Two decades ago, a group of Indonesian agricultural workers began occupying the agribusiness plantation near their homes. In the years since, members of this remarkable movement have reclaimed collective control of their land and cultivated diverse agricultural forests on it, repairing the damage done over nearly a century of abuse. Countering Dispossession, Reclaiming Land is their story. David E. Gilbert offers an account of the ways these workers-turned-activists mobilized to move beyond industrial agriculture’s exploitation of workers and the environment, illustrating how emancipatory and ecologically attuned ways of living with land are possible. At a time when capitalism has remade landscapes and reordered society, the Casiavera reclaiming movement stands as an inspiring example of what struggles for social and environmental justice can achieve.

David E. Gilbert is a postdoctoral researcher in society and environment at the University of California, Berkeley. He is active in protest movements across three continents.

You are an environmental anthropologist active in protest movements. So why did you choose to write about Indonesia’s Casiavera land reclaiming movement?

The Casiavera reclaiming movement points a new way forward for us as we try to make sense of the ways capitalism and the climate crises are threatening the survival of our world. Capitalism is now planetary, and it’s exploiting workers, forcing people off their lands, and destroying ecologies.

Yet in Casiavera, one time plantation laborers linked up to take action to get their land back from one of the twentieth century’s most terrifying combinations of illegitimate power: an authoritarian state and rapacious corporate agriculture company, or agribusiness. 

In the face of great oppression, Casiavera’s laborers and smallholder farmers found ways to struggle and thrive. Workers-turned-activists were able to occupy the land, dismantle a plantation company’s offices and barracks, and blockade the road up to the plantation when company ownership returned with the Indonesian Army to try and get it back from the reclaimers.

After years of conflict, Casiavera’s reclaimers held onto the land. They eventually found the peace and space to experiment in what I and other scholars call a solidarity economy, by cultivating food forests on land that is controlled collectively, with a local governing council. Autonomous zones, squats, commons, communes; these kinds of reclaimed lands go by many names—but we understand them as part of a global, Indigenous-led Land Back movement that is offering all of us a chance to confront and escape planetary capitalism and its problems from Indonesia to California and beyond.

What is different about the land in Casiavera today than when it was controlled by a plantation company?

Violent overseers, deforestation, men and women laboring as coolies, ranch-hands, planters, pickers, and pesticide sprayers — Casiavera’s reclaiming movement brought all of these ills of plantation agribusiness production to an end. Where once a military general-turned-plantation owner benefited from the land, now some two hundred families use it as a basis for their well-being. 

As the erstwhile plantation became a reclaimers landscape, people cultivated, tended, and harvested their food forests of avocado, fruit, cinnamon, and chocolate. The canopy closed, the land became alive with the sights, sounds, and smells of a thriving tropical cloud forest. 

Reclaimers’ changes to the ecology and livelihoods of the place allowed the land to become a wellspring of liberation from the oppression of plantation capitalism. New kinds of cooperation were built. The land became a resource used for social benefit. As an ongoing experiment in organizational and property politics, Casiavera’s reclamation suggests that anti-establishment, loosely organized efforts of collective control are indeed capable of transforming landscapes and sustaining workers’ livelihoods. 

You write that the Casiavera mobilization doesn’t offer a blue print for other movements. But what parts of this story are relevant to other similar situations around the world? 

It’s true that Land Back movements can’t be siloed into a single blueprint that can be cut out of whole cloth again and again. But the deep complexities of land struggles should not prevent us from looking to Casiavera to inform other movements. Casiavera’s reclamation attests to the fact that colonial and capitalist dispossession is a flawed enterprise. Land Back movements offer a way to go beyond these problems. 

The state directed hand-over of land to corporations for exploitation of resources that ostensibly belong to the people has been going on for so long few people stop to think about how odd this practice is. 

The Land Matrix research project has recorded 110 million hectares of corporate land grabbing, an area more than three times the size of Germany. In Indonesia alone, logging, plantation, and mining companies control some 15 million hectares of land, an area equivalent to almost one quarter of California.

Yet in Casiavera, agribusiness plantation company control, more than once, was overturned. Reclaimers in Casiavera went beyond first logging bosses then plantation overseers to point to a more livable future. 

The changes that unfolded across Casiavera show a different way to organize social and economic life, through their relations to land, work, and food production. Their insistence on controlling the land collectively, and allowing those poorest among them to be given priority for land access, to provide them a place to build a home and agricultural livelihood, provide us insights. The many social movements working for food sovereignty, land for the tiller, indigenous rights, and the environment are all in need of more dialogue on how to counter dispossession and move toward new lifeways, uncertain as this new topography of life remains. 

Now, millions of Land Back movement members across the world construct dreams of a better future. Land Back movements demand that the land and its resources be used by and for Indigenous Nations and landless peoples. It is about letting those that work the land determine the best path forward. Reclaimers’ experiences from Sumatra and beyond can provide a point of reference as more and more people seek to get the land back, go back to the land, and live lives in solidarity with workers and all living beings.