Activist for Kendeng Mountains: We are colonised by our own kind

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  • TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Gunarti, a farmer and activist in the Kendeng Mountains Community Network, seems hesitant to be compared with Kartini, even though she shares the same birthday on April 21, as the inspiring national hero. She is now well-known for her leadership in the green movement to oppose the proposed construction of Semen Indonesia's cement plant in Rembang, Central Java. She believes the plant will endanger existing groundwater springs and impact the larger issue of food security there. "It's better to have a cement shortage rather than a shortage of food," Gunarti, 43, says adamantly.

    Kendeng villagers are followers of Sedulur Sikep, a local non-violence movement started by Samin Surosentiko (1859-1914). Ten years ago, they began their opposition to the cement plant. Gunarti says they were grabbed and dragged away by security guards innumerable times when they blocked the road to the construction. Even a public complaint to President Joko Widodo at the Presidential Palace in March--represented by nine Kendeng women who cemented their feet--has not improved their situation.

    As part of their fight, Gunarti and fellow activists sued the limestone mining permit--an important material for the cement plant--issued by Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo in court. While losing the case in the high courts, last year they did win at the Supreme Court. However, that decision does not ensure the cement plant will leave Kendeng entirely. They only succeeded in pushing the government to review the extent of the karst exploration area which holds the ground water reserves.

    Results of the first stage of the government's strategic environmental review, released in April, appeared to side with the Kendeng community. One of its recommendations was to declare the area of Watuputih, Rembang--which previously was included as the cement factory's mining exploration lot--as a karst landform zone, hence illegal to mine. Another point was a moratorium on all mining of limestone, and prohibiting the issuance of new mining licenses in Watuputih. "It is important for all parties to abide by these recommendations," said Gunarti, who had just returned from Germany where she was involved in a worldwide environment campaign at the World Labor Day event.

    On the first Tuesday in June, she met Tempo reporters Raymundus Rikang and Edi Faisol at her home in Bowong hamlet in the Sukolilo subdistrict of Pati Regency, Central Java. Gunarti ended the interview, conducted in Javanese, by singing a traditional anthem she wrote: "Wes wayahe gugah rasane. Aja kebangeten ndablek laline. Weruh donyane dirusak kok meneng wae. Dleweran kae tangise gununge dewe. Ditambang dikeduki kabeh isine." (It's time to wake up our conscience. Do not let them go too far. Why remain silent if nature is being destroyed. Our mountain is shedding tears. It's being mined, it's being sucked dry).

    Why should the construction of the cement plant be rejected?

    A cement plant in the Kendeng Mountains would destroy and cause the loss of 125 water springs, 30 caves, and nine ponor (gaps where water flows through). Geological studies show that even if one ponor is found, that area cannot be mined (for the risk of endangering the entire water source). Furthermore, this is also a historical site, site of the graves of Prabu Angling Dharma and Batik Madrim as well as the burial place of Goddess Kunthi (all legendary figures in Javanese folklore). Karst mining for the cement plant will damage the livelihood of local residents. In essence, the plant would wipe out the next generation here.

    What connection does mining for cement have with wiping out the next generation

    The people of Kendeng live on farming. The most important elements for farming are water and land. Springs that never run dry flow from the Kendeng Mountains, rendering our land fertile. If there were to be a cement plant here, those springs will certainly be destroyed, and the land would turn barren. Finally, we wouldn't be able to grow any crops. A food crisis for us is the same as facing our own deaths. So, for me, it is better to have a cement crisis rather than a famine.

    Why do you believe that?

    The nation's strength does not depend on having sufficient supplies of cement, but rather on a sufficient supply of food. You undoubtedly store rice and water at home, not cement, right? So, as I once said to President Jokowi,"The strength of this nation is not determined by its weaponry, but rather by its foodstuff. Would our troops still be strong enough to pull their weapons' triggers if they were hungry?"

    How much damage would a cement plant cause to the people in Kendeng?

    Mother Earth, nature, would weep when damaged by her children, who ought to be taking care of her. The destruction of nature mirrors the degeneration of human dignity. Many analyses in environmental reports do not match actual conditions on the ground. For instance, the document analysing the environmental impact of the cement plant recorded the discovery of six caves, but does not mention any ponors, even though all the locals know there are 30 caves and nine ponors here. Apart from that, the impending arrival of the cement plant already unsettled the community. Fathers and their sons came to blows because some were for it, while others were opposed. You cannot put a monetary value on damage to communal harmony.

    What caused that?

    Money. Those who were paid said the money did not come from the cement plant. Indeed, I am sure the company officials didn't give it out themselves, as the money could be channeled through village officials. Thus, it is not surprising the village head is at odds with the local community because of that money.

    Do you have any evidence?

    Is it realistic that prior to the construction of a plant, a company is already paying out welfare assistance? For me, that program was not really assistance, but rather a weapon with which to divide us. Now, residents with differing standpoints refuse to help each other when they hold activities. People do not even want to pay their condolences if the deceased held a different view with respect to the cement plant.

    The government gave the project the green light. Was that a form of defeat for the Kendeng community?

    We are still not defeated. Even if we did go along with it, Mother Earth still has her own power. If respect for nature is abused by building a cement plant, nature itself will act. The Lapindo mud disaster in Sidoarjo proves Mother Earth was angry, as she must be looked after, so: gemah ripah loh jinawi (the fruits of the earth will then be abundant).

    Read the full interview in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine