30 September 2014

The sands of Gunung Merapi

Riverbed below Merapi
Gunung Merapi and his neighbor, Gunung Merbabu, tower mightily above the plains around Solo and Yogyakarta. But as they're often covered in clouds, you could almost forget their massive presence with an elevation of just slightly less than 3'000 meters. As Central Java is quite densely populated, the lower, very fertile slopes of the mountain are inhabited by thousands of people. On most days, Merapi is quiet, only a little white smoke is rising from its peak. But every couple of years, last in 2006 and 2010, eruptions occur and the pyroclastic flows they cause usually kill some of the less cautious farmers who refuse evacuation.


Digging the sands from the riverbed
Thanks to a professor whom I met at the university where Lisa works, I had the opportunity to visit a small community in Muntilan, the municipality at the foot of the volcano. Pak Bambang Sarossa (Baross) supports this community in their efforts to make a living from agriculture and the exploitation of the volcanic sands the rainwater carries down the slopes of Merapi after every eruption. The community I visited basically survives from subsistence farming and selling their surplus production (rice, chilies, beans, salak (snakeskin fruit), etc.). In order to generate some extra income to be able to buy necessities like cooking gas, school clothes for their children, community members exploit the sands that Merapi brings them naturally every couple of years. They dig the sands from the riverbed and break larger rocks and boulders into small pebbles that can be used with the sands to build houses, factories and roads.

Breaking up rocks to sell the pebbles
This is hard work, digging for sand in the riverbed, filling the wheelbarrows and pushing them to the trucks that will bring the sands and pebbles to their destination. And the pay they get is meager, compared to the hardship. In a whole day, they're able to make between 80 cents and one Euro. But their biggest problem is not the hard work and low pay. The biggest problem is that their supply of sands and pebbles is slowly drying up. Big companies built dams above the villages to collect the sands and truck them off. The villagers are left with no sands to dig up any more. While the exploitation profited hundreds of families before, the profits now end up in the pockets of a few rich construction company owners.

When Pak Baross and his friends showed me around, I was impressed by the hard work these people go through every day. They eventually asked me what could be done to improve their situation. As the community had already been provided with tools to make the strenuous work less painful, the problem and its solution are, in my opinion, mainly political. Two things would essentially be necessary: First, the municipality or the
Local chili plantation
district (Kabupaten) would have to put a law in place to limit or prohibit the construction companies from building dams and taking all the sand and rocks. The people from the community could make pressure for such laws to be introduced. Of course the companies would fight against such a law, but I honestly think enough pressure from the community would eventually force the authorities to put such a law into force. Secondly, and that's the most problematic part, such a law would need to be enforced, perhaps even against the resistance of the construction companies.


Helping to harvest salak
And that's, from my perspective, one of the biggest problems Indonesia has today. Some of their laws have been written with the best intentions to support or empower people. But as long as they're just on paper, they don't support or empower anyone. And the enforcement of laws – the so called “rule of law” - is, frankly, quite erratic. If you want to have a law enforced, make sure you have a very big wallet or at least some close friends with a big wallet. Otherwise, you're entirely at the mercy of the law enforcement authorities.

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