By: Cory Rogers

Last year, Indonesia’s biggest cement conglomerate won a final government permit to build a new 900-hectare production plant in a Central Java area south of the town of Rembang, where five villages now sit.

But as word spread of the project, by Semen Indonesia – formerly Semen Gresik – area residents rebelled.  Tensions came to a head in June when throngs mostly of women, fearing the plant would ruin their water supplies, rushed to block access to the factory site where company officials were gathering for a stone-laying ceremony.

“If men were the ones to go, there would have been a high likelihood of violence,” said Joko Prianto, a local leader. The ensuing confrontation sparked a three-month, women’s-only sit-in that lasted until late November, when it was broken up by police, drawing widespread condemnation from rights groups in Jakarta.

Beyond that, however, the protest has created a stir at a time when President Joko Widodo, inaugurated last October, has espoused a commitment to infrastructure development and accelerated permit delivery. The particulars of the case have underlined the dysfunctional system that will regulate Jokowi’s development projects as they move forward. 

In the runup to his election, Jokowi pledged to establish a long-awaited court dedicated to land disputes, winning the endorsement of agrarian groups across the country.  But by appointing a politician, Ferry Musyidan Baldan from the NasDem party, instead of a professional to lead the Agrarian and Spatial Planning Ministry, analysts say such a prospect looks increasingly unlikely.

Weak conservation laws

Like hundreds of others in Indonesia, the dispute stems from the devolution of zoning and land-use permit-issuing power to the local level. According to Blair Palmer, director of environmental governance with the Asia Foundation in Indonesia, local heads have been handing out mining and plantation permits “like hotcakes” ever since, with corruption a dominant theme of development.

Moch Salim, the former Rembang regent, was himself imprisoned for skimming some US$2.4 million off contracts for a housing development project, just months after signing off on Semen Indonesia’s right-to-mine permits. 

National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) Commissioner Dianto Bachrianti says local control over permit and zoning power has increased the odds of conservation protections falling victim to land exploitation.

“Once the local government — often full of investment interests—decides to allocate certain areas for exploitation, this becomes the law, even if practically, because of other [conservation] laws, it’s not correct.”

In the case of Rembang, both the factory and the quarry sit in the Watuputih National Spring, a protected area of karsts and underground aquifers that feed water to a whopping 600,000 persons in the surrounding environs. 

In recent years, despite the area’s protected status, sections of Watuputih have been rezoned for mining, which Dianto says has significantly diminished the area’s water-catchment capacity. Citing studies, he says the addition of a large-scale mine in the area could reduce crop yields and trigger widespread flooding further afield. The women have had enough. Fearing for the quality of their water, they have since staged sit-ins in Semarang, Central Java, the seat of the provincial government. Some of the protestors, like Sukinah, turn to Kartini (Indonesia’s celebrated 19th century feminist), whose grave sits just a few kilometers from the factory, for inspiration.

“We have the right to an environment that is not ruined by those with money and ambition,” she said. “Our fight is a continuation of Kartini’s.”

Joko Prianto says the effect of the plant would be crippling. “It would ruin the environment, threatening my life and the life of my whole generation that depends on the land,” he said. 

Shady land deals

Aan, an area resident, says it was unsavory practices that allowed brokers to buy land off locals at the quarry site.

“The majority [of villagers] are against mining, but land brokers said the land would be used for agriculture, not mining”, he said, adding that most of the remaining landholders courted by Semen Indonesia were now keeping their land.

“Then, after the company starts mining, it becomes easier to buy more of the land, because the quality of the surrounding land goes down and people are more willing to sell.”

According a letter from the agency addressed to Joko in late November, of the land supposedly bought by the company, none has yet been registered with the National Land Agency, throwing more weight behind the accusations of shady dealings.

The factory, meanwhile, sits on a 55-hectare plot of land swapped by the Forestry Ministry for twice that amount from the local government.

A local legal aid society can find no evidence this swap has occurred.


Tractors prepare the foundation for a Semen Indonesia cement factory in Gunem, Rembang, Central Java. The company says the plant will be crucial to meeting domestic demand for cement, which is rising at 4-6 percent a year.

Dubious environmental impact assessments

In November, six farmers and the Indonesian Forum for the Environment filed a lawsuit challenging Semen Indonesia’s mining rights, alleging permit violations and a breach of conservation laws.

The outcome of the case turns heavily on the status of the environmental assessment impact, or Amdal, the final-hurdle permit Semen Indonesia acquired after four-years of painstaking study.Required for most major development projects, the Amdal is designed to ensure that negative environmental effects can be managed and contained. Experts, however, say the process is wracked by structural weaknesses and various forms of profiteering. 

For one, the scientists tasked with carrying out the impact assessments are hired and paid for by the companies themselves. 

According to Bogor Agricultural University professor Soeryo Adiwibowo, this pressures scientists into painting a sunnier picture of the environmental impacts than might actually exist — sometimes breeding outright fraud.

In the worst instances, Soeryo says he has seen scientists in the field simply “copy-and-paste” impact assessments from one project site onto another, a practice also noted by Reynaldo Simbiring, a department head at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law, in his study of existing Amdals.

Soeryo says prosecution of such crimes is absent, and his recommendation to the Environment Ministry (the body which certifies the impact consultants, since merged with the Forestry Ministry to become the Environment and Forestry Ministry) to publicize the names of consultants found guilty of distorting reports has fallen on deaf ears.

Provisions designed to ensure the consent of local residents, meanwhile, are weak and often superficially met, Dianto says. 

“The problem with socialization is that companies sometimes only invite certain people […]  then they invite the police or military, to protect the consultation. The police and military often outnumber the public consultation, where it can be 400-500 police to 50 citizens. So the people who do come are already afraid and uncomfortable, and can’t speak freely.”

Bribery is also major problem, according to a recent report by the London-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency, which found that “It is an open secret among officials that companies pay (Amdal) commission members for favorable decisions.”

That happens, says Reynaldo, because local heads seek ways to “defray the cost of expensive elections”, so they bribe commission members and take kickbacks from the company.

Gamawan Fauzi, a former home affairs minister under Yudhoyono, recently told Tempo magazine that of the 524 “local chief executives” elected in the last nine years, 287, or over half, have been linked to corruption. 

Many of those cases involved development projects requiring Amdals.

Looking ahead

Responding to public pressure, in December the new Environment and Forestry Minister sent her own team to Rembang to corroborate the environmental impact assessment carried out by Semen Indonesia. And, in recent days, Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has launched an investigation into the company’s mining permits.

Both moves suggest the government may be circling the wagons on dubious Amdals – and findings from each will likely influence the court’s decision in the Rembang court case. But resources are limited, and more structural reforms are needed to create better checks on development nationwide.

“Land-rights conflicts,” says Dianto, “are the single-largest complaint we’ve received since we started in 2003. And the biggest problem is that we’ve never had a strong leader on agrarian issues.”

With an economic agenda poised to unleash a spate of development projects, plugging holes in the regulatory system is likely Jokowi’s best hope for stymying a fresh wave of disputes.