadequate health and education services, insufficient bank credit and overly abundant crop pests ranging from wild pigs and rats to monkeys and elephants. But the most explosive finding was that soil fertility was too low in most areas to support anything but subsistence agriculture, calling into doubt the basic viability of the crop-based farming model upon which the entire transmigration edifice had been built.

Settlements stagnate

The survey discovered that only about half of a site's development potential was being harnessed. Settlers were having such a hard time growing subsistence crops on the hectare of land around their houses that they had been unable to tackle their other two hectares. Settlements stagnated as time after time the food crop model broke down.

Until this century, vast areas of the archipelago had very small native populations. The steep volcanic hillsides and swampy lowlands make agriculture difficult. In the late 1980s the British government funded a major study of the country's resources. The study showed there was good reason why these areas did not support large human populations in the past - that vast areas of the archipelago are simply not suitable for cultivation.

The food crop model rested on the flawed assumption that soils in these outer islands were suitable for crop-raising.

In their recent study "Towards a New Home", Karl Fasbender and Susanne Ese predict that many transmigrants whose settlements are located in areas of poor soils will be forced to resort to shifting cultivation, a form of agriculture that damages the environment when practised intensively.

Consultants had concluded as early as 1986 that "...the cleared one hectare allocation may just provide basic subsistence but will never provide the capital needed to develop further". Over at the World Bank, officials were beginning to doubt the expert advice they were getting. "One of the basic problems of the old projects", one official confided, "was that there was some dream that you could get people to go in, and they would raise food crops and be self-sufficient farmers and happy peasants. Frankly, none of us in the world want to be happy peasants except those of us in the West who have enough money to retire to the country and be a happy peasant".

A fundamental shift

The consultants have now proposed a fundamental shift away from food crop farming and toward a nucleus estate model based on tree crops such as coconut, rubber and oil palm. The settlement would become a large plantation, and individual farmers would produce a cash crop which would be marketed by a centralized management authority. Three years ago, the Ministry of Transmigration asked the World Bank for US$150 million to implement the new plan' celled Second Stage Development, in settlements where crop farming has failed. Funding has yet to be approved.

When asked about the Second Stage Development Plan, one World Bank official said it is still just a proposal. "We did a partial appraisal two years ago. We did a follow-up appraisal one-and-a-half years ago. And there's talk now that maybe we'll do another appraisal this spring".

Since 1987, new transmigration has virtually come to a halt as planners try to grapple with past mistakes and convince international donor agencies that new methods such as tree farming can work. What seems certain is that, with or without a state-sponsored program and regardless of world opinion, the flow of people toward the rural regions of the outer islands will continue and even increase.