A Tale of Sand, and Those Who Feed From It: History and Etnographic explanation of Kulon Progo’s Village and Resistance

Posted on July 17, 2009


(A Very Short Introduction)

Sand defines the life story of those who live along Kulon Progo’s southern shoreline.Up to the present day, this sand has nourished thousands of souls along the coastal fringe of Kulon Progo regency, Yogyakarta province. The story starts before 1942, when coastal dwellers were already trying to turn the sand into a source of sustenance. Notes taken from the oral history of Arjo Dimejo, a villager from Karang Sewu, reveal that before that date many of his fellow villagers survived by planting rice, sweet potatoes, potatoes and beans on the coastal sands.

Yet when the Japanese colonisers arrived, the inhabitants were forbidden to use the sand as agricultural land, as the Japanese suspected that they were secretly making sea salt. But after Indonesia was proclaimed an independent nation, as soon as Japan no longer stood watching over the sand lands, a few villagers moved back to once again look for sustenance from the sand. Arjo Dimejo relates that in 1948 President Soekarno made a visit to the coastal strip, and invited the people to make use of the land. So the local people, most of whom were farmers, thronged to work this land whose soil was merely sand. At one point in the 1970s storms wreaked havoc on the land and the homes built upon it. Yet despite these bad conditions the farmers managed to survive, still determined to eat from what the sand could provide.

Those that live from the sand are called ‘cubung’ by other people, a derisory stereotype which means backward or inferior village people, prone to sickness. And in fact, in past decades, the combination of the sun’s heat and strong blasts of wind meant that many inhabitants experienced diseases of the skin, respiratory system, stomach or eyes.

The coast dwellers farmed land without soil, only sand, hoping that the rainwater that falls for free onto the earth would be make the land fertile; their living conditions were always precarious. Until the 1980s agriculture along the coastal zone remained extremely marginal. All that would grow on the sand were certain vine plants. And then only in the rainy season; in the dry season they would all die. Drought forced many farmers to instead look for work as wage labourers in other places, even if it meant leaving Java – usually they would return 6 to 12 months later. Until the 1980s the term ‘cubung’ was still being frequently used. However, during those years the inhabitants greatly increased their effort to find natural ways that the sand could provide food, every day inhaling sand to for the sake of survival.

Visiting your neighbours breeds collective wisdom.

Nearly every evening, the people mocked as ‘cubung’ greatly enjoy ‘Endong-endongan’. This is a custom of the villagers to gather together at neighbours’ houses, and relate their experiences to the others present (1). According to Iman Rejo, a villager from Bugel, this is their way to strive to fulfil all of life’s needs, whether material or spiritual, and whether they are directly conscious of doing so or not. When the inhabitants meet each evening they create the feeling that they are no longer on their own. Moments like these are embryos from which the farmers’ motivation can grow, the will to persevere and enhance their lives. These ‘endong-endongan’ are meetings of friends, tend to be non-hierarchical, and they happen spontaneously and habitually each evening. They are a moment to take heart and to find new ideas together.

“On the positive side these heart-to-heart meetings to support each other and share experiences came from an idea of three villagers (Iman Rejo, Pardiman, Musdiwiyono) to try to find different techniques and systems to make use of the extremely marginal sand lands.” (2)

Nightly endong-endongan meetings in different people’s houses create relationships of trust between individuals in these difficult conditions. They start to speak together about the problems they face and look at ways to solve them together. Before each farmer would cultivate the land on their own, but later they felt the need to work together instead to find new ways of cultivation. It also turned out that their experiences from other places when they were working on the land or as skilled labour gave them new points to share and discuss.

Various ideas also emerged from the meetings of individuals and from farmers’ groups to study the nature of the land and the possibilities it offered. In 1984 a group of farmers helped each other out to build simple wells in the fields. Because sand moves so easily, they dug very wide, with a diameter of up to 5 meters and a depth of 5-8 meters and inserted a tube made from bamboo. The well was completed with a bamboo hoist. As soon as each well was completed in turn, the farmers started to prepare the land: hoeing, building dams, fertilising with manure, and then later planting. All this technology and land preparation was carried out by the community themselves, working together.

The farmers experiments are always based on close observation of nature. They tried planting corn using different methods of watering, and different ways and locations to grow acacia trees – each careful attempt in accordance with their observations of the nature of the land. Until one day when one farmer walking in the field noticed a chilli plant growing well near a coconut tree. This discovery prompted other farmers to start planting and tending chilli, building up their experience as they went. Eventually they built up an in-depth knowledge of how to cultivate the land, without the need of any teachers – the impetus came from their initiative to organise the farmers’ groups. Nowadays the number of farmer’s groups has expanded greatly, currently there are several dozen.

The farmers solved their shortage of water by building wells. These were originally very simply made, making holes 5 meters deep and retaining them with bamboo. Later the bamboo was exchanged for cement and finally concrete. Previously they dug each well very deep, and needed a bucket for watering. However the farmers felt this method was not effective. Later farmers tried building a principal well with a water pump, connected by bamboo to tanks made from a concrete box/pipe. As this was still inadequate, the bamboo canalization was later exchanged for PVC. Although the products used may be modern, they are used with an understanding of the natural characteristics of the coastal zone.

The problem of strong winds is tackled by using plants that act as wind-breakers around the cultivated plots, such as castor oil plant, bitter gourd or aubergine. They also plant coconut near the fields to help breaking the wind so the plants are not blown away by strong gusts. Before cultivation, the land was terraced sand dunes which looked like a desert strewn with bushes and thickets, always moving around whenever the waves hit. But this natural condition can be managed by the farmers co-operating, flattening the land and removing the undergrowth, making sure to leave one row of sand dunes between the ocean and the cultivated land.

There are many ways in which their experience leads to knowledge worth relating, but they do not need to be mentioned one by one. What is sure is that the farmers have undergone a long and dynamic process, where the key to survival on the land was never obvious. They had been forbidden to farm, battered by wind every day and sometimes by storms, their land dominated by sand dunes, and troubled by sickness. Yet by the custom of meeting together, discussing and sharing, they found they were no longer buried by the sand, emerging to find new survival strategies and share their strengths with each other every day.

For a long time the farmers have had difficulties to face, yet they have always been able to resolve their problems in an independent and autonomous way, without the help of outsiders, especially the government. Even the roads to the fields, which previously were difficult to pass, they built on their own. First they built simple roads by laying stones, but eventually laid asphalt – working together to build the roads themselves, pooling their money to meet the costs, all with no help from the government. That is how the farmers will always explain it when asked what’s the role of the government. Moreover they never experience conflict over who can work which land. The farmers know that the right to farm is something they hold in common, and there are never disputes about the status of the land, they just sort it out between themselves. The relationships of trust between individuals and the farmer’s group is a long way beyond that of businessmen who have to sanctify everything with legal contracts, stamped and sealed.

The careful efforts of more than 40 years have made the wasteland a fertile and productive zone. All sorts of plants can now thrive due to the hard work and care put into their cultivation. On the sand a range of horticultural crops can grow in both the rainy season and the dry season. Chilli, aubergine, bitter gourd, castor bean, green beans, rice, corn, watermelon and many other types of vegetables are grown along the 25km stretch of shoreline; the hands of the farmers have turned the landscape green. The key to their success is collective knowledge, whether it be knowledge of modern technology or local wisdom about when and how to plant, tend and harvest the crops.

The chilli has become the prime commodity for farmers in the area. However they also plant other crops according to the season. Each group of farmers continues to discuss which crop to plant first, followed by which other crop. Every year farmers in each group discuss when to plant. Their discussion takes in various perspectives, from their belief in the Javanese calender, to the condition of the land, sea and sky, and the possibility of clashes of harvesting time with other plants they may want to grow on the land.

Businessmen and landowners can also consume sand.

In 1964 a study analysing the composition of the sand was carried out by the geology faculty of ITB university. Led by In Junas, it measured the iron content of the sands and ground water depth. They made boreholes in the sand to a depth of 4-7 metres. Some local people were asked to work on this study as manual labour, and they remembered that below the sand lay iron and water.(3)

This memory was what the farmers would eventually use when they started to make changes in their lives 20 years later, almost as if they were stealing the knowledge from the outsiders’ research. Iman Rejo, Pardiman and Musdiwiyono took the initiative to get people together to build wells to sustain life. Under the soil they found fresh, clear, not salty water, although they were only a few metres from the beach. With the wells built, the villagers work brought life to the wasteland.

But this memory becomes very different when it is written into an academic report, then read by a land owner and passed on to corporations. Just as the land started to become fertile, provide food, and even allow farmers to be able to send their children to higher education, was also the moment when a stroke of enlightenment suddenly shook the brain cells of a certain entrepreneur and those that claim authority over the land of Kulon Progo. They want the sand to nourish their needs as well. The partnership they created was given the name of PT JMM (Jogja Magasa Mining).

On Thursday, 6 October 2005, at 20.15 West Indonesia Time, an imaginary voice ripped through the dreams of the farmers. “There is iron within the womb of the sandy shoreline, and it is time for it to come out, to be exploited, to be enjoyed not only by farmers, but by us all, for the sake of our society at large, for the race and for the nation” is more or less how the voice in the imaginary meeting room sounded, a moment before the arrival of a notarised document from PT Jogja Magasa Mining. (4)

From the sound of the document, PT JMM appear to have been granted legal authority by the state for the total exploitation of the land through their mining enterprise. But this company,PT JMM had only just been formed and was still new to the mining business. They needed experience in mineral exploitation and additional capital(5), and so needed to join with another company as business partner. In an interview with Lutfi Hayder(6) (commissioner of Jogja Magasa Iron) the company joined with an Australian company, Indo Mines Limited(7), and the corporation Australia Kimberly Diamond also made capital investments, as did other investors. The collaboration between the companies PT Jogja Magasa Iron, Indo Mines and the other investors was called JMI (Jogja Magasa Iron)(8), although recently this name changed again to JMI (Jogja Magasa International).

Systematic steps have already been taken by the business partnership and those who claim authority over Kulon Progo to ensure the success of their iron mining venture. Lufti Hayder, acting as commissioner for Jogja Magasa Iron claims they have already found considerable financial backing, although the world economy is hit by recession. Funding to complete the feasibility study is already available; it is estimated this is sufficient for 12-18 months.

Farmers fight the corporation.

At the start of 2006 the shoreline residents were becoming restless about the planned mining project. This nervousness soon spread, as farmers worried about losing the land that had supported them for so long. They shared their fears from one to another and also within their farmers’ groups. Finally different farmers’ groups, from various villages along the coastal strip, decided to meet and discuss the problem. So one night in April hundreds of farmers, delegates of their groups and villages, got together to determine attitudes towards the plans. That night farmers exchanged opinions and analysed their fears about the news of the mining plan. Clear evidence of the problem this iron mine would have on their livelihood was revealed that night.

The discussion revolved around 3 possible approaches. Firstly, farmers could unconditionally accept the mining plan. Second, that they could accept but with certain conditions and stipulations. Thirdly, they could unconditionally reject the proposal. In the end it turned out that not a single individual was in favour of the first option, and not a single individual was in favour of the second option. All the farmers present that night made clear their unconditional opposition to any plan to mine iron sand from their land.

That night the farmers also started planning their strategy to resist the iron mine. Their first act was to establish an umbrella organisation, which they named PPLP (Paguyaban Petani Lahan Pantai = Association of Shoreline Farmers). The organisation had an unusual structure. Aside from a chair, secretary and treasurer and their deputies, they also appointed older farmers as advisors. There is also a field coordinator in each village, who acts as a delegate, uniquely this coordinator is only ever one person, and they often rotate in a quite flexible way. Each village also has an autonomous PPLP unit, each with its own structure. What is clear is that there is no-one that holds authority in the PPLP structure. The whole coastal community are members of PPLP and their feelings about new information in the mining plan is always discussed at the meetings of each PPLP unit as well as the umbrella meetings. One more unique feature is that there is no office for either the umbrella organisation or for each PPLP unit, as each household along the coast is a space for coordination.

PPLP henceforth started organising many actions. Initially they undertook traditional forms of struggle, involving old and the young in local traditions such as mujahadah, casting magic spells, farmers’ rituals and night watch on the land. But neither their attempts at dialogue, nor their movement which declared itself anti-mining was considered as well behaved by the corporations or the local government (who are also involved as they administrate the local budget). On the quiet the villages were infiltrated by intel agents and paid thugs to intimidate the people.

Before the Ramadhan fast, 24 August 2007, farmers agreed to attack the local authority of Kulon Progo. They were annoyed at this symbolic existence of authority over a land where there was never any justice or understanding of the people’s aspirations. That day the farmers were able to fight the police and in the end thousands of people were able to enter the grounds of the symbol of power of the government of Kulon Progo regency. The farmers tore down the fence and forced the police to back away from the mass action. That day, not one key local official would meet with farmers, least of all the mayor. The farmers from PPLP threatened the mayor 5 times that day to come out with a declaration cancelling the mine project.

The farmers actions and demonstrations continue until now. They plan their strategies and tactics to foil the plan to mine iron from the coastal sands of Kulon Progo. The case of the farmers’ resistance in Kulon Progo is an authentic example of a struggle against power characterised by anti-politics, autonomy and self-management. With regards to politicians and NGOs that want to get involved, we can say that there is a kind of agreement that the farmers’ struggle should not become dependent on anyone. Between the sand and the iron it contains there is a raging fire, a fire that can
not be subdued, resisting exploitation and dehumanisation in whatever form it takes.

1. Iman Rejo
2. Iman Rejo
3. Iman Rejo
4. Document Founding Limited Company PT. Jogja Magasa Mining No. 40. Buntario Tigris Darmawa NG, SH, SE. In the notorised document is noted the corporate’s obesesion.

To attain these aim and objectives the company can carry out business activities as follows:

a. Business activities in the sector of general mining, including the mining of iron sand, iron ore, sea sand and coal.

b. Carry out trade, including import, export and interinsular trade, acting as a representative agent, sole agent, distributor, supplier of the products of mining such as iron sands, iron ore, sea sand and coal, whether on its own account or on another’s account, by means of commission.

c. Establish industrial facilities for the obtaining and processing of mining products such as iron sand, iron ore, sea sand and coal.

d. Provide services in the mining sector.

e. Undertake transportation of the products of mining activity, by means of truck.

5. In the notorised document is noted the total startup capital of Rp 600,000,000
6. Interview 12 March 2009
7. Application For Contract of Works from Government of the Republic of Indonesia
8. Plan of Work 2009 JMI, Saphire Hotel, Jogjakarta, 12 M

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