Photo for Everyday speculation and resistance among...

Leitner and Sheppard in the field / Photo: Eric Sheppard

UCLA Professors Helga Leitner and Eric Sheppard present their field study of how residents in Jakarta, Indonesia navigate displacement, dispossession and the rebuilding of their lives.

by Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

"People continue to live in ways that extend beyond the edges of the capitalist economy surrounding them in the form of these large corporate real estate projects," said Eric Sheppard, professor and Alexander von Humboldt Chair of Geography at UCLA.

In a virtual lecture in May 2021 hosted by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies and UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asia Studies, Sheppard and Helga Leitner, UCLA professor of geography, described their research on the remaking of the peri-urban areas of Jakarta, Indonesia. They argue that these spaces in-between urban and rural are no longer an "appendage to urban cores in southern metropolitan regions" as they are now dominated by domestic and global corporate and capitalist interests that shape the economy and culture of the region.

However, their research shifts the lens onto the peri-urban residents themselves to examining their practices of "everyday speculation" and ways of navigating these changing landscapes.

Corporate pressures on everyday residents

As Leitner described, rice paddies and fertile land have been quickly replaced by industrial development or commercial and residential estates built for Jakarta's middle class creating "an incredibly fragmented frontier." These transformations were clearly driven by private corporate developers.

Sheppard also noted the importance of thinking about induced displacement, whereby developers offer families what seem like huge sums of money for the rights they hold to their property. However, their field interviews revealed that developers were operating in a context in which residents felt that selling their property was their only option.

Because developers already hold monopoly land rights over the area, Leitner underscored the highly unequal processes of land speculation. Developers and land brokers pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy, pressuring kampung residents to sell and relocate. There are also inequalities created among residents themselves during induced displacement, reflecting residents' different positionalities in terms of wealth, gender and social networks.

"For many, displacement is nothing new," Leitner added, noting that many of the families interviewed experienced multiple displacements throughout their life. She also noted that "collective negotiations often fail because of different aspirations and socioeconomic statuses among kampung residents" on top of increasing pressure and worsening conditions.

Contestations from the margins

Notwithstanding their marginality relative to developers, Leitner and Sheppard find that kampung residents also shape the peri-urban landscape through their economic speculations in land and property, and cultural speculation on imagined alternative futures to that of living in a large private development. Because of the focus on community in the kampung, strong mutual aid networks are created. In one interview, a resident who was displaced from her kampung said, "I would like to live in a kampung again! Unlike in a housing complex where people live individually, the relationship between neighbors in the kampung are stronger. I have more freedom here as well!"

Leitner and Sheppard found that relocated residents sought to recreate kampung life to some extent after displacement, even when finding employment was difficult, especially for women facing age barriers blocking entry to the workplace. Many thus resort to informal labor or unskilled factory jobs and piecework. As the employment base and class and ethnic structures shift with displacement, new arrivals are also valued for bringing fresh ideas to mutual aid efforts.

While some kampung residents use the money they receive through induced displacement to speculate economically, for example building rental properties as an alternative income source, they also speculate to realize a future of a home for themselves embedded in valued kampung life, thereby also shaping their own realities. Ultimately, Leitner and Sheppard concluded, "Land speculation enables alternative use values of urban commoning and mutual aid."

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Published: Thursday, September 1, 2022