environment

Does This Look Like A Barren Wasteland?

The provincial government wants to build a bunch of cement factories in the middle of this fertile region. But a group of women are willing to do anything—even seal their feet in cement—to save their villages from limestone mining.

by Adi Renaldi
14 January 2017, 9:00am

Siti Muryati was looking tired. She told me that she had just spent the day in the rice paddies. Her village—a small hamlet in Pati, Central Java called Mbombong—is located next to the Kendeng Utara mountains in a region so fertile that farmers told me they can harvest rice three times a year.

But it wasn't the paddies that left Siti exhausted. It was the constant travel from Pati to the provincial capital of Semarang—an 85 kilometer drive—to protest the construction of a cement factory in neighboring Rembang that the people of Kendeng Utara believe will destroy their idyllic farming communities.

"We're doing this for our grandchildren," Siti told me. "If the land is sold to the cement factory, our grandchildren will have nothing."

Her life, once a simple rhythm dictated by the harvest seasons, has taken on a new focus. The community's women are now at the forefront of the fight against PT Semen Indonesia—the country's largest producer of cement. The state-owned cement company was awarded permits to mine the mountains for limestone, a vital component in the company's cement. The people of Kendeng Utara say the cement plant will destroy the region's water supply, which are sourced from a network of underground springs.

They grabbed national headlines when nine women, dubbed the " Kartinis of Rembang," sealed their feet in cement during a 36-hour demonstration outside the presidential palace in Jakarta.

"Women face the most direct impact of the cement factory," Siti said. "[Protecting] the environment is not just the responsibility of the men alone. We wake up in the morning and fetch the water right away. We prepare the food, rinse the rice, cook for our families. So women need water more than men. It's the women who prepare everything for their families."

Siti Muryati and Hartati.

A few days ago, Siti was protesting in front of the governor's office, demanding that Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo revoke the mining permits. And then today, she was back in Mbombong, tending to livestock and gathering fresh supplies for the next demonstration. It's a constant cycle, one that gets more pressing every day as PT Semen Indonesia's plant in nearby Rembang district inches closer to completion. The 850-hectare factory will produce 30 million tons of cement a year. Operations are expected to begin this year.

The plant was initially planned for Mbombong, but intense opposition by the local community resulted in the plant crossing over to Rembang. But Rembang is in the same mountain range as Mbombong and Pati, and any mining activities there could impact the inter-connected water system that the entire region relies on for irrigation and drinking water.

Today, the opposition continues. Siti and her fellow villagers are no strangers to resistance. Most are followers of Surontiko Samin— a colonial-era resistance figure who fought against Dutch taxation. Samin founded a religion and organized poor farmers around agrarian and anti-capitalist ideals.

For decades, the people of Kendeng Utara have tried to live a life separate from modern Indonesia. Legend has it they didn't know the country was independent until 1970. They didn't have government IDs until the early 2000s, and even then they fought to keep the religion line blank if the central government wouldn't recognize their faith.

Siti and Hartati share a big Javanese-style home with a large srikaya tree out front. The house was dark and humid. A television was playing a sinetron on mute. Out back, a few cows lingered in a barn. A photo of Samin hung on the wall. It was taken before he was exiled to Padang, West Sumatra, by the Dutch over fears that his beliefs would spread beyond the villages of Kendeng Utara.

Siti invited me to see one of the tiny caves near her home. It took about fifteen minutes on a motorbike down a narrow road to reach Gadudero—a cave with a freshwater spring inside. The village pumps the water directly from the spring to their fields. She owns one hundreds acres and, in a good season, can make millions of rupiah off her harvest.

"We never had a drought here," Siti said. "But if there's a flood in the mountains, our fields became swamps, and we can't harvest anything. The thing about farming is sometimes you get a lot [in the harvest] and sometimes you get nothing. When you get nothing, you just need to accept it."

Siti used to make batik as well, painting beautiful designs based on rice paddies and traditional clay pots on fabric. She showed me some drying on a rack outside her home. The women of Mbombong said they were living busy, but full lives before the cement factories showed up.

"Life here is no longer the same," Hartati said in informal Javanese.

"Now we have to take turns taking care of our fields," Siti explained. "In Javanese, we call it 'lebotan'. The neighbors will step in and help when needed, and vice versa. When we're not farming, we would spend time with our families. That's what makes us happy. But since this issue began, we don't get to spend as much time with them."

The Kendeng Utara mountain range is undeniably beautiful. There are more than 200 water sources in the range, each of which keep the farmland irrigated and fertile. But government officials disagree. Governor Ganjar Pranowo told local media that the entire place was a wasteland.

"For as long as I can remember, there was no water there," Ganjar said. "It's a barren area."

Siti told me that she doesn't follow the news. The community believes that women are better candidates to lead the protests than men. Land disputes have a habit of turning ugly in Indonesia, but the women, Siti said, are able to avoid the kinds of harsh crackdowns that have become the norm.

"If we're not sincere, it's hard to fulfill our duties," Siti said. "When we protested at the governor's office from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. it was really hot. But we just had to deal with it. We're fighting for Mother Earth. I'm a farmer who should be used to the heat, but at least when we work in the rice fields, we know that we will reap what we sow.

"But during the protests, we don't know how long it will take to win. All we know is that we need to be patient."

It's going to be, by most signs, a long fight. When the cement plant won the right to open in Rembang, it was only after losing an early fight to open the factory in Mbombong. But in 2014, PT Sahabat Mulia Sakti was granted the right to open a mine in two villages a short distance away. The Rp 7 billion factory is expected to include a 2,000-acre limestone quarry. Local farmers contested the permit at Semarang office of the state administrative court (PTUN) and won. One year later, the company appealed and the decision was reversed. The factory is expected to open its doors in Larangan, a village about 20 minutes from Mbombong.

Surontiko Samin

I met Jasmo, a local farmer, in Larangan and got a tour of village. The roads were narrow and bumpy. After about an hour, we pulled the car over near the foothills of Kendeng Utara. It was foggy, but the whole place seemed so serene. There were teak trees everywhere, and in between grew corn that looked ready for harvest.

"Farming is all we can do," Jasmo said. "With the factory, what's left?"

I asked Jasmo if he read the governor's remarks. He pointed out the muddy land and the abundance of crops. "How can someone call this barren?" he said. Jasmo told me that he couldn't imagine life in Larangan without his farm. He is a third-generation farmer, who has been working to put his son through college.

"It will be the end of this village if they build the factory," Jasmo said. "We don't have a choice. We have to stand up and resist the factory's construction."