Herlambang Perdana Wiratraman

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2001
LBH Surabaya
This description of Herlambang Perdana Wiratraman's work was prepared when Herlambang Perdana Wiratraman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001 .


In response to growing numbers of violent clashes arising from land disputes between rural farmers and powerful landlords, Herlambang has designed and piloted a nonviolent dispute resolution program, the ultimate goal of which is to assist rural communities in reclaiming land once seized by Indonesia's central government.

The New Idea

Pioneering a movement to peacefully resolve land disputes, Herlambang educates farmers to be nonviolent negotiators who effectively represent the interests of their rural communities in discussions about land ownership and control. Focusing on local history, culture and law, Herlambang prepares farmers to sit at tables with powerful landlords to negotiate the recovery of land once held by the farmers. Without bringing cases to court, Herlambang helps communities work within a legal framework while promoting the importance of nonviolent, win-win solutions to the conflicts over land. The education Herlambang offers is a means of cultural revitalization, for the ultimate goal is to strengthen local institutions and networks, and to increase rural farming communities' self-sufficiency and sustainability. Herlambang's alternative approach requires that the rural community be organized, as well as educated, before entering into negotiations. Farmers themselves serve as principal organizers. They are prepared for this task by working through an intensive program which emphasizes leadership and a thorough understanding of the legal rights and obligations of all parties. The careful preparations involved are essential to giving the farmers a sense of solidarity and empowerment. According to Herlambang, the movement is a moral struggle.

The Problem

One of the more important problems in Indonesia today is an imbalance in the structure of land control, an imbalance which results in poverty for landless rural farmers. This disparity can be traced historically to the colonial period. But even then, regulations granted farmers the right to use land for personal planting. Under the first president's regime, Dutch plantation land was reclaimed; large plots were placed under state control, but small plots were returned to the people. Land control policies of the past three decades, however, have reversed policies that enable rural people to effectively farm land. During this period of phenomenal growth, the forced takeover of communally-owned land and pressure on land-owning farmers to sell property at ridiculously low prices have been common practices carried out by the government, the military and wealthy developers. Currrent agrarian policy and land laws are vague and do little to protect the rural poor. There is no national policy which guarantees fair distribution of land. Not only have farmers been disenfranchised by loss of access to and control over land, but their basic human rights have also been violated by repressive land-use practices. In fact, human rights abuses are often an integral part of conflicts over land. For example, when farmers' plots are seized and converted to plantation land, the farmers can no longer grow the vegetables or food crops they need, and malnutrition can result. In areas in which large plantations operate, local farmers are often discriminated against for jobs. Overseers may fence off property and obstruct the farmers' access to water or in some cases, sites with ritual importance to the rural community.Normally, land disputes in Indonesia have been either unsatisfactorily bogged down in legal battles or they result in outbursts of violence by desperate farmers. Several civil society organizations have tried to lead farmers to occupy disputed land, but because the farmers have not been adequately prepared or educated, they have given up or been tortured or murdered for their actions. Another problem is that often when these organizations lead farmers' movements, the farmers grow dependent upon the activists and become mere followers. When the activists leave a community, negotiations stall, then break down. The community ends up no better off than it was before attempts at reclamation.

The Strategy

As part of his apprenticeship as a legal aid lawyer, Herlambang studied historic land disputes in Java and realized that farmers almost always lost cases brought to the courts. He saw that to be effective, rural communities had to become involved in a participatory action outside the court system but still within the framework of the law. As head of the farmers' division at his legal aid office, Herlambang was confronted with case after case involving farmers in land conflicts in East Java. Working intensively with these cases, he eventually developed a series of basic principles that guided his land reclaiming movement.These principles are nonviolent action, democratic principles, respect for human rights, respect for justice, collective action, and transparency of the negotiation process.Herlambang delineates the pre-negotiation steps as these: Farmers come to legal aid offices as clients in a land dispute, and legal aid lawyers facilitate the strengthening of the farmers' organization or group. His staff then involves the farmers in a participatory dialogue to examine the history of the land under dispute and the farmers' current situations. This step also includes gathering any documents or evidence of ownership and recording oral history of the area. Local values and traditions which help to support the farmers' claims are reviewed. These values and traditions can include rituals that involve the land, and even songs and folk stories which support the farmers' connection to the area. Physical and social participatory mapping is then undertaken so that the community is clear about the boundaries of the area they are claiming. Later, an analysis of the risks involved and identification of potential allies and foes is detailed. After further consolidation of the group or organization, they develop a network with other groups involved in a similar process. A legal prospectus is outlined, and a negotiating team formed. Lastly, the farmers are helped in preparing a form of media to be used during the reclaiming process. The actual reclaiming negotiations are undertaken when the farmers feel that they are ready. Negotiations are held with plantation owners, the regional government, and the regional office of agrarian affairs. The objective is to obtain acknowledgment of the community's ownership. At that point, the land is either occupied or food crops are planted. Signs proclaiming the land to be owned by the community are posted and boundaries are marked.Reclaiming facilitated by Herlambang has been successful in cases in East Java, as well as Central and West Java. Herlambang has been asked to facilitate cases in other areas of Indonesia as well. The reclaiming movement has received wide coverage in the mass media, and together with the farmers' organizations he supports, Herlambang has faced the challenge of making the media coverage more sympathetic to the movement. Herlambang is also concerned with post-reclamation issues. He knows the process doesn't end with successful land recovery; it must also address control over the reclaimed area (such as the system of planting rights), development of the system of production, and access to markets and distribution networks. At the conclusion of one successful case, the farmers' office was turned into an information and training center which focuses on both pre- and post-reclamation problems. Representatives from other rural communities facing land disputes, some of them from outside the country, come to the center to learn valuable lessons in preparing to retake contested lands. In February 2001, Herlambang helped facilitate the East Java Farmers' Congress, a well-attended event that focused on his approach to land reclaiming. He is also using the Indonesian legal aid network as a means to further spread his ideas. Additionally, he and his staff are often speakers in national forums or consultants in other regions. Numerous articles have been written about Herlambang's work, and together with Boedhi Wijardjo, he has written a book entitled Reklaiming dan Kedaulatan Rakyat (Reclaiming and the Sovereignty of the People). Herlambang plans to continue working on this issue with rural communities in Indonesia, and foresees the application of his methodology to other areas such as mining, fishery, and forestry disputes. Although the legal aid network is presently effective for the spread of his idea, Herlambang plans in the future to establish his own organization.

The Person

The people of Herlambang's home village are descendants of plantation workers forced to migrate from Central Java to East Java during the Dutch colonial period. Realizing that cultural practices differentiated his village from others in the region, Herlambang became interested in the links between culture, history, and economics. While in high school, he was particularly interested in civics, because the teacher was the first he'd ever encountered who encouraged his students to think critically, even to criticize Indonesian laws. He entered college on a merit scholarship, and was editor of the student newspaper and a leader of the student senate throughout his university days. While he was still a student in law school, Herlambang volunteered at the Legal Aid Society in Surabaya. He gained useful experience working in various divisions, but coming from a family of farmers in a plantation region of East Java, he had a special concern for cases involving farmers and land disputes. Upon graduation from law school, he joined a legal aid staff where he became coordinator of the farmers' division. In 1998 he wrote a paper for a national legal aid forum in Jakarta which described three scenarios for settling land disputes: theft, social banditry, and reclaiming. The movement he described as "Reklaiming" attracted much interest and debate. He has been the key initiator and facilitator of this approach.