The Art of Making Agrarian Reform Policies Work

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Noer Fauzi Rachman, or 'Oji' as his friends know him, is an activist, author, lecturer, and former policy advisor to the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo. His life's work has taken him from social activism, to the University of California, Berkeley, to the echelons of power in his own country...

On 22 March, 2019, he was invited as a guest speaker by the Farm Facility, FAO and the International Land Coalition, to provide his assessment of the future of Indonesia's agrarian reform, and the implications for indigenous peoples living on customary forest lands.

Fauzi Rachman is an expert at critiquing the organisations that propagate inequality. He quotes the political scientist Charles Tilly, stating "durable inequality arises because people who control access to value-producing resources solve organisational problems by means of categorical distinctions. Inadvertently or otherwise, those people set up systems of social closure, exclusion and control."

What does this mean in practice for the modern Indonesian state? According to Fauzi, to silo the government into different ministries, none of whom sufficiently communicate with one another, means redressing inequalities will continue to occur at a sporadic pace.  

In 2014, when Joko Widodo was forming his transition team, Fauzi chaired the working group on agriculture, land and forestry. He briefed several incoming ministers on their files and was instrumental in drafting the first Five-Year Plan (2015-2019), the President's Office Guidelines on Agrarian Reform, and the annual Government Work Plan. Through these documents, he helped to create the institutional framework for agrarian reform. He is also keenly aware of the Realpolitik that goes on within a government's inner circle of cabinet members and top bureaucrats.

The country’s agrarian reform programme has six overarching goals: 1. Reduce inequality in land ownership; 2. Create agrarian-based sources of prosperity and community welfare; 3. Create jobs to reduce poverty; 4. Improve access to economic resources; 5. Increase food security and sovereignty; 6. Improve and maintain environmental quality and deal with agrarian conflicts. By 2025, the government has committed to redistributing more than 9 million hectares of land to smallholder farmers.

Fauzi views his role as a scholar-activist-bureaucrat, someone uniquely capable of translating political promises into state-sanctioned policy. In this new political era for Indonesia, he saw an opportunity for the government to put forward a progressive agenda. His approach to agrarian reform is also concerned with preserving forests and biodiversity, and he asserts that family farms plan more, and cut less, than corporations. In his view, smallholder farmers are proven conservationists. Indeed, he cites the implementation of social forestry schemes as one of the most successful aspects of the government's program.

After the event, we sat down with Fauzi to dig deeper into how sees the current administration’s approach to agrarian reform and his hopes for the future.

How would you describe the implementation of the Jokowi administration's agrarian reform?

These last four years represent an opening for a people's agenda, and we need to appreciate the multiple entry points there are now for a people's agenda to be absorbed and adopted by the government. Of course, there are differences of opinion in which pathway to take, but the importance of this era is to recognise the multiple differentiated mechanisms by which a people's agenda can become the government's agenda.

Are you satisfied with the government's approach towards smallholder farmers?

Well it depends on which government sector and institution that you're working with. On the issue of land redistribution, we feel disappointed because the commitment of the government leaders have been different from one ministry to another. However, we can see how responsive the Minister of Environment and Forestry is; it has better policy processes to enhance people's access to land within their jurisdiction.

In terms of forests, there are different types of demarcations for territory. For instance, conservation areas are different than productive areas. There has been an important development to recognize the property rights of customary communities, or indigenous peoples. By recognising the rights of customary communities to their territory, the Minister of Environment and Forestry has created a different mechanism is to take the customary territory out of the forest area, and make the ownership status legal. Once that is done you can set up social forestry schemes. Here the government has been able to make considerable progress.

With the general election now less than a month away, what are the prospects for agrarian reform going forward?

Both candidates rhetorically argue about the significant role of agrarian reform because the reality of land inequality is so skewed, meaning that only a few corporate actors control big tracts of land. On the other hand, the majority of the landless are people who are threatened by the actions of corporations. In this sense, large scale land acquisitions become very dangerous for the sustainability of land access of poor farmers, fisher folk and indigenous groups.


For now, Fauzi believes that the greatest factor enabling agrarian reform is the close attention being paid by the electorate and their appetite for land redistribution from foreign investors to smallholder farmer households. Perhaps returning to his roots as a social activist, he insists that only through an organized and engaged civil society can sufficient leverage be applied on the bureaucracy to deliver the policies that they have already articulated on paper.

For more on President Joko Widodo’s efforts towards agrarian reform read: