Squatters Need Not Apply

Aug 01, 2012
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Illegal squatters in Jakarta struggle for recognition of their homes and livelihoods.

One of Sasqi’s allies is Iwan, who openly calls himself an activist. He has been living in Bongkaran for more than seven years. He bought land there from someone who provided him with legal documents to the land, hoping that it would be a safe place to raise his children. However, the documents turned out to be false, and his small house, barely big enough for himself, his mother and his two daughters, is actually located on state-owned land. So Iwan has no legal basis to claim compensation if the state wants him and his family out. He is indignant at being considered an illegal resident, but he faces his situation with humour: ‘My house isn't legal. Who cares? Everyone here is illegal. But we still have to pay tax. If we don't, we can expect a visit from the preman.’

Iwan has worked constantly with foreign and local civil rights organisations in an effort to achieve better living conditions and recognition of Bongkaran as a neighbourhood. NGO activities have dropped off in the last two years but Iwan keeps up his activism, making his opinion of the government clear with his printed t-shirts that carry slogans like ‘Stop lying to the people!’ He has built networks with activists in other squats, and together they often organise protests and meet with officials. To him, these collective acts prove that even illegal residents can do something about the city’s problems.

1255 Cycling through one of the countless alleys of Bongkaran. Photo: Lukas Ley

The struggle continues

Like Ariel, Sasqi and Iwan, many people continue to lead shadowy lives in Bongkaran. They are not complete outcasts in the city – in fact they have been quite successful in integrating themselves into the city’s economy and at times they are politically significant actors – but they remain excluded from government programs and access to social security. The stigma attached to their place of residence means they often have to resort to illegal acts like bribery and fraud to deal with everyday life.

Bongkaran has many problems, among which are insufficient waste management and organised crime. Localised self-government as a substitute for state authority sometimes produces viable solutions, but the residents have no access to the political and economic resources available at the district level if they want to solve problems in their community. And the city's urban development policies still have the potential to randomly uproot and destroy communities like Bongkaran, even as they struggle to insert their hardworking members and services into the city's still-diverse economy.

North Jakarta is changing rapidly. Investors are impatient to develop more land. The current city governor, Fauzi Bowo, promotes aggressive zoning and land rehabilitation programs. Bongkaran's residents are therefore bound to experience strong pressure from authorities anxious to make more productive use of government-owned land and exercise tighter control over its property. The heads of legal neighbourhoods bordering Bongkaran are aware of these pressures. In stepping up their own land regulation efforts, they further disengage from the illegal neighbourhood, which they consider a lost cause.

There is hope, however, that some residents could benefit from Jakarta's increasing commitment to state-subsidised housing and homeownership programs, or at least receive compensation for losing their property and homes. The outcome might depend on the extent to which Bongkaran's emblematic and powerful figures can unite residents behind a common project, and emphasise the neighbourhood's social and economic importance for the region.

Lukas Ley is a PhD student in Social Anthropology at the Ecole Des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

This article was first published in Inside Indonesia.