Research Projects CPAS

New Indonesian Frontiers

Stuck between market, state, civil society and the contest over natural resources

Indonesia is host to some of the richest and most diverse ecosystems on this planet. Despite its ecological value, Indonesia’s natural resources have been rigorously exploited since the late 1970s, to the disadvantage of the local population and often the ecosystem and its services. The radical institutional reforms of 1999 generated hope of fairer governance and equity and more sustainable ways of natural resource management. However, in some cases, developments have clearly gone in the opposite direction and the exploitation of natural resources has intensified: huge tracts of forest, land and water have been assigned to national and international logging, mining and oil palm companies.

The notion of new frontiers refers to these natural resource rich-regions. These new frontiers differ in many aspects from the so-called classical frontiers. Classical frontiers are areas near or just beyond a boundary of already settled areas or a developed territory, beyond the edge of ‘civilization’ and state control, i.e. transition zones. The term ‘new frontier’, by contrast, does not refer to ‘unmapped’ areas, never before ‘civilized’ or subjected to state control. New frontiers are regions that have recently witnessed a considerable decrease of state control, accompanied by an increase of lawlessness and resource and land grabbing. New frontiers are in short, regions that have undergone ‘decivilization’ processes because of political dissolution processes and the arrival of natural resource-oriented ‘wild-west capitalism’, with often-destructive consequences, socially, culturally and ecologically.

Given the unique historical conditions and strong political-economic dynamics in Indonesia, the notion of new frontiers provides a distinctive way to examine and unpack the political paradoxes surrounding resource extraction. Paradoxes that stem from the co-presence of the legal and the illegal, the formal and informal, the legitimate and the illegitimate, the public and the private, the ecological domain and the economic sphere, all in geographical and institutional spaces where new forms of social-economic interaction and new forms of cooperation are forged for the use of natural resources and to direct socioeconomic development.

By aiming to understand what these new frontiers and paradoxes are: (a) their causes and conditions; (b) the assemblage of actors involved; (c) the mechanisms and instruments that regulate resource control; and (d) the societal and ecological effects of the frontier mentality, this Joint Research Programme should provide insight into the question as to why the degradation and depletion of similar natural resources continues in certain regions whereas this process slows down or is curbed in others.

This programme’s sub-projects offer perspectives on various locations and from various angles and provide a framework for understanding ‘new Indonesian frontiers’. The main focus of our research will be on Kalimantan – a region thirteen times the size of the Netherlands – rich in natural resources and home to some of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. Several regions will be selected, that are ecologically, historically, ethnically, politically and socio-culturally different, yet connected by comparable processes of resource use and ecosystem services, habitation, foreign influxes and local initiatives for and against change.

This four-year long research project (2013-2017) is a collaboration between Radboud University Nijmegen, Gadjah Mada University, Mulawarman University, University of Balipapan and the Centre for  International Forestry Research (CIFOR). New Indonesian Frontiers is funded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (KNAW) and the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture under the Scientific Program DIKTI-SPIN PhD projects 2012-2017.

Under this program, seven PhD scholarships at Radboud University Nijmegen (the Netherlands) are available for the study of key New Frontiers issues in contemporary Indonesia. These scholarships are only available for Indonesian citizens. More information.

Project description.

Program Directors:
Dr. Edwin de Jong (Radboud University Nijmegen)
Prof. Dr. Muhadjir Darwin (UGM)

Information: tel: +31-243613059

1.  The Making and Remaking of Indonesian Frontiers: a historical and comparative perspective on frontiers regions

Project leaders: Dr. Edwin de Jong & Dr. Pujo Semedi

Most of the international concerns about ecological damage, marginalisation of indigenous peoples, deep-seated ethnic conflict, and bureaucratic corruption in Indonesia actually concern certain frontier regions. The local abundance of globally scarce resources that characterises these regions, their inadequate infrastructure, their remoteness from the metropolis and proximity to borders, and the sudden assault on  indigenous peoples living there combine to produce enormous governance problems. Contrary to the perception that these frontiers are “natural”, they are in fact made. Frontiers pass through a lifecycle that begins with opening, passes through an expansionary phase, and ends with closure. This project aims to understand key questions about the lifecycle of the frontier. For example: By what historical processes is a Southeast Asian frontier made, and how does a frontier close? What distinguishes frontier society from “normal” society? How does the frontier’s expansion and its closure affect the nation as a whole? How do different types of resources affect governance? Why is it so difficult to “tame” a frontier? It will do this comparatively, namely by studying various frontiers in East and West Kalimantan that are at different stages in their lifecycle.

2.  New frontiers in-between market and state: Understanding the social forces, interests and mechanisms in the new frontier regions of Kalimantan

Project leaders: Dr. Edwin de Jong & Dr. Pujo Semedi

New frontier regions comprise a number of actors that try to use and control natural resources. The assemblage of actors is diverse and opaque including state and non-state actors, some of them new, such as new kinds of globally operating NGOs and firms. Some actors play a dual role as regulators and rent seekers. These actors share one characteristic, the fact that they act as interface between diverging interests, all kinds of people, groups or organizations competing about the use or exploitation of natural resources. These actors are the driving force behind these new frontiers, the glue connecting competitors by offering money, security, support and legitimacy, depending on the context.

This research project aims therefore at identifying the kinds of social forces, interests and mechanisms that affect the dynamics of resource use and control in West and East Kalimantan to obtain a better understanding of why the degradation and depletion of similar natural resources continues in certain regions whereas this process slows down or is curbed in others.

Starting from the overall analytical framework of ‘new frontiers’ added with theories on relations (including patron-clients) and networks, local strongmen and ‘bossism’, one research region is selected in West Kalimantan and one in East Kalimantan. The sites are selected for strategic reasons, and represent typical ‘new frontier regions’ in which all the issues pointed out are to be found. Indeed, the ‘Danau Sentarum wetlands and Middle Mahakam Wetlands form economic hubs in the provinces of West Kalimantan and East Kalimantan respectively, as the majority of oil palm plantations and coal mining companies are established near the lakes or tributaries of the Kapuas and Mahakam river in this region.                           

3.  National Law and Regional Riches. Contesting Natural Resource Management in East Kalimantan

Project leaders: Dr. Laurens Bakker &Dr. Muhamad Muhdar

This research project is a study of the relation between official law in relation to natural resources management and exploitation in East Kalimantan. Whereas Indonesia strives to develop a clear and consistent legal system to govern its society and resources, the present laws on natural resources and the division of profits emanating from their exploitation contain overlaps, inconsistencies and ambiguities. Moreover, their authority is appropriated by central government agencies in the national capital of Jakarta and removed from such provincial or regional government authorities as are actually responsible for resource management and the implementation of the laws.

At these lower levels of government social, political and power relations make that the letter of the law and actual practice may differ considerably from one another. Here lies the double focus of this project which asks, first, where and how inconsistencies and ambiguities in laws and competition between authorities give rise to problems of interpretation and second, how these legal shortcomings are employed locally to authorize specific constellations of control over resources and the profits they generate. The project therefore consists of two approaches. The first is a comparative analysis of legislation governing natural resources management that is identified on the basis of both the legal codes and on advice received from Indonesian specialists. The second is a study of how (some of) the problems which we identified in the analysis of legislation impact the actual management of natural resources. Working on this second element in addition to our initial analysis, we aim to come to grips with insights into the actual conditions of law and normative that pertain to this ‘frontier area’ and so gain insights not only into the inconsistencies and problems that might theoretically arise from the current legislation but also gain an understanding of the effects these have in practice. Our final aim is to understand these practical situations in relation to such social, political and power relations as may found to exist in local society, for which we aim to collaborate closely with several of the other subprojects.     

4. Unbounding migration at the frontiers

Project leaders: Dr. Lothar Smith & Dr. Setiadi

This subproject reflects critically on territorial boundaries by exploring various ‘hidden’ borders that reflect frictions and discourses of practice that arise out of migration and human mobility, rather than formal boundaries. These hidden borders will, in many cases, not correspond to nation-state sovereignty (or similarly defined territories), but rather reflect alternative forms of governance of access to particular places and spaces with their corresponding resources. In this subproject, particular attention will be given to migration as one of the ways in which discourses on local livelihood practices are influenced. This will necessitate new models of livelihood governance that reflect these practices and understand the importance of certain levels of contestation and negotiation in ensuring these remain sustainable in the long run within a local environment, whether rural or urban, in Kalimantan.

In this project, a historical point of departure is used to critically appraise and analyse the rise of the apparently contemporary New Frontier.  The objectives of this subproject are:

1.   To review and better understand the impact of large-scale internal migration on the sustainability of local ecologies and economies.

2.   To assess the possible impacts and trade-offs arising from governmental large-scale interventions through migration programmes in terms of their impact on land use, including deforestation, land tenure rights, economic contributions and local livelihoods.

3.   To provide options for workable policy measures that are informed and refined to reflect multi-actor institutional practices by focusing on the friction zones these have produced.

Two intermediary reports will discuss key findings from the historically contextualised quantitative component and from the contemporary qualitative case study research, and this project will ultimately culminate in a PhD thesis.

5. Expanding markets shrinking borders, new frontiers

Project leaders: Dr. Martin van der Velde & Dr. Kristof Obidzinski

This subproject will reflect critically on territorial boundaries by exploring various ‘hidden’ borders that reflect frictions and discourses of practice that arise out of the particular role of commercial activities taking place in present-day Kalimantan, rather than formal boundaries. Explicitly it seeks to understand the influence of multinational actors, and this requires taking stock of the roles of global and local counterparts of these multinationals and the roles they play as a consortium in shaping multidimensional relationships with the local environment.  The concrete objectives of this subproject are to:

1.   Review and better understand the global and regional (Asia-Pacific) trends that are driving large-scale land acquisition for food, fibre and energy.

2.   Assess the possible impacts and tradeoffs of the new wave of investments (in terms of deforestation, land tenure rights, economic contributions, local livelihoods) and proposed investment projects and schemes in Indonesia.

3.   Provide options for workable policy measures, inform and refine existing market-based instruments, and encourage improved due diligence among financial institutions.

The research conducted in East Kalimantan, DKI Jakarta and possibly also Singapore will involve interviewing Chinese or Gulf affiliates who are investing in Kalimantan. The final product will be a PhD thesis although results and findings will also be presented in various papers at conferences held during the process.

6.  NGOs at the frontier: Conflicts over natural resources and the role of Non-governmental organizations in new frontier regions

Project leaders: Dr. Lau Schulpen & Dr. Bernaulus Saragih

New Frontier areas in Indonesia are richly endowed with natural resources. Since the government reforms in 1998, the state has either been unwilling or incapable of maintaining the rule of law in these new frontier areas. In this lawless context, there has been a large scale extraction of natural resources by an increasing number of private companies in areas such as palm oil production or mining. The result is a growing number of conflicts over natural resources between local communities on the one hand and regional governments and companies on the other hand.

Many of these conflicts are characterised by the involvement of NGOs. There are indications, however, that not all NGO involvement has been necessarily positive. Although generally perceived as working towards the public good, NGOs have been observed to initiate or stimulate violent conflicts or act as a cover up for groups of militant vigilantes. While the involvement of NGOs in over natural resources in the New Frontier Areas is decisive for the manner in which these conflicts will develop in the coming years, very little about them remains known.

This multiple case study examines the role of NGOs in the conflicts over resources in New Frontier Areas in Indonesia. Using a mixed methodology it seeks to clarify what kind of NGOs are involved in such conflicts, what their goals and interests are, what strategies they use to pursue their goals and how their activities affect, either positively or negatively, the conflict at stake. Empirically, this study draws upon four different conflict areas in Kalimantan. While there is no generally agreed upon definition of the term NGO (Lewis & Kanji, 2009), NGOs in this project are defined as ‘self-governing, non-market organizations, operating independent from the government, at least formally’.    

7.  Deliberative valuation of wetland ecosystem meanings and functions in New Frontier Areas, on Kalimantan, Indonesia, to enhance the sustainable and fair use of its services

Project leaders: Dr. Luuk Knippenberg & Dr. Ir. H.M. Sumaryono

New frontier areas are typified by the huge exploitation of natural resources and difficulties in controlling these processes because of strong, often perverse, economic incentives, missing institutions and the existence of opaque and fluid clusters of (semi-) public, civic and market-based actors. An extra complication is the presence of global interests and, increasingly, the involvement of global actors. These problems are very visible in Indonesia, and certainly in resource-rich Kalimantan.

The expectation is that the demand for natural resources will continue to grow during the coming decades. If so, the pressure on areas rich in natural resources will increase, and the search for new locations and new exploitation methods will intensify. The greatest economic benefits from the exploitation of natural resources typically flow to investors and the government, and often through processes that lack equity and fairness, especially by removing local people from their lands without proper restitution.

There is an urgent need for ideas and methods on controlling these processes. Nowadays, an often embraced method used to value natural resources and motivate people, governments and firms to act according to these values is economic ecosystem services valuation. Calculating the total economic value (TEV) of ecosystems and their services is widely seen as an appropriate method for visualising, preserving and improving the contribution of natural resources to human wellbeing. The underlying assumption is that actors such as governments, firms and the public will be more motivated to protect ecosystems and their services if these have a proven economic value. We argue, however, that a unilateral focus on economic ecosystem services validation will not do the job and may even be counterproductive. We plead for a more all-encompassing method known as narratively embedded ecosystem valuation (NEEV).

In this subproject, we will investigate and test whether our supposition is true.  This will involve several steps and use several methods, and focus on the Mahakam, the longest river in East Kalimantan. The river and its floodplain have important ecological, economic and social functions. The middle Mahakam lake area constitutes East Kalimantan’s largest freshwater system and is one of Borneo’s major wetland areas (Suryadiputra 2001). Over recent decades, however, vast ecological, social and demographic changes have taken place in middle Mahakam (Nooteboom and de Jong 2010).


Ethno-Religious Conflicts in Indonesia and the Philippines: A Comparative Study

This research investigates the influence of ethno-religious identification on support for collective violence among in areas of actual and potential conflict in Indonesia (Maluku and Yogyakarta) and the Philippines (Mindanao and Metro-Manila), while taking into account theoretically relevant contextual variables at the individual and societal level. Its innovative character lies in the application and development of an integrated theory of intergroup conflict, in formulating and empirically testing hypotheses for explaining cross-cultural and inter-individual differences of latent conflicts. It integrates theories and specific insights from anthropology, sociology and religious studies.


The State of Anxiety

This project, a multi-sited ethnography of security groups in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Java and Bali will examine contested practices of sovereignty in Indonesia today in the light of the burgeoning growth of these sites of non-state authority. It will investigate the present role of connections between these groups and more formal authority and examine the changing dynamics of these relations against the critical juncture of the fall of the New Order regime in 1998 and subsequent decentralisation. It will explore the hypothesis that collective violence as a form of social action plays a constitutive role in communal identities in Indonesia.


The Politics of Diversity: National Politics, Local Elites and the Management of Socio-cultural Heterogeneity in Yogyakarta (Indonesia)

This project is an anthropological study of the present and historical relationships among heterogeneous socio-cultural groups living in Yogyakarta (Indonesia). Its purpose is to provide a comprehensive and detailed understanding of the effect of national policies on diversity and particularly the role of local elites in coping with socio-cultural heterogeneity. The project will address the interface of power and deference faced by socio-cultural groups in Yogyakarta. More specifically, it will analyze how state power and legislation affect the ideological diversity of people in Yogyakarta to construct their strategies in politicizing and appreciating socio-cultural diversity. In other words, it will examine the discourses of relevant actors in Yogyakarta regarding the heterogeneity of life in the shadow of national policies on diversity. More in particular, this study aims at (1) analyzing how far the post-Reformasi government (since 1998) has changed its policies toward socio-cultural heterogeneity in Indonesia, and (2) reviewing the general issue of national unity and cultural diversity in Indonesia.


Adapting to Water Change: Socio-Ecological Resilience and Livelihood Innovation as a Consequence of Aquatic-Ecological Change and Changing Water Regimes of the Mahakam River, East Kalimantan, Indonesia

This project aims at understanding the complex interrelationships between aquatic-ecological and cultural systems under conditions of rapid hydrological and ecological change in the Middle Mahakam Wetlands, Kalimantan, Indonesia. It studies the perceptions and experiences of water-dependent communities on changing water quantity and quality and link these to the actual changes taking place in the aquatic system. As a second step, the consequences of changing water quality and quantity on human livelihoods and the processes of social-ecological resilience, environmental innovation, and the formation of new livelihoods will be studied.


Indigeneity as Cultural Capital in Tourism

This project addresses the question of why Indigenous Australians are increasingly interested to take an active part in the tourism arena. This question has risen, given that in practice Aboriginal people attach relatively little value to the actual meeting with tourists, which is, amongst others, manifest in the difficulties of the daily operation of Indigenous-owned enterprises, as has been studied ethnographically since 2004. Starting from the position that Indigenous (cultural) tourism in Australia is in essence an intercultural performance, this project studies the intercultural space in which Indigenous touristic encounters are created as well as the role of tourism in other socio-political contexts in which Aboriginal people act, with the ultimate aim of explaining the multiple facets at play in the Indigenous desire to enter into tourism.


Changing Properties of Property

This project focusses on the ways in which property has been conceptualised and on theoretical assumptions about the nature and function of different kinds of property in social, economic and political organisation. It also aims at exploring the links between property and related concepts such as entitlements, access, control, management, sustainability and resilience. The main focus will be on anthropological approaches, but at the same time it is intended to reach a better understanding of similarities and differences between anthropological, economic and ecological theories.


Multiple Identifications and the Self

This project addresses the question how individuals are constituted in and through cultural differences. More specifically, how do multiple forms of difference, such as culture, ethnicity, class and gender intersect within actors? And how can multiple differences within individual actors be acknowledged without representing their identifications as negative, damaged or in crisis? The focus will be on the mediation of multiple identifications within consciousness and individual constructions of self.


Well-being and Sustainability in Thailand

This research programme is based on a long-term relationship (since 1999) with researchers from the Wellbeing Institute and the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Khon Kaen University, located in Northeast Thailand. Historically the Northeast of Thailand or Isan is the least developed and poorest region of the country and missed the opportunity to fully benefit from the ‘miracle’ economic development that took place in Thailand of the 1980s and 1990s. The sandy and infertile soils, in combination with severe droughts and floods lead to small agricultural productivity in the region and ecological degradation. While the Isan covers approximately one third of Thailand’s land area and comprises about one third of the countries population (22 million people), the Isan adds only 15% to Thailand’s General Domestic Product (National Statistical Office Thailand, 2008). By that they have the lowest per capita income of the country, which is only 40% of the average national per capita income. The poor economic and environmental conditions and the consequent enormous outmigration, specific social organisation, and Buddhist-Laotian culture, provides an interesting setting for studying wellbeing and the changes that have taken place in people’s wellbeing (objectively and subjectively).