In Search of Emptiness (part 1 of 2)

03 May 2011 | Ferdiansyah Thajib - Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Instead of directly presenting a particular wasteland in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, I take a little (?) detour to mark some  of the limits delineating the space. I personally see these preliminary steps as important because of (1) my unfamiliarity with the conceptual understanding of wasteland in local context and (2) my trained habit as a researcher who tends to feel insecure about field trips without adequate baggage of textual- knowledge . Other instrumental rewards from employing this method is that not only it assists identification to  possible treatments required during the physical part of the research, but also in finding a suitable location  for the current project.

However I am also aware that digging too deep to piles of paper works would risk getting lost in informational maze, so in providing some of the framing here I am sticking to the use of key points to avoid overloading readers with too much details while securing my own attempt against the siren of ‘cultural relativist’ setup in describing the various aspects constituting ‘wasteland’ in local terrain.

1. Beating around the perimeters

- The idea of ‘wasteland’ is interesting to test out in local context. In Indonesian language it is commonly called as ‘tanah kosong’, literary vacant lot, empty land, or empty soil.

- Visually, the common condition of these land are they are fenced and inaccessible for public, but as you move to the city outskirts the less you will see fences around them and the more you will see a small-scale farm, usually conducted by local people with the owner permission, with a voluntary control over the land by the farmer as an exchange.These practices more often occur in smaller cities in Java, but in big cities such as Jakarta you can also still see some going on.

- There are also other forms of use, mainly for sporting grounds (usually around morning or afternoon), or small-businesses like opening a food stall (warung) (mostly in the evening) or plant markets. There  are also  periodical events  held here, such as: neighborhood special occasions, emergency parking lot, touring circuses, elections, and approaching the goat sacrificial day in Islamic calendar, wastelands in urban areas are randomly used as annual goat-market, while during the D-day, they become the place for goat massacre. All of the activities mentioned could rotate on the same site, or not.

2. Stumbling into  Invisible Owner(s)

- The general understanding of tanah kosong in urban areas is that the site is always temporally framed in future proprietary use, or shortly as  investment. For instance, when I said to some friends that I want to check out some tanah kosong. Their common responds would be: “Wow are you buying land now?”. The empty lot is never really empty of meaning because proprietary expectations will always already exists once the lot is empty.

- The emphasis on proprietary use resonates to the recent history of feudalism in Indonesia, in which land ownership stands for social economic status, often becomes source of horizontal conflict, and also intersects with Islamic law organization of  kinship via  inheritance system of land ownership

- Formally speaking, the state owns all vacant land. The law that regulates this is a legacy from the Dutch colonial, categorizing ownership into three types: state, private and communal (or ulayat in local tounge). State/ colonial ownership however may encompass the latter two when it comes to vacant land (tanah terlantar). To quote from Government Regulation no.36/1998 : "land which is not being used by its formal rights-holder… may be designated as vacant land by the National Land Agency. In this case the land fall under the direct control of the State", (Fitzpatrick, 2006).

The later point is only a quick glance of the Byzantine maze that constitutes land regulation in Indonesia. I will not delve too much into it for  reasons earlier mentioned. However in the second part of this preliminary notes I will jot down some of the implications of this tangled threads in the general wasteland conditions and how they relate to the specificity of (waste)lands in Yogyakarta.

To be continued…

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