The Periurban as the Space of Exception

Anne-Marie Willis, after surveying a number of uses of the term periurban by various scholars, summarizes the association underpinning the notion of periurban:

Over-reading, then, the periurban seems to be characterized by flux: rapid changes in land-use, built forms, economic activities; mismatches between administrative structures and territory; influxes of new populations; conflicts between new and existing landholders; and visually, somewhere that seems disjunctive, that jars with longstanding preconceptions of the distinctiveness of places, as either fundamentally rural or urban. Linked to this is that the periurban is also nearly always associated with the naming of problems, whether these be issues of urban governance, exploitation of labor, lack of planning and infrastructure, degradation of natural resources and biodiversity or threats to urban food security through loss of agricultural land. This would suggest that change in these territories is undirected, random, opportunistic. The periurban could be considered as a naming of ever-changing spaces of opportunism.87

What we learn from this characterization of the periurban is that it is a space filled with both potentials and problems where lack of planning and governance could mean excessive control and vice versa. In this sense, the lack of governance is a form of governance. Periurban may be better understood as a “space of exception” which, to appropriate Giorgio Agamben, is set “in an ambiguous, uncertain, borderline fringe, at the intersection of the legal and the political.”88 As with the case of the periurban of Jakarta, the region was made possible and thus governable and productive by the construction of the category of floating mass. The periurban, with all its problems, informality, and opportunities outlined by Willis, is, in fact, a space with political calculation and a mode of governing population through violence of category. In this sense, the periurban can be defined as the establishment, by means of the space of exception, to appropriate Agamben again, “of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system.”89

As a space of exception, the periurban has its own form of governance, one that is often considered exceptional. It is exceptional because the borderline fringe keeps alive the possibilities for new enterprises and for the state to exploit its resources in the project of constructing new subjects. For instance, in cooperation with the Ministry of Home Affairs, the extended space of Jakarta (especially in the extended areas to the south and the west) was made available for private investors to invest in and develop into a series of organized, and thus secured, new towns for residences.90 Based on the principle of “large public-private partnership in urban land development and management,”91 this new space at the fringe is expected to absorb some of the burden of population growth in Jakarta. For instance, the first major consortium, Bumi Ser- pong Damai (BSD), which consists of ten real estate companies, represented just this attempt “to establish a self-contained New Town” for a new life.92 The new town is managed by private developers and not by the city hall of Jakarta. However, it would be misleading to say that the residential and industrial zones have developed outside the state policies. Instead, while government has refrained from getting involved in the management of new town, it exerts benefit from the politics of space, which is to turn the fringe into a territory supportive of “national development.”93

On the edge of Jakarta, occupying an exceptional space, the periurban allows the private sector and the local government to benefit from overriding land use planning, permits, and regulation. For instance, in the course of the 1990s, when large-scale constructions of profitable new towns were booming, the government regulation on land in the areas had changed several times for the convenience of developers and to attract further investments. The effect was a series of land conversions, as Dharmapatni and Firman point out, such that “pressures on prime agricultural land in other places such as Teluk Naga, Tangerang, have continued, as a consortium of seven private developers is presently applying for 4,500 ha to be developed as a ‘modern tourism city.’”94 Situated at the uncertain intersection between the legal and the political, there are ample opportunities for different informal enterprises to grow. One among others is the proliferation of informal fees and “brokers” (calo), including “thugs” (preman), in the system of land acquisition and building construction for development.95 The extended space is characterized by lack of ambiguity and looseness, a condition that allows possibilities for informal enterprises to grow. It seems advantageous for the space of the periurban to maintain such a degree of ambiguity, and thus endless possibility for the informal exploitation of the resources of the area. In the end, the ultimate agent is not the state but the assemblage of loosely affiliated social political forces and actors capable of preparing “development programs” for themselves.

Finally, as a space of exception for the exercise of displacement, one might also raise the question of resistance and what the space has meant for the displaced, as did Maruli Tobing and Emmanuel Subangun in 1980. These two well-known journalists asked precisely this question in a metropolitan press:

When all the efforts of the poor, year after year, decade after decade, have brought

no prospect of real change into their experience, we may ask: why do these hungry, debt-ridden people not protest? Isn’t protest against injustice a continual, central element in the wayang (traditional shadow-puppet) stories and in all other kinds of popular myths? . . . Then why, in the concrete reality that has surrounded millions of poor peasants for decades, as the village has been incorporated into the open economy and extreme poverty is now juxtaposed with excessive life-styles—why do the peasants not protest?96

Depending on how we interpret differentiation within the seemingly monolithic notion of “the peasant,” it seems that Tobing and Subangun were nonetheless disturbed by the absence of resistance. One could look for “resistances of everyday life” and the subtle expression of the “weapons of the weak,”97 but the periurban has been sustained (for over three decades) not merely by force and isolation but also by opportunity and mobility in which the exploited, too, are contributing to the operation of power. The decline of the peasantry in the periurban and indeed beyond is due in large measure to the regime intolerance of any political organization in the village, the military coercion and self-policing of the victims,98 but it is also due to the mobile opportunities opened up by the spatial ambiguity of the periurban.

For instance, on the side of the “soft power,” the new town (with its conception of an American suburban house) could never be as exclusive and self-contained as it has been promoted. For the operation of their daily lives, the residents of the new town continue to rely on housemaids, vendors, security guards, drivers, and workers from outside the “gated community.” The new towns provide opportunities for rural family members to work as off-farm workers. They promote the integration of rural and periurban labor markets and help to alleviate poverty in the village, but at the same time, they contribute to the decline of labor in the agricultural sector. Meanwhile, the imposition of the new town raises land prices, and even with the draconian method of land acquisition, agricultural landowners are inclined to benefit from selling their property to developers. Dharmapatni and Firman point out that “uncontrolled conversion of prime agricultural land has been exacerbated by the reluctance of farmers to retain their land as land prices increase,”99 for they, too, are eager participants of the wheel of fortune opened up by the space of exception. The massive conversion from agricultural land to development sites was marked by power relations, in which agricultural households basically gave up their lands with unfair compensation. However, such “submission” was encouraged in part by the decline of agriculture where, for farmers in the areas, selling their land became much more profitable than cultivating the fields for paddy.

Many farmers’ lands are continuously being sold, often in an unjust marketplace, but many of these displaced individuals have found options of relatively higher wages in the low-wage regime of the industrial and housing construction sectors developed in their region. In some ways, the systematic decline of the wages in the farming sectors is due to the state policy of integrating rural and urban labor markets. Studying the relation between economic development and poverty reduction in Indonesia, Rick Barichello indicates that over the past two decades (starting from the mid-1980s), “there have not been large budget allocations to the agricultural sector” and “little has been done to enhance productivity of the agricultural crops and commodities.”100 And yet, why do the peasants not protest in the midst of declining rural livelihoods? The reason may well be that, as Barichello and others have pointed out, the income growth and poverty reduction in rural areas are being taken care of by nonfarm income and the integration of rural-urban labor markets. In accomplishing this task, the periurban has played a historical role.

The world of the peasantry has been transformed via the formation of the periurban areas. Such spatial formation, I argue, needs to be understood as a paradigm of governance with a mission to temporarily and permanently solve problems that are at once demographic, economic, and political.

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