This paper is an introduction to a more detailed discussion of land access and sovereignty in the AKATIGA Journal of Social Analysis vol. 23 No.2 of 2019. The specific article can be downloaded. Also, read other interesting articles here!

Today I felt a bit nostalgic. I remember thirty years ago (when I was seven years old, guess how old I am now!), there were lots of spaces where my friends and I could play baseball, kites, or bicycle without feeling threatened by vehicles or evicted by land owners. Not uncommon that my parents reminded me not to run on the highway chasing kites, out of fear of getting hit by a car passing. But chasing a kite onto the highway is an extreme version – usually, running from the field through a neighbour’s yard is enough.

Currently, I am having trouble finding a playground for children. Sure, the city government provides many ‘parks’ in Bandung, but compared to the city’s population – and the fact that these parks are located quite a distance from housing estates – the sensation of playing in public spaces is no longer what it used to be. The city of Bandung also still has a large debt in filling up 30% of green open space in its spatial plan. Time is a little slower on the edge of Bandung, particularly on the north side of Dago, where I have interacted and compiled ethnographic records for at least the past six years. Even so, a similar phenomenon occurred. In these six years, I have seen little by little public spaces that are commonly used as a vehicle for cultural expression and social interaction have become more limited. Empty land belonging to ‘Jakartans’ that can usually be ‘borrowed’ by residents has now begun to be built, or sold to developers, or completely closed. I witnessed the negotiation process taking place between land owners and local residents trying to gain ‘access’ to the land – from ‘keeping the land clean’, ‘promoting the land owner’s name as a goodwill to the community’, to simply ‘borrowing’ the land, without the owner knowing about it.

Stories of ongoing struggles for access illustrate that for some, land sovereignty is not permanent. Land ownership is a privilege – in the midst of financial and social pressure, it is easy for land to change ownerships. However, to borrow Jesse Ribot and Nancy Peluso’s term, access is not necessarily property. My writing in the AKATIGA Social Analysis Journal reflects how access and land sovereignty are intertwined with the strategies of peri-urban communities seeking social and cultural spaces. This approach differs slightly from many land sovereignty narratives that focus on rural areas and livelihood spaces, where land is seen as a factor of production in the agricultural sector.

In cities, the issue is different because the community’s source of income is generally in the service sector, which does not require large areas of land – but that does not mean that this negates the importance of access to land for the community. In fact, this paper (hopefully) provides its own insight into the back and forth of agrarian issues in the context of rural and urban transitions.

I avoid the ‘silver bullet’ of agrarian reform and land redistribution as a solution for spatial reproduction, even though I realise that for many rural communities these solutions are very urgent. Conversely, in areas where disputes between public land and private interests linger, the ability of local communities to negotiate their access to land, however temporarily, is vital.

Alas, if we return to the original narrative of this paper, children have the discretion and privilege of not caring – breaking through the rigid boundaries of public and private spaces, running up real estate walls, playing ball in parking lots, or chasing kites through road sides. Ignorance is indeed bliss.

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