Jakarta – Failure to clear the 2,000 hectares of land that China's Xinyi Glass needs to develop the US$11.6 billion project on 17,000-ha Rempang Island near Singapore, comprising an eco-city and production facilities for solar photovoltaic panels and glass, could damage the government's credibility in policymaking and law enforcement.
It could also adversely affect another Xinyi Glass factory currently under development at the Java Integrated Industrial and Port Estate (JIIPE) in Gresik, East Java.
These risks could materialize if the government doesn't resolve its haphazard handling of land acquisition for the Rempang Eco-City project that set off violent clashes between local communities and the police on Sept. 7 and 11. The use of repressive measures and the plan to forcibly evict local residents to make way for the project are egregious violations of human rights that will only plant a social time bomb, and one that could detonate with even more devastating national and international impacts.
The government should therefore restart the land acquisition process with real and meaningful consultations with local communities spanning free, prior and informed consent, and in line with the prevailing laws and regulations. This process could take weeks or even months, but in the long run, will ensure that the project progresses smoothly.
The violence should be blamed squarely on the government's shoulders for its poor handling of the project and its complete ignorance of the importance of consulting openly with the people of Rempang, who have been living on the island for many generations.
We cannot understand why the government began only in July to approach those people that will be affected by the project. In fact, no real and meaningful consultations have been held with the local community, just a handful of meetings where officials flexed their authority rather than engaging with Rempang's native inhabitants.
Government Regulation No. 24/1997 recognizes the de facto right to land of people who have inhabited an area for more than 20 years, and even stipulates that these people are given top priority when distributing land titles. In addition, the 2022 Job Creation Law mandates the land acquisition process to incorporate broad space for dialogue and the state, investing companies and the affected community to take a collaborative approach. The government must therefore reschedule its Sept. 28 land acquisition deadline to adhere to these provisions.
But it seems the government has been obsessed with rushing the land acquisition for the project ever since Xinyi Group and its Indonesian joint venture partner, PT Berkah Elok Graha, signed an investment agreement on July 28 in Chengdu, which was witnessed by President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and Investment Minister Bahlil Lahaladia.
It also seems that the government assumed that the acquisition would proceed as smoothly as Xinyi's $700 million glass factory project in the JIIPE.
But the status of the land involved in the two projects is different. Acquiring the 1,000 ha for Xinyi's JIIPE project was hassle-free because that land belonged to the joint venture between AKR Group and state-owned port operator Pelindo.
However strategic and beneficial the Rempang project might be to economic development, the island's residents must be consulted from the outset and be informed of what they and their children stand to gain from the project.
It has been a quarter century since the reform movement. By now, the government should have learned from the many other land disputes that people usually develop psychological and cultural roots in the land they have occupied for generations, and hence, that land disputes are often emotionally charged.
Real and meaningful direct consultation is therefore key. The best security for a big investment project is the local community's full understanding that they will directly benefit from its development, whether through more jobs or a multiplier effect on the local economy and businesses.
Achieving such understanding requires a long, patient process of communicating and consulting with residents, who in many cases are unused to articulating their interests and aspirations. And it is the government's duty to take them by the hand and guide them through the process.