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Published onMay 31, 2023

Transmigration is an ostensibly voluntary state-led, internal migration scheme that is aimed at redistributing population, alleviating poverty, and boosting agricultural production (Arndt 1983; Ghazoul 2013; Tirtosudarmo 2021). In Indonesia, transmigration is arguably the longest and largest development program by scale and impacts. Government-sponsored resettlement in the archipelago dates back to 1905 when the Dutch colonial government sent Java’s landless poor to Sumatra, a policy that was welcomed by planters facing labor shortages (Levang and Sevin 1990). After independence, the Indonesian government continued resettlement under the larger-scale transmigration program with the support of the World Bank and other international donors. Two million people were resettled during its peak between 1980 and 1986, causing social problems in several regions due to drastic changes in demographic composition (World Bank 1988).

In contemporary Indonesia, transmigration has been part of agricultural megaprojects through establishment of new resettlement villages and incorporation of lands cultivated by previously resettled populations. With the aims of increasing national agricultural production, the government distributes lands to resettled families who will subsequently engage in farming activities in the country’s peripheries (Elmhirst 2012). Both transmigration and state-led agricultural megaprojects fell short in achieving the intended socio-economic development targets as the country continues to depend on rice imports to feed its 275 million populations who remain concentrated in Java (Adhiati and Bobsien 2001; Goldstein 2016). “Biopolitics” as a conceptual framework for examining techniques to intervene in and control populations may offer a vantage point for understanding the rationales of continuing the transmigration program amid its shortcomings from the state’s perspective.

Michel Foucault (2003) describes “biopower” as a new political rationality that focuses on the administration of life as its subject. This new form of power to “make live or let die,” complements, rather than replaces the traditional sovereign’s rights to “take life or let live.” The birth of biopower can be traced back to the emergence of various techniques to discipline individual bodies, such as those applied in the school and the army during the 17th century. The second form of biopower, which concerns the administration of human as species, emerged during the 19th century with the burgeoning of various institutions that enable intervention to life at the level of populations. This includes the management of human’s reproduction, health, and behavior. In the words of Foucault (2019, 137), such a power “exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.”

Transmigration program can be understood as a form of biopower that is exercised by the Indonesian state to amplify the life chances of certain populations, specifically the Javanese, by resettling them to sparsely-populated regions. The Ministry of Villages, Development of Disadvantaged Regions, and Transmigration administers resettlement through coordination with various governmental institutions that oversee labor, medical, and agricultural affairs. Transmigration involves a lengthy bureaucratic process of calculating who is deemed worthy of receiving state benefits, which include land, house, farming inputs and 18-months of groceries (worth $235/month). Selection process includes administrative screening, interview and written tests, medical examination, and completion of a 2-month pre-departure farming workshop (Ministry of Transmigration 2021). This training is meant to equip the transmigrants with agricultural knowledge and skills deemed necessary to transform the “underutilized lands” in less-developed provinces into productive farms (Li 2011).

As a biopolitical process, transmigration inflicts violence albeit different than those in the plantation and the colonies (Dillon 2019; Mbembe 2008). Resettlement to Indonesia’s peripheries requires the imagination of migration frontiers as empty “wilderness” (Cons and Eilenberg 2019). Upon their arrivals in transmigration destinations, each participating family typically receives two hectares of lands, which often overlap with communal lands inhabited by indigenous communities. Dispossessions and the influx of migrants have caused socio-economic pressures on local populations that in some provinces, transmigration has resulted in extreme demographic changes. It is estimated that in the 1980s more than half of the three million populations of Lampung were transmigrants. In West Papua, transmigrants have outnumbered the Melanesian populations who have inhabited the region for 50,000 years only in 50 years since the province was included as resettlement destination (Fearnside 1997).

Why does transmigration, which only support certain lives get normalized as a scheme to manage population and develop economically-behind regions? The first rationale of transmigration as part of agricultural megaproject is akin to the enactment of the “state of exception” by the German state during the second World War as observed by Agamben (1997). In the case of the Food Estate project—Indonesia’s most recent 2.3-million hectares agricultural megaproject—anticipation of pandemic-related food crisis became the state of exception that justified the non-democratic policy-making process behind its enactment (Naqsyabandy 2021). It culminated in the appointment of the Ministry of Defense and the military to oversee the project in the province of Central Kalimantan, which is generally perceived by the public as a way to silence disagreements. The government justified such a decision through the deployment of discourses of war, particularly emphasizing that food insecurity is an issue of security that must be resolved through exceptional mechanisms. General Moeldoko, a former military commander who currently leads the Presidential Staff emphasized on the necessity of the development of the Food Estate as means to ensure national security:

In defense strategy, there is strategic compartmentalization [...] how to defend large islands independently [...] for the place to survive it should have strong logistics (Tempo, 2021).

The second rationale of transmigration pertains to the racialized labor regime of state-led agricultural megaprojects, which hinges on the belief that certain bodies are more suitable for agricultural works than the other (Besky 2021). The Indonesian government holds the perception of sedentary irrigated rice cultivation as the pinnacle of civilization that signifies development (Dove 1985). The state perceives the Javanese who practice such a farming method as “real” farmers. In contrast, local communities who engage in swidden agriculture are perceived as “lazy natives” whose “backward” practice destruct the environment and must be stopped (Alatas 2013). Such a myth is still very much alive in the minds of officials and becomes the basis of continuation of resettlement to remote regions as means to transmit knowledge and methods on irrigated wet rice cultivation to local populations. As former Vice-President Jussuf Kalla puts it:

The transmigration program is meant to provide welfare for both transmigrants and local inhabitants. The Javanese and Balinese generally have better agricultural skills and show more diligence in farming than local populations. It is hoped that skills transfer can occur through the transmigration program (quoted in Tempo 2019).

In sum, transmigration entails biopolitical processes that are aimed at improving the lives of certain populations through resettlement. In the context of contemporary agricultural development in Indonesia, its enactment hinges on the racialized labor regime that is normalized through the state of exception in the form of pandemic-related food crisis.


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 Author Biography

Made Adityanandana is a PhD student in Development Studies at Cornell University in New York. His dissertation is about the work experiences of migrant farmers in a state-led agricultural development megaproject in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

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