Remembering When Land Was There For Us

What might we mean by “tenants without landlords?” This feels like a zen koan, a provocation to help us pause and revisit our understanding of what’s possible. Every person might have a different journey of inquiry with such a prompt. I’ll share one of my recent journeys, allowing me to glimpse the profound sanity of a world without landlords.

I just returned from a 6-month sabbatical in which I traveled to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Kenya, Tanzania, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Fifteen years after becoming a lawyer, and 13 years after co-founding Sustainable Economies Law Center, I sought to immerse myself in places and cultures that could teach me what a kinder, more just, and more loving world can feel like. This is how I ended up spending a month in West Sumatra.

In front of a traditional Minangkabau home where I stayed with my \The culture and communities of West Sumatra feel palpably distinct from the rest of Indonesia, and even from other parts of Sumatra Island. West Sumatra is home to more than 4 million Minangkabau people, and 4 million more live outside of West Sumatra. The Minang are the world's largest matrilineal culture, resulting in a society where women effectively control the land. Before I say more about how this plays out, I must first emphasize how it feels to be in such a place: JUST… INCREDIBLE. And indescribable, almost like falling in love. Being in West Sumatra felt different, calming, enchanting, and just so, so…right. 

At home, in Oakland, California, there are several people and projects that give me glimpses of a world that feels this good. Through the Law Center, I have the joy of working with the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, which works to “rematriate” land to stewardship by Indigenous women, and with Homefulness, a group of Poor & Indigenous people co-building their own solutions to homelessness. With strong women leaders, these groups are working to create a patchwork of nurturing places in the East Bay, places where people can just live, grow food, take care of each other, and build vibrant cultures. 

In West Sumatra, these glimpses became an immersive experience for me, at a large scale and encompassing cities and vast rural areas. At a street food stand in the city of Bukittinggi (pop. 121,000), I serendipitously met Muslidar Masri, a retired English language school teacher. She told me she had turned her family home into a guest house nearby. I had no plans of spending so much time in West Sumatra, but my gut told me: this place is special. I ended up staying with Muslidar for 3 delightful weeks. On one of those days, I helped out in one of her large and wild gardens, and we took a break to chat. The following 8-minute video is a gem I captured from the conversation, offering glimpses into what is so powerful about a world where women make decisions about the land. Please give yourself the gift of watching this, even if just to enjoy Muslidar’s wonderful laughter: 

Women in Minangkabau society have long lineages of relationship to the land, and strong incentives to keep land in the family to provide for generations of daughters and their families to come. Buying and selling of land is not common. As a matrilineal society, traditionally, husbands move into the family home of the wives, and not the other way around. While men play significant roles in community governance, women ultimately decide about the land, and that has widespread ripple effects. I saw and heard many signs that this is beginning to change, particularly as people move out of traditional villages and into cities. However, this deep tradition has already shaped so many facets of West Sumatran life and economies.

Here is what I personally observed and what Muslidar and several Sumatrans anecdotally confirmed for me about West Sumatra: Severe poverty and low-wage labor are less common than in other places. Elsewhere in Indonesia, as Muslidar points out, many women have been forced to migrate in search of low-wage jobs. Other parts of Sumatra have also seen widespread burning of forests and replacement by palm oil plantations, where people labor to earn just a few dollars per day. In West Sumatra, I saw that many people lead humble, but relatively secure and relaxed lives. Large multinational companies haven’t gotten much of a foothold. I also did not see signs of opulent wealth. If people do accumulate disproportionate wealth in West Sumatra, they definitely don’t tend to go around bragging about it. Without significant visible inequality, I also saw ways that the spirit of equality infuses into daily life. In restaurants serving Minang cuisine (which is divine, also called Padang cuisine), it’s common for the profits to be shared among the workers and there is a culture of everyone pitching in to run the business. Without consciously identifying as such, there is effectively a worker cooperative sector in West Sumatra much larger than what we’ve tried to build in California

Overall, in West Sumatra, I encountered countless people who felt unusually kind, relaxed, and confident. There may be many factors contributing to this, including their Muslim practices and values, environmental factors (the weather is great and food grows everywhere), and other facets of the culture. However, I feel strongly that the relationship with land is the key. 

Instead of landlords, what if we could just have generations of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters who collectively hold and steward the land with the goal of providing for generations of families? While I’m not literally proposing to use a gender binary to change control of land (but #GrandmasNotLandlords?), I’m relishing the imaginative seeds that this can plant for us. If feminine practices of care and nurturance — instead of the logics of extraction, profit, and wealth accumulation — could guide what happens with land and homes, we could all breathe, relax, and begin to trust that land, homes, and places that we value will just be there for us. 

It’s a funny thing to wish that land will “be there for us,” because I can’t think of anything more likely to stay put than land. So the title of this piece is perhaps another subtle koan, meant to reveal how bizarre our dominant culture and language have become. We talk about land being “grabbed up” and “lost,” when, in fact, the land never went anywhere. In other writings, I’ve reflected on the deep bonds of love that people can develop for places, how painful it can feel when the relationships are severed, and how I’ve experienced this in my own life and family. I went to West Sumatra because I believed I could learn a lot from being there. But my most profound takeaways felt less like learnings and more like rememberings. It felt like: “Yes, this is not new. This is how it is, has been, can be, and should be.” It felt profoundly sane and calming to be in a place where people just know and expect that the land will be there.

By the way, if you do want to experience this for yourself, just email me (Janelle [at] and I can put you in touch with folks in West Sumatra. Here’s Muslidar’s Gabelo Guest House.

About the images (from top to bottom): Yep, I took a lot of selfies. There's me in front of beautiful Sumatran rice paddies, then with my host "sister" Ella in front of a traditional Minangkabau house in the village of Sarugo at a guest house called Rumah Linda, then a selfie above the village of Sarugo, then visiting a classroom in Bukittinggi to give students some English practice, and lastly, there I am with Muslidar during our garden day. 

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  • Janelle Orsi
    published this page in Blog 2023-05-18 13:05:55 -0700

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