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Maintaining fluidity, demanding clarity: The dynamics of customary land relations among Indigenous people of Siberut Island, West Sumatra

Darmanto, . (2016) Maintaining fluidity, demanding clarity: The dynamics of customary land relations among Indigenous people of Siberut Island, West Sumatra. Other thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis studies customary land relations among the Indigenous Mentawaian people of Siberut Island, West Sumatra. Based on a three-month period of fieldwork in Muntei, a government settlement in the southeast of Siberut Island, this thesis analyses how Mentawaians arrange rights to land. Traditionally, access to land has been tied to vertical reciprocity with ancestors and horizontal reciprocity with other Mentawaians in which the exchange of gifts mediate land relations. In an egalitarian agrarian setting, rigid rules are not necessary since access to land is the domain of interpersonal relationships that depend upon both concrete and imaginative social relations. Rules would be explicitly enunciated for the purpose of judging and sanctioning or finding 'true' claimants, but are in most contexts better understood as a kind of legal sensibility, allowing Mentawaians to reconfigure social relations and practices, adjust political alliances, and adapt to external stimulus. Over time, incorporation into wider political and economic relations through cash crop production and state intervention has triggered land privatization and commodification, resulting in the resurfacing of past conflicts and the emergence of new forms of dispute. Customary land tenure, then, is being reconfigured with attempts to maintain dynamic principles of ancestrally sanctioned social relationships through land, while accommodating partly conflicting aspirations for economic and legal certainty. The desire to maintain fluidity while seeking clarity is particularly reflected in the modification of the customary institution for land dispute management (tiboi polak).

The emphasis on flexibility and continual adjustment of Mentawaian customary land tenure is particularly important given the recent attempts by local government and NGOs to introduce formal legal procedures for land administration. The contention of this thesis is that a narrowly legalistic approach to land rights is inadequate to understanding the social dynamic of customary tenure that operates among Mentawaians and to offer solutions for dealing with contested land claims. Providing sufficient land tenure security either for protecting customary rights (the aim of community mapping by NGOs) or for securing land for development programs (through government regulation) has to be located beyond the binary opposition between customary (adat) law and state law. Instead of focusing on a top-down and legalistic approach through the systematic formalization of landownership and the designation of customary territory, district government and NGO efforts require a more nuanced approach that begins with legal sensibilities and associated cultural processes entailed in the indigenous dispute management system, tiboi polak. The accommodation of tiboi polak into the state legal order without the imposition of formal title or permanent fixation of claims may provide a platform that could enable Mentawaians the possibility of maintaining the fluidity and social underpinning of customary land relations while seeking clarity and security of access to land.

Publication Type: Thesis (Other)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Arts
Notes: Research Masters with Training
Supervisor: Warren, Carol
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