By Hwei-See Kay (LPP 2019)
University of Technology Sydney

A practical understanding of structural inequality on Pulau Pari

As an intern with LBH Jakarta I was lucky enough to be involved in a mobile legal education clinic to Pulau Pari (Pari Island). Although I didn’t know it at the time, this experience would draw together so many important lessons and reflections from throughout the Law Professional Practicum Program.

LBH Jakarta is the oldest legal aid organisation in Indonesia and specialise in ‘structural legal aid’, what we would call public interest law in Australia. While they are able to give legal advice to anyone who walks through the door, their long-term advocacy is focused on addressing structural inequality in the legal system. That may sound quite abstract but four short weeks interning with them through the LPP program provided an incredible insight into what this actually means in practice.

LBH Jakarta is currently providing legal representation to the residents of Pulau Pari who live in the Thousands Islands off the coast of Jakarta. The two main legal issues of Pulau Pari residents are land title disputes and criminalisation of community members. The land title disputes concern a corporation claiming title to almost ninety per cent of the island. The dispute arose because most of the citizens of Pulau Pari do not have official land title documents although some of the residents have lived there for seven generations. LBH Jakarta successfully challenged the process of the corporation gaining land titles and the National Ombudsman declared that the process involved maladministration. The National Land Agency is still considering what to do about legal rights to the land.

The criminalisation of community members involved Pulau Pari residents being arrested and imprisoned for conducting activities such as charging a small entry fee to beaches on the island, a common practice at Indonesian tourist spots. LBH Jakarta successfully challenged the imprisonment of the residents and they were eventually released. But of greater concern is the likelihood that the arrests and imprisonment were a method of intimidation to discourage further activism for land rights.

Through talking to my colleagues at LBH Jakarta, accompanying them on a trip to Pulau Pari and doing some extra research, I was able to understand the practical implication of many of the concepts and complexities that we had discussed in theory earlier on in the LPP program. The practical challenges of legal pluralism and weak enforcement mechanisms for existing law were a common theme throughout the lectures given during the first two weeks of the program. In theory we could recognise the difficulty of trying to formalise and enforce different laws across a diverse archipelago. In the classroom it was of course simple to say that the law should be more formal, clear and enforcement should be strengthened.

But in practice, learning about the issues faced by the Pulau Pari community affirmed to me that addressing these challenges requires far more nuance than simply enforcing existing law or prioritising a more formal (or Westernised) legal system. On Pulau Pari, the corporation misused the formal system of land titles to deprive local residents of their land rights. Further, criminalisation and imprisonment were an attempt to intimidate residents and discourage them from asserting their rights. This intimidation hasn’t worked. The Save Pulau Pari coalition continues to fearlessly pursue rights to the land they have lived on and cultivated for generations.

The situation on Pulau Pari demonstrates that it is misguided to assume that stronger enforcement or a more formalised legal system can resolve complex legal issues when it can in fact exacerbate inequality. My internship with LBH Jakarta provided an invaluable opportunity to learn about what structural inequality in the legal system actually is and what can be done to address it.