land dispute

The Paradise Off the Coast of Jakarta Fighting Against Privatization

A corporation is trying to turn Pari Island into the Indonesian version of The Maldives, and the locals are having none of it.

by Mirza Fahmi
12 February 2018, 7:00am

Tourists at Pantai Perawan Beach in Pari Island. All photos by the author.

It was Saturday, March 11, 2017. Subur ran as fast as he could from Pasir Perawan Beach. He zoomed past a row of hostels crowded by tourists on a weekend getaway. The 35-year-old, who’s better known as Popeye, arrived at his mother’s warung in Pari Island bearing bad news. “Bobi has been caught!” he yelled. Wina Sabenah, who was taking a break from tending her street stall was shocked. Popeye, who was still panting, continued, “By the police.”

Earlier that day, the attendees of Pasir Perawan Beach, Bobi, Baok, Edo—and three other locals who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time— were arrested by the anti-illegal levy task force of the Thousand Islands police for charging visitors Rp 5,000 ($0.37 USD) per person to enter the beach.

“Everyone who was at the entry gate [of Pasir Perawan Beach] was arrested,” Sabenah said when I met her last December. “Including my nephew who’s still in middle school. I’m glad that he’s been released.”

But Sabenah said she smelled something fishy about the whole ordeal. She suspected that the men’s arrests had something to do with the ongoing land dispute in Pari Island, which is a part of a cluster of islands named the Thousand Islands off the coast of Jakarta. Most of the land in Pari Island is no longer the property of the locals. They now belong to a company and the ultra rich who bought pieces of land there decades ago. In the past three years, accompanied with legal documents they assumed to be valid, those companies began to show up to claim their share of the island, much to the locals' dismay.

Sabenah is one of Pari Island locals who's threatened to lose her home and community due to the increasing privatization efforts of the island.

Pari Island is only 1.5 hours away from Jakarta by boat, which departs from Muara Angke Port in North Jakarta. Of the many tourist destinations in the Thousand Islands, Pari Island stands out for its Pasir Perawan Beach. The white sandy beach is surrounded by rows of mangroves, so the water is calm. People come here to swim, race their rented boats, or simply relax on the edge of the beach 45 kilometers away from the hustle and bustle of Jakarta.

It seemed like the land dispute had yet to affect tourism there. The day of my visit, the port was full of tourists, all of whom had to pass an entry gate with a banner that reads “THE PEOPLE OF PARI ISLAND WILL PROTECT THIS LAND FOR OUR FUTURE GENERATION”. It’s like a reminder to visitors that there’s trouble going on in their paradise.

It has been two years since PT Bumi Pari Asri claimed ownership of the land that some 1,000 locals have called home for generations. That’s how long the locals of Pari Island have shrouded in fear of losing their homes, land, and livelihood. The company is a subsidiary of Bumi Raya Utama Group, owned by a conglomerate named Adijanto Priosoetanto. It has claimed ownership of more than 50 percent of the land in Pari Island, no less. The arrest of Bobi, who was later jailed on charges of illegal levy, signaled a new phase of this protracted dispute.

Bumi Pari Asri representatives first set foot on the island in 1989. In the four years after, the company managed to buy 110 pieces of land from one legal heir who’s a second-generation Pari resident.

In a copy of the Recapitulation of the Deed of Sale and Purchase issued by the District of South Thousand Islands that we obtained, Adijanto Priosoetanto's family members were listed as land buyers. The smallest piece of land in the certificates is 500 meter square, and the biggest is 10 times that. All of them were purchased for Rp 2,000 ($0.14 USD) per meter square. The total of land that has been privatized, according to the document, is around 39.7 hectares. Pari Island itself spans 41.3 hectares.

One of the resorts under construction near Pasir Perawan Beach.

Pari Island is one of a few dozen islands which are affected by the rampant privatization started in the New Order era. Sajogyo Institute, a non-governmental organization in, recorded that out of a total of 110 islands in the Thousand Islands, 60 islands have been privately controlled.

Each island has its own approach to privatization. In the case of Pari Island, Sajogyo Institute found that the process wasn’t exactly transparent. Residents were tricked by middlemen who sold their land certificates without their notice. From a legal perspective, residents lack the necessary evidence to prove that they’re rightful owners of the land they called home.

It’s not that the residents didn’t want to take care of the certificates. They told me that in 1980, the National Land Authority offered them to change their certificates into freehold titles (SHM). And so they handed over their certificates to Tidung Island urban ward, in hopes of getting freehold titles in return. But it never happened, and they never got their certificates back.

Recalling those years, Sabenah told me that she and many other residents didn’t know precisely when and how they ended up giving their land away. “I only saw middlemen walking around, but not the people from the company,” she told me.

Rohani, a 77-year-old resident, told me the same thing. She recalled trusting her certificate with two people from the ward office who were visiting Pari Island. She handed over the certificate which was then under the name of her late husband, Muhaeni bin Saimin. “I gave it to the people from the ward office, when my husband was still alive.”

The two officers promised that once the freehold titles were ready, the residents would be the first to know. Alas, the officers died from an accident. “When the people came to their ward office, we’re told that they’re still in the district office,” Rohani told me. Eventually, she and other residents gave up.

When I asked Bumi Pari Asri about what their buying process, its representative refused to go into details. Ben Yitzhak told me that the process is basically in compliance to the existing regulations. “We’re not the only one that bought the certificates, there were individual buyers too,” he said. “So it’s inaccurate to say that Pari Island is owned by a single company.”

At first, Sabenah didn’t think much of the middlemen who bought her land certificates. After the transaction, for decades, the pieces of land were left alone—until recently, of course. Now that the island has become a popular tourist destination, tension between locals and the company arise.

In the beginning, Bumi Pari Asri representatives offered local residents a partnership deal on tourism management. They were pretty persuasive, promising them Rp 7 to 8 million ($513 to $587 USD) a month. But the locals eventually declined, since they felt the company didn’t contribute to the maintenance of the Perawan Beach.

Later, the company used intimidation to drive the locals away. They reinforced that the land belongs to the company and that their claims were backed with legal documents. The company also placed security posts in Pari Island to “protect the company’s land.” Of course, the residents didn’t take it well. Two days before the arrests of Bobi and his friends, hundreds of Pari Island residents visited the posts, demanding that the security officers leave the island.

Locals voluntarily maintain Pasir Perawan Beach, which attracted many tourists from the region.

Even when they’re in the more vulnerable position, the residents, who have lived in Pari Island for generations, insisted on staying. Their perseverance was what eventually led to the arrests of Bobi and his crew. In November 2017, the North Jakarta District Court sentenced Bobi, Baok, and Edo to six months in prison for illegally charging visitors.

For Koalisi Selamatkan Pulau Pari (KSPP)—a civil organization advocating for the people of Pari Island—the punishment of the three men had a lot to do with the people’s resistance to Bumi Pari Asri’s privatization efforts. When intimidation wasn’t successful, criminalizing local activities became their next tactic. Considering that the company holds many land certificates, it’s clear that this incident wouldn’t be the last time. “We’re concerned that in the future even more people will be criminalized,” Edi Mulyono, the chief of neighborhood unit in Pari Island and a member of the KSPP, told me.

The organization's current strategy is to question the legitimacy of the certificates and the transaction process to the Ministry of Agrarian Affairs and Spatial Planning, the Ombudsman, and the Presidential Staff Office. They are challenging the land acquisitions that happened between 1990 and 1991, which only involved one legal heir who represented multiple pieces of land belonging to different families.

“From our perspective, it’s a structured and systematic robbery, because the transaction happened one-sided, with only one heir,” said Ony Mahardika, a KSPP coordinator. “And this was facilitated by the state, specifically the urban ward.”

The Ombudsman confirmed that there’s a gaffe in the change of land ownership in Pari Island. Today, it's still focusing on collecting findings related to the case. Ombudsman Commissioner Alamsyah Saragih said that just because the residents don’t have legal documents, it doesn’t mean that their land could automatically be transferred without fair administrative process.

In early 2017, Sofyan Djalil, Minister of Agrarian Affairs and Spatial Planning, and Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs, said that they would open an opportunity for foreign investments to manage the small islands in Indonesia. For Luhut, this decision could help with the country’s economic growth, and was in accordance to the government’s interest to attract more foreign tourists.

Unsurprisingly, the privatization of these islands goes hand in hand with the central government’s plan to commercialize small islands in the archipelago. To get a clear picture, we need to look at President Jowo Widodo’s proposed tourism project called the Kawasan Strategis Pariwisata Nasional (KSPN).

In the project, 10 sites in the country have been identified as “priority tourism destinations”. The government promises infrastructural development at these sites. In the Thousand Islands, the development is predicted to bring 1.7 million tourists and attract at least five foreign investors. In order to achieve those ambitious goals, Thousand Islands KSPN proposed two strategies: One Resort in One Island or OROI and Eco-community Based Tourism.

But Bumi Pari Asri has its own plans in Pari Island, one that combines the two strategies.

“We want to set an international-standard tourist destination that is not too far from Jakarta,” Ben Yitzhak told me. “We want to come up with something like the Maldives. It’s a 41-acre island, but we don’t own the entire island. So we will divide it up under our management. The high class tourists can go to the resort. If they want to experience the nature and local traditions, we can direct them to the people. We also want to improve people’s lives.”

Yitzhak maintained that the company is not all about making money. It also plans to build public facilities in Pari Island such as a high school and health facilities. “So there’s a symbiotic mutualism,” Ben said. This is their concrete contribution for the people, he said. “We’re not just saying it. You could ask KSPP, what have they done [for the people]?”

Ony Mahardika told me he can’t trust corporate promises. He thinks that the well-intentioned KSPN project will be taken advantaged of by Bumi Pari Asri and other land owners to legitimize the privatization of the island.

“The KSPN document is full of investment purposes,” Ony said. “The eco-tourism, in principle, is about how the local community can live legitimately and are in charge of the spatial planning and are protected by the state. If [eco-tourism] is done to mainly benefit the private sector, then it might as well be nothing.”

When I visited her warung one evening, Sabenah was reminiscing her childhood in Pari Island. She also told me about her children who now live in Jakarta. Her children disapproved of her intense involvement in the resistance against corporations in the island, especially when they heard that she had to be rushed to the clinic the other day.

But for Sabenah, the fight against privatization is non-negotiable. Pari Island has been her family's home for generations. Towards the end of our interview, she repeated to me what she told her children: “I was born here. I want to die here, too.”