View point: Samin, 'Semen' and today's Kartinis of Rembang

30 Mar 2016 14:37
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Kartini month is coming up! Yes folks, on April 21 we will celebrate the birth of the Javanese priyayi (aristocrat), best known for being a pioneer of Indonesian women’s rights. She was born 137 years ago in Rembang, a regency in the northeastern part of Central Java. 

Besides championing women’s education, she was known for her concern for the welfare of ordinary villagers. If she were alive today, she would have likely been among the women of Rembang who are at the forefront of a demonstration which has lasted for two years. 

Ordinary village women demonstrating? Yessiree! Nearly 300 women staged a sit-in which started on June 16, 2014 — and is still ongoing. The women set up camp in a tent, taking turns to keep vigil because of course they still have to tend to their daily agricultural and household work. 

I can tell you something: if women are demonstrating, it means a lot is at stake. They were protesting the construction of a cement factory near Rembang which would threaten their livelihood, the ecosystem and indeed life as they have known it. 

Imagine the sight of women trying to prevent bulldozers, jumbo trucks and other heavy equipment from going into the area where the factory was to be built. Witness the police and the military peeling them off machinery and off the ground where they lay down to obstruct the path, and throwing the women, screaming and kicking, into the thorny bushes nearby.

Pretty dramatic huh, not to mention harrowing. Too bad no one made a documentary about it. Certainly a story for a feature to be made in the future. How about it, Nia Dinata or Lola Amaria?

A 40-minute film entitled Samin vs Semen has, however, been made about the Sedulur Sikep, better known as the Samin, a traditional community that has lived in Rembang and other areas of Java for decades. 

The Saminism movement was known in the Dutch colonial period for its resistance against Dutch capitalism, which forced the people, even the poor, to pay taxes. The Dutch colonialists also monopolized the native people’s free public forest lands, in particular land containing precious commodities such as teak. 

We do not hear much about the Samins these days, but because of the film, which was uploaded onto YouTube in March 2015, they have come again to the fore. The Samins live a very simple life based on agriculture and harmony with nature, shunning the trappings of modern life. Obviously, they are also very much against the construction of the cement factory.

The women, the Samin, and also the villagers in general, fear the plant would ruin their water supply, which runs through the Kendeng karst mountains near where the factory was going to stand. The Kendeng Mountains contain over 300 natural water springs in a 4,000 hectare area, 109 water springs, 49 caves with ancient fossils embedded onto the walls, and four underwater streams.

Besides the protests in the village, nine Rembang women also came to Jakarta, pounding large mortar and pestles (traditionally used for dehusking rice) in unison, in front of the State Palace, to try to get an audience with the President. In addition, a petition has also been drawn up by a group of prominent scholars about the ecological crisis in Java addressed to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Naturally, the petition also refers to the cement factory in Rembang.

State-owned PT Semen Indonesia got the factory permit anyway despite a dodgy environmental impact assessment (EIA) report. Surprise, surprise! Capitalism, corruption and sheer force again wins over the interest of the people. And this is the Reform Era?

Why is the Rembang case important? Because it’s the last karst area on Java, and because it sets a precedence. There are several cement companies that are being built or about to be built in the North Kendeng Mountains. 

In Rembang they are Semen Indonesia Rembang, Gunung Mas Mineral and Bosowa; in Pati, Sahabat Mulya Sakti (a subsidiary of Indocement); in Grobogan, Vanda Prima Listi and a Thai company, PT Semen Merah Putih; in Blora, Marco Tambang Raya, Alam Blora Lestari and Artha Parama Indonesia (Artha Graha Group).

Why do we need to build all these cement factories when Widodo Santoro, the head of the Indonesian Cement Association (ASI) himself said that the cement industry was experiencing overcapacity by almost 30 percent in 2016?

Perhaps these cement companies are drooling in anticipation over the prospect of increased sales due to Jokowi’s commitment to developing infrastructure?

It seems that Jokowi is caught between a number of promises he has made. One was indeed to develop infrastructure and to accelerate permit delivery, which in the past has been fraught with shady deals. He also promised to establish a court dedicated to land disputes, winning the endorsement of agrarian groups nationwide. However, he made the mistake of appointing a politician, Ferry Mursyidan Baldan from the NasDem Party, instead of a professional to lead the Agrarian and Spatial Planning Ministry. Is it surprising that the court has never materialized?

Last but not least, Jokowi also made a commitment to food sufficiency and sovereignty. Villagers like those in Rembang have been doing that for decades, perhaps centuries, without any help from the government, so why is he allowing their tradition — and rights — to be jeopardized now? 

The Semen Indonesia factory built in Rembang will be ready in August this year. The villagers, however, are not backing down on their demands: to have the building and mining permits revoked (thereby stopping the building of the factory and any mining activities), and to return the 50 hectare factory area back into forest and land for the villagers to engage in their agricultural activities.

On March 26, Jokowi gave a speech at the 70th anniversary of Muslimat Nahdlatul Ulama, the women’s wing of the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, in Malang. He stated that he honored the role of mothers and women in the nation’s development. He had been planning not to attend, but he did not have the courage to say no to the Muslimat women. 

So Jokowi, come on already, step out of your palace and meet with the women from Rembang! This time, use your courage not to say “no”, but to say “yes!” to their demands. It’s for the sake of the nation’s welfare and development, which after all, we voted you in to take care of! 

Penulis Opini: Julia Suryakusuma

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