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  • Xaver Wegler

Mediating Resistance: Land grabbing in Indonesia

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

In 2020 we set out to explore how a local community in the remote East Kalimantan region of Indonesia is defying the odds in a fight to protect their own land against multinational palm oil organizations. Vulnerable communities are often located in peripheral regions where access to resources and alliances to oppose these threats is limited. Our research on the resistance of an indigenous community against land grabbing attempts in Indonesia has shown that bridging connections around vulnerable communities can increase their resilience. The effort of the community makes one of the few cases of successful resistance against land grabbing in an area in which the majority of the rainforest is cut down. A local civil society organization is able to empower the community to hold a stand against illegal acquisitions by palm oil companies through mediating alliances with local and international actors.

Resistance through networks

Viewing the case through a social network perspective, provided a suitable lens to explain the resistance of the community against all odds. We identified that social relations between individuals and organizations induce a fundamental impact on the communities resistance against palm oil plantations. Therefore, networks must be acknowledged as building blocks for success and resilience in regards to status, knowledge flows, and identity. On the contrary, when such ties are absent, small groups can be disadvantaged as available information is often redundant. As a consequence, the community can not make use of networks capable of supporting them in times of crisis. In network theory, this gap is coined a 'structural hole' and we found that when individuals and organizations can bridge such holes, they gain many advantages by improving innovation, recognition, and access to resources.

Multi-national palm oil cooperation have cleared much of the indigenous forest surrounding the community to make space for plantations.

In the case at hand, the resistance of the indigenous community against land grabbing has been shaped by their access to knowledge that was obtained through meetings mediated by the civil society organization. The ties to other indigenous communities facing land grabbing helped them to share knowledge and utilize novel methods of resistance, like organizing land mapping initiatives to officially claim their territory in front of the court. Moreover, international alliances provided funding and tools to the community while we found that the civil society organization helped the community to apply the international expertise in their local context. Connecting the previously unrecognized community with powerful international actors such as the UN led to positive identity spillovers. This implies that being connected with established organizations gave the indigenous community increased confidence and a feeling of safety, which was expressed throughout the field interviews. It also led palm oil companies to reduce their force to mitigate negative publicity. Lastly, the civil society organization helped the community to access official government channels to voice their concerns about the land grab. Advocacy for the rights of the community, influences the institutional environment shaping the land grab.

Network Limitations

We also found that the civil society organization is highly reliant on indigenous networks and was not able to facilitate all connections holistically. For instance, economic projects such as tree nurseries have failed, due to the lack of connections to market actors needed for establishing functioning value chains. Regarding the ongoing land grabbing, this means that economic hardship remains a driving force in the issue leaving some community members with no other choice but to actively support palm oil companies on different levels. As a result many have sold their land to palm oil companies due to economic pressure and being left with no form of income, many locals have no other work opportunities than on the palm oil field. Furthermore, our research has shown that mediating the intercommunity network through the civil society organization has its limitations. The large number of supported communities combined with the low amount of available funding results in slow response time and lack of contact points.

The indigenous leader of the community shows us the remaining forest that is an important resource for their livelihood.

A way forward...

Around the globe, countless communities face the threat of the destruction of their lands and forest because they find themselves without alliances and resources, suitable for promoting resilience. As many contemporary interventions fail to provide adequate solutions to protect communities, an understanding of how to facilitate holistic network structures serves as a suitable approach to overcome the complex array of challenges that communities face. Despite the continuous pressure by palm oil companies, the indigenous community and the civil society organization continue their resistance. The civil society organization recently released an online application in which communities can share rights abuses by palm oil companies with fellow users, which show potential for connecting communities directly and thereby contribute to fighting the illegal acquisition of their land. Such local innovation might play a key role for the community to increase their resilience, representing a starting point for a possible game-changer.

The research that informs this article was conducted by: Xaver Wegler, Christoffer Lerche & Zacharias Vedde

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