Silence, prosperity, fertility. Those words came to my mind one Sunday night in 2019 as I stood on top of a hill in the village of Tegaldowo in Java, Indonesia. The phrase has been used to describe a huge island with fertile soil, green rice paddies and teak forests. But this stillness hides a more tumultuous story.
Massive demonstrations have erupted across parts of Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy. About 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) east [of the capital], anger over decades of abuses against the indigenous Papuans has erupted into violence. Thousands of students have taken to the streets in the capital Jakarta to protest against a new bill that many fear is a violation of civil liberties.
Among the most controversial aspects of the new law is that it could allow the government to outlaw farmers and activists who fight mining companies that take their land. I have concerns. Hundreds of communities are already locked in volatile conflicts with companies that have cut down their forests, mined their mountains, and turned their farmlands into plantations. Many of these people once hoped that President Joko Widodo would change the situation on the side of those without power.
But those hopes will be dashed in the coming months. By November 2020, the government will consolidate the power of the oligarchs and defend the power of private corporations responsible for damaging Indonesia’s environment, including its vast rainforests. The omnibus law will come into effect.
The hill on which I stand resonates enormously with many communities involved in the struggle for land rights and the environment.
This hill is not just a hill, but a karst topography. The karst topography supports the North Kunden Mountains, forming limestone formations extending 180 km (112 mi) from east to west. The rock has been eroded over time to form a vast and intricate underground water vein of underground caverns and springs that have provided clean water to the people of the area all year round.
Indigenous peoples of Kunden regard the karst as their ‘Mother Earth’ (Ibu Bumi). According to their lore, the Earth Mother nourishes the land, feeds it with milk, and enables people to grow rice and other crops.
“Mother Earth gave. Mother Earth hurt. Mother Earth seeks justice.” Singing while carefully checking the corn in the fields surrounding us. She wears sandals and a traditional Javanese blouse called kebaya and moves her body briskly.
The song is a hymn to a group known as the Kartini of Kunden, consisting of Sukina and eight other female farmers. The Kartini of Kunden led a resistance to the construction of cement plants that would operate from limestone mined from the karsts of their land.
In a country filled with stories of social and environmental injustice, the Kartini of Kunden made headlines with the act of cementing their feet in front of Jakarta’s presidential palace. It was an expression of heartfelt protest that vividly symbolized the despair of the “little people” known as the wong cilik in their fight against investors endorsed by powerful politicians.
I traveled across Indonesia, an archipelago of hundreds of ethnic groups and languages, to meet the women who led the grassroots activist movement. The first person I visited on that trip was Sukina. I wanted to know why these women stood up and what challenges they faced in fighting for their land rights. They were farmers, weavers, or housewives in remote rural areas, but they rose up and became leaders.
From Timor in the East to Aceh in the West, the women I have met have faced threats, violence and even prison for their peaceful efforts to protect the culture and livelihoods of their peoples. .
They faced more than bureaucratic corruption and security force crackdowns. He also fought to gain recognition within his own community in a male-dominated society that has always looked down on women. I’ve seen many cases where women who cook and clean for their families became activists because they knew what the impact would be if the water was polluted and the farmland gone.
Some women are world-renowned and have won international awards. But I wanted to know what happened after the spotlight moved elsewhere. What I came to know was the physical scars, the lost opportunities, the years in prison, and even the friends who lost their lives for the cause, and through these things, the years I was involved in activism. There were many people who still had the wounds of the moon.
I also learned about the enduring cultural connection between women and their environment. Throughout Indonesia, she met women who cared for her family and deeply understood the importance of rainforests, mountains and land to the survival of their communities. Everywhere the natural world was given a feminine image, and women fought for it.
Through my travel tales, I want to take you, the reader, to the homes where these women were born and raised. I want you to see and know their lives and stories there. The journey begins with the Kartini of Kunden.
Before the protests began, Skinna lived the ordinary but hard life of a rural woman. At 4am she wakes up and goes straight to the kitchen where she makes coffee for herself and her husband and cooks for her. After breakfast, Skina and her husband go to the fields and work until 5pm. Most of the day is spent outside with nature. During the harvest season, her husband and she both stayed in a hut in the field and finished cutting corn and harvesting rice.
In 2014, villagers learned that a karst mining project by state-owned cement company PT Semen Indonesia was at a very advanced stage, and the movement became active. Two years earlier, without the villagers’ knowledge, the Governor of Central Java, Bibit Waluyo, had issued an environmental license. This was one of the most important licenses the company needed to start operating. Originally, it should have been issued after a consultation meeting with the community as part of the environmental impact assessment.
Some villagers had seen the draft assessment early in 2010 and expressed concern that it did not identify the location of the underground springs. However, they were subsequently excluded from the evaluation process, the Indonesian National Commission for Human Rights (KOMNAS HAM) reported in 2016.
The limestone that characterizes Kunden’s karst is also the main raw material for cement. Since the 1990s, the Kunden Mountains have been the focus of several cement companies. In the 2010s, interest increased, stimulated by government investment in infrastructure.
According to an assessment commissioned by the central government, the demand for clean water for more than half a million people across the North Kunden Mountains already exceeds supply. Karst is essential for supporting water supplies and acts as a sponge that releases clean water during the dry season. However, the state government has prioritized limestone mining. As companies drill into groundwater systems, the threat of a drastic reduction in water supply and pollution is increasing.
To find out what the factory would mean, villagers visited the neighboring Tuban district, where Semen Indonesia has been operating a factory since the early 1990s. “I saw with my own eyes that the development in Tuban destroyed everything,” Skinna told me. “We were destroying the environment, destroying communities, cultures, societies, everything.”
The mine threat had already caused opposition throughout the North Kunden Mountains. In 2011, thousands of villagers reportedly rallied in front of the provincial council building in Pati district to protest against Semen Indonesia mines elsewhere. The following year, people from the three districts gathered in front of the Central Java Provincial Assembly Building.
In June 2014, with the imminent construction of a factory by Semen Indonesia, Sukina and the other women decided to go there and stop it.
“You don’t have to be a man to fight for the environment,” Skinna told me. “Especially because we women are the first to cook with water, so we women are the first to notice the effects.”
But the decision to put women on the front lines was to sustain the peaceful protest they wanted in the face of possible provocation. They knew they would face the police and face the possibility of violence.
“When men are on the front lines, they get hot and hot,” Skinna said. “The women had to control the situation to avoid violence, or some could have been killed.”
When the day came, about 100 women rallied on the road to the construction site. It started peacefully, but the police and military tried to end the action by November. Video footage shows a woman being thrown and her placard taken. They will continue to protest for two years.
“Despite the violence from the authorities and the thugs, we never gave up,” Sukina told me. “We kept doing it because this is for our children and for our future grandchildren. If the mountain is hurt, it hurts us.”
Like most Javanese, Sukina is Muslim. But she also embraced the “Sedulur Sikep” or Saminist philosophy, a local faith that emerged in the late 19th century from followers of a religious leader named Samin Surosentiko. are doing.
Her determination to take refuge in this faith was easy to understand. The Samin people had a long tradition of opposing outside authority and resisting the taxes, forestry regulations and bureaucracy imposed by the Dutch colonial administration. They believed that land, water and forests were common property and could be used as common property. They rejected the idea that states could impose their own controls over these natural resources. This idea still resonates today.
On the wall of her house today is a large photograph of Wali Songo, also known as Sunag Kalijaga, one of the “Nine Saints” who is credited with bringing Islam to Java. also come into view. Known as an ulema, a very tolerant religious authority, he introduced Islam through art. He stands in stark contrast to today’s Indonesian religious vigilantes and conservative ulama.
During the protests, Kartini of Kunden sang the famous song “Lir-ilir” composed by Sunan Kalijaga. The lyrics inspire participants to survive hard times and challenge adversity by taking action.
Another influential figure came to define the identities of women activists. The origin of the name “Kartini” is a Javanese noblewoman who lived at the beginning of the 20th century.The name “Kartini” is derived from Raden Adjeng KartiniAfter Kartini’s death, when her remaining letters were published in 1911 under the title Over Darkness to Light, her progressive ideas on women’s emancipation and education inspired Indonesian feminists. is what happened.
In September 2014, Lembang villagers, along with environmental NGO Walhi and the Semarang Legal Aid Society, filed a lawsuit against the government for approving Semen Indonesia’s environmental impact assessment. The lawsuit argued that the government’s decision violated a series of regulations aimed at preserving the watershed, especially the karst. However, moves in the judicial system seemed to work against them. According to Walhi representative , in April 2015, the case was dismissed on procedural grounds without considering the specifics. The community appealed.
Until April 2016, women held regular protests outside the factory gates for almost two years as construction work continued. They decided to escalate their protest. Skina and eight other women decided to come forward themselves. Although the members of the group changed over time, the “Nine Kartinis of Kunden” remained.
That month, with the dry season just beginning, the Kartinis of Kunden set out on a journey more than 500 kilometers (311 miles) west of their rural homes to the crowded, sprawling metropolis of Indonesia’s megalopolis of Jakarta. .
In front of the presidential palace where cars, buses and motorcycles come and go, Kunden’s nine Kartini sat in chairs and buried their feet in cement.
The first time I met Skinna, she was standing in cement poured into a square crate. Her tears slowly trickled down her face. Maybe it was because of the pain in her leg, or maybe it was the tears of disappointment with the government. In the presidential election two years ago, she and many other locals voted in hopes that Joko Widodo would stand with them against powerful corporations. Now she was in front of the presidential palace, hoping that the president’s campaign promises would still be fulfilled.
In August 2016, after repeated protests and growing media attention, farmers finally got a chance to meet the president, nicknamed Jokowi. Farmers explained the problem because the license to operate was granted illegally, and that cement plant development would undermine food security in their region and fuel ongoing conflict. President freezes company operations and promises to facilitate talks between companies and farmers . He pledged to carry out a regional environmental assessment to develop protected and developable areas in the North Kunden Mountains.
In Central Java, however, Vivit’s successor governor Ganjar Pranowo has expressed doubts that the project can be stopped. The cement plant is already 95% complete, he told reporters .
By October, their lengthy legal battle culminated in a Supreme Court ruling upholding the farmers’ lawsuit against the governor and Semen Indonesia. The decision was made that the environmental impact assessment approved by the former governor was flawed, failed to provide a means of preventing severe damage to watersheds from mining, and failed to take into account the views of local communities. rice field. The court directed the state government to revoke the environmental permit.
In December, hundreds of villagers marched approximately 135 kilometers (84 miles) from Kunden to the Governor’s Palace to celebrate and demand that the court’s decision be implemented. However, when Skinna and the others arrived at the governor’s office with swollen ankles from the long march, an official said: Days after the Supreme Court ruling, the governor replaced the expired license with a new one.
The governor’s decision provoked public outrage. However, the farmers will be pushed further into the abyss.
In March 2017, the Kunden Kartini returned to Jakarta under cement shackles. Despite securing a promise from the president and a victory in the Supreme Court, the cement plant development was still progressing. Protest seemed to be the only option left.
After several days of demonstrations, it was time for 48-year-old Patmi, one of the nine, to return to her village. With the cement cracked open around her leg, she went to the Legal Aid Society’s office to rest. That night she suffered convulsions and vomiting, and early the next morning she died of a heart attack.
The news spread through WhatsApp. The Kartinis of Kunden mourned their friend and were in the midst of the shock, but were met with a backlash on social media from Indonesians who blamed them for Patmi’s death.
“It was daunting,” Skinna told me. “We lost a sister and many people criticized our movement. But what can we do?”
A day after the tragedy, on March 22, President Jokowi met Gunarti, one of Kunden’s Kartinis, for the second time at the presidential palace. Gunarthi explained to the president that Governor Ganjar had effectively nullified the promises made by Jokowi at the first meeting. But the president suggested that they put their foot down and talk to the governor, who had time and time again ignored their demands. Gunarti expressed his deep disappointment at the dying prospects of blocking the cement plant project, to reporters who packed outside the prime minister’s office.
During the protests, a farmer named Parmi was in charge of caring for the needs of the cement-shackled Patmi. In Tugardwo, Palmi showed me to a beautiful wooden building in the village. It was a small place of worship called a langgar, built in memory of a friend of Palmi.
“Building a place of worship was Patmi’s lifelong dream,” Palmi told me. “After Patmi passed away, we decided to build a place of worship.”
I met with Skinna today. She hasn’t changed since we met three years ago. But from Skinna’s house, you can see a huge cement factory built on the karst. The cement company is operating “legally” under a new license issued by the governor in 2017.
Slowly but surely, mining is beginning to break up the karst. However, Skinna and other Kunden farmers continue their struggle to stop the cement factory. Sukina’s house was used as the campaign’s headquarters, and as it is today, farmers would gather and perform traditional Javanese ceremonies that strengthened the movement’s bonds.
My visit fell on the day of the feast of rice cakes, which Javanese people celebrate on the seventh day of the Islamic fast-breaking festival, Eid al-Fitri.
The feast begins with a performance of Punokawan. In Javanese puppetry, Punokawan consists of the characters Sumal, Garen, Bagong and Petr. In a scene from this rice cake feast, Semar, the sage and eldest of Punokawang, warns villagers to be environmentally conscious.
Next, the inhabitants march through the village, accompanied by two groups of men carrying piles of maize called Gunungan. They sing “Mother Earth (Ibu Bumi)”.
The feast continues into the night. Skinna leads a group of female farmers, followed by villagers armed with bamboo torches. Heading to the sacred well, they keep singing “Mother Earth”.
After gathering around the well and praying together, the people return to Sukina’s house and celebrate by eating rice cakes together.
Not a single setback thwarted the wishes of the Kartini of Kunden who fought for the mountains. Even Patomi’s death ultimately brought women a new sense of togetherness and determination.
“For me and the other sisters, Patomi’s death brought light,” Skinna told me. “It ignited our enthusiasm. We learned that we should not be silent. We are not weak and we cannot afford to lose.”
“Because Patomi is still with us. Her body may have been buried, but her soul was never buried.”
Certainly, Skinna’s six-year crusade did not experience any setbacks or despair. What she experienced was a learning. “I never went to school, so I sought knowledge and discovered a lot,” says Skinna.
She cited people she’d met along the way, including environmentalists, lawyers and scientists, as well as her experiences outside the village. It was a journey that brought her both her happiness and her pride.
“Every step along the way, we’ve learned from people who show understanding about the environment,” Skinna says. “About the meaning of this life, about what we live for.”
It’s time to say goodbye to the Kartini of Sukhina and Kunden. Drive from Tugardwo, past a cement factory. It occurred to me that it was not the opinion, law, science, or righteousness of the people that had the greatest impact on the development projects that shaped people’s lives, but the endorsement of a single governor.
I left Kunden with the impression that their movement was about fraternity. All members of their group had a common purpose and feeling built through friendship. Known as the “Comrades of Sikep,” of local faith, they maintained their ties even after the loss of her sister Patmi. After all, Patomi’s death even made them stronger.
Through our time together, we were able to understand how their lives and movements are filled with culture. Their culture and movement were so closely linked that it was difficult to separate the two. Its culture is a beautiful, unique and local tapestry of Islam, Saminism and resistance, a belief in both the past and a sustainable future. and is in stark contrast to the environmental destruction caused by large-scale extractive industries.
It also left me with the conviction that Patomi should be considered a heroine. She Patmi dedicated her life to protecting the karst from destruction, because she was sure that a water crisis would be triggered. Knowing her peril, Patomi sacrificed herself for her own community.
My concern is that the Jokowi government, elected with high expectations, will never understand this struggle. But knowing the Kartini of Kunden gives me a glimmer of hope for the future. In other words, people will continue to resist and fight for their homeland, and ours. For Skinna, there is no other option.