25th July 2012 was a day which brought a big shock for most of the Lapindo Mudflow victims. In a live broadcast shown on a television channel belonging to the Bakrie family, one of the mudflow victims came on screen after having spent more than one month attracting news headlines by walking from Sidoarjo to Jakarta. Experts remarked how difficult it must have been for him, more than six years after the hot mud had destroyed his livelihood, and how it must have felt like such a release when he first started to make plans to walk towards the capital. As Suwandi, this poor mudflow victim, choked back the tears while he apologised to the Bakrie family (who own the Lapindo company) for his behaviour in insulting their good name, at least he stated his trust that the Bakrie Family would be able to resolve the compensation issue that was still an unsettled burden.

As the story of the Lapindo mud has unfolded such feelings of shock have become something we have experienced many times. When the mud first spurted out in late May 2006 we were surprised how drilling activities had been allowed to take place in such a densely populated area before an analysis of the environmental impact was finalised, giving rise to a disaster on that scale. Then when the President issued regulation 14/2007 creating a body to tackle the Sidoarjo mudflow we were amazed to witness how the government did not take legal action, and instead allowed Lapindo, the party most commonly referred to as the root of the problem, great latitude to take over the people’s land under a mechanism favourable to the company. Then, once this industrial disaster had been going on for over six years, it caused us great consternation to see how this group of citizens had been left almost at death’s door, in a shattered environment, with no initiative whatsoever on the part of the state to rescue them. After all this we saw someone who had from the beginning always expressed their fury towards that politician-cum-businessman that had destroyed his livelihood, suddenly breaking down in tears in an interview and begging for forgiveness. Maybe it would be for the best if we stopped being so shocked and took a look at what had actually happened as this case progressed.

The Illusion of the State, Why does the Government not Take our Side?

To start off, maybe we should re-examine what position to take in the cat-fight which the Lapindo victims’ struggle has turned into. The first thing which is most evident in our (the Lapindo victims’) actions, is that we have become dependent on trying salvage something from the situation, and this has only aided the state, elite businessmen and the politicians who back them up. When the struggle was just beginning and the Lapindo victims took to the streets and blocked access to the main road through Porong, directly attacking the corporation’s offices, we had already identified our true enemy. That was a direct action targeted at those who must take responsibility for how they have destroyed our lives. It was actually Bakrie’s fear that the mudflow victims’ direct action might escalate that forced the government to issue regulations which basically were designed to protect Lapindo’s interests.

Take note of what happened when the mud first started spurting out. The first eruption of hot mud on the 29th May 2006 was known to have emerged in rice fields near Renokenongo village, about 100 metres from PT Lapindo Brantas’ drilling site. The mud spread uncontrollably, inundating thousands of nearby homes. Nearly a year was needed before the government issued a Presidential Regulation 14/2007 in April 2007. This regulation ordered Lapindo to buy the land and buildings that had been submerged (implying that the people must want to sell them) and limiting their obligation to the areas outlined on the ‘Map of Affected Areas’ that they drew up. This meant that Lapindo did not need to think of how the mud would continue to inundate more land, drowning other villages, because they were only given the responsibility to buy land and buildings in the four villages designated on the Map of Affected Areas.

Several months later, the need to enlarge the levees was growing ever more urgent, as the hot mud continued to continuously gush forth. So the government issued Presidential Regulation 48/2008, which added three more villages to the map of affected areas This time round, it was not Lapindo that would provide the money to buy land and buildings, but the whole Indonesian population would have to foot the bill through the state budget to move the levee further out and drown three more villages. Looking at these bare facts we can draw our own conclusions. The regulation was not issued to come to the aid of the people, but to secure Lapindo from further disruption.

From the moment the Presidential Regulation was issued, the attacks on Lapindo were redirected, transformed instead into the expectation that the government would act to resolve the problem of the mudflow. This illusion was accompanied by the hope that government leaders would side with the people rather than the corporation, insisting that all government agencies get involved to resolve the problem. Therefore the Lapindo victims actions began to focus on visiting the President, ministers, members of Parliament, judicial institutions and state commissions, to force Lapindo to fulfil their obligations as laid out in the Presidential Regulations.

At this point we have to re-evaluate the choice to ask the state to act on our behalf. This doesn’t mean that those actions were pointless, nor that the Lapindo victims should stop trying to make the state take responsibility for the destruction that followed from the corporation’s mistake. Nevertheless we must overcome the comforting myth that the state is there to protect the people’s interests.

The state and government, and all their institutions and bureaucracy must be regarded as themselves part of the problem. Government creates a standard which guarantees that access to power lies in the hands of a small group of people, but without them we feel unable to confront social problems. It would seem that without a president we could not force Bakrie to take responsibility for the destruction he has caused. The problem is not whether our president will assert himself or not. Because when it comes down to it, no agent of power is going to take any action without thinking if it will affect the continuity of their power. For the political elite, the choice to become involved in looking after what the public needs is part of the see-saw of power. As long as the Lapindo victims are not considered necessary to the future of their power, there will not be any hope of public officials getting involved in this business.

Re-examining the state’s position, we get the explanation of why the president seemed so unable to stand up to Aburizal Bakrie, why politicians only appear to take up the case of the Lapindo mudflow when elections are approaching, why law doesn’t do its job of prosecuting glaringly obvious industrial infractions such as this one and why the National Human Rights Commission is not prepared to state that a serious human rights violation has occurred in this case. Lapindo victims have always been made to look like idiots ever since we stopped being a threat to the perpetuation of centralised state power.

From Individuals to Representatives

A side effect of Presidential Regulation 14/2007 was not only the problem that the axis of struggle was distorted and a poverty of imagination around taking action, but also how demands were reduced, after people’s livelihoods had been obliterated by hot mud.

When that regulation stated that dealing with the Lapindo problem was a matter of paying for land that had or would be submerged by the hot mud, that was the moment when our struggle was boxed in, and now became the issue of how much money we could get from selling our land, – land which neither the state nor Lapindo would now be able to rescue. Once again it is important to state that these reflections are not meant to detract from the significance of the actions that have taken place to demand payment for the land and buildings. But at the same time we need to avoid the trap set by the presidential regulation, and also force Lapindo to take responsibility for the wider loss of our livelihoods.

This tragedy is not simply a sad story of land and homes submerged by mud. It is also a story of how the future prospects of hundreds of thousands of residents of Porong, Tanggulangin and Jabon have been destroyed, maybe even going beyond these three sub-districts.

In the economic and labour sector, around one thousand micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises were shut down as soon as the disaster started. Data from the East Java Central Statistics Organisation states that in the formal sector, 166 thousand people lost their jobs as a result of the collapse of companies affected by the mudflow. In Porong alone, which is not far from PT Lapindo Brantas’ gas drilling operations, 24 factories making a wide range of products employed tens of thousands of people. Aside from this is the informal sector, consisting of home industry, small-scale trading, farming, fish-ponds, motorbike taxis and others who also lost their work. All this came about as the infrastructure they were reliant on was lost, drowned of damaged. Data from Greenomics estimates that losses to the economy from the mudflow are around 33.2 trillion Rupiah (3.4 billion US$) while Indonesia’s National Dvelopment Planning Board estimates the direct losses at 7.3 trillion Rupiah (730 US$) and the indirect losses as 16.5 trillion Rupiah (1.65 billion US$).

For the Lapindo victims, apart from losing their land and homes, their health is also threatened from living in an unhealthy environment. Studies from environmental NGO Walhi conclude that land and water in the area near the hot mud are contaminated with Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) at concentrations 2000 times higher than normal limit. The United Nations Environment Program describes PAH as dangerous and carcinogenic organic compounds. Meanwhile, a team formed by the East Java governor to study suitability for settlement has reported hydrocarbon air pollution which reaches between 8000 and 220,000 times the threshold limit. Indications of a sharp decline in local people’s health can be seen from the jump in numbers of people suffering from acute respiratory tract infections who attend community health clinics in Porong and Jabon. The clinic in Jabon has recorded a 150% rise in such infections in its catchment area (risen to 170 cases from 60 cases) Meanwhile in the Porong clinic, an average of 20,000 cases in 2006 rose to 50,000 in 2007. The Jabon clinic has also noted two cases of serious mental disturbances since the mudflow.

In the education sector, 63 schools are recorded as submerged, which have left thousands of children without a place to study. These children were forced to move schools and therefore adapt to a new environment. Meanwhile there has been no educational help for the schools and pupils which have had to move, and this obviously detracts from the quality of their learning.

The hot mud also has potentially caused severe damage to social integrity. Previously living together in villages, people are now isolated in different areas. The social solidarity that existed previously begins to disappear. It is common that there are disputes over the status of land. As Lapindo is set to buy land, many families are forced into conflict about how to divide up the money they got for their land and homes. Also safety cannot be guaranteed since the levees were built, meaning that different villages end up in conflict with each other as each tries to ensure their own village’s safety. All people want their village to be safe but since there are no guarantees either from the government or from Lapindo about this they decide for themselves, for example directing the mudflow away from their village so that the impacts would hit another village, even though that village also doesn’t want to be submerged.

Apart from this, the loss of land also means the loss of people’s connection with the history of their village and their ancestors. In Javanese society respect for ancestors is very important. At least once a year, around Ramadan, there is always a ritual to pray and place flowers on the ancestors’ graves. But once the graves have been submerged alongside the villages, this ritual is lost. The people can only pray at the edge of the levee, but the connection is clearly not as strong as if they could pray in front of the tombstone itself. How can we place a monetary value on these social and cultural losses?

From the notes above, we can clearly see that as well as limiting us with the illusion of compensation for just the land and buildings, the Presidential Regulation has also tempered each individual’s potential to fight back. All they have done in exchange is enter some numbers in the in the files which record land ownership.

The destruction we have felt is the destruction of each of our lives as individuals. The loss of our work, the degradation of our health, our education in disarray, are all problems which we must face individually. The Presidential Regulation, however, takes a step backwards, only admitting those losses which it has recorded in the case notes it has compiled to anticipate the payment in instalments. Because of this it is easy for the government and corporation to hide behind the excuse that they have almost settled the matter, based on the number of parcels of land that have already been paid for. The illusion also persists for us, as we forget all the aspects of our lives that each of us has lost.

Out of all the individuals that desire to express their anger at how their lives have been destroyed by the corporation’s behaviour, we have been reduced to just being a group of heads of families who are demanding compensation for land and buildings, and then reduced once again to just be a case file that is waiting to be paid. In this way each potential conflict that could spring up as a result of the independence we have lost is channelled to the representatives of each family, and then in turn to representatives of each village, until finally new elites emerge which are no less bureaucratic than the state and corporations we should be fighting against.

In each village and resistance group, this new elite take on roles to mediate with the powers that be which often end up making weaker demands than those that were originally fought for. Representatives of groups are transformed into being decision-makers over the lives of each individual in their group. We are no longer able to find the power to establish our own choices and demands to get our lives back, because the state has closed off the possibility to make other demands apart from those which were outlined in the presidential regulation and then obediently followed by our representatives who have the right to negotiate in our name. It is not possible any more for each individual to feel the desire to win back the livelihood that was snatched from them, now we just wait for the results of the negotiations between our representatives and the government and Lapindo, which will surely only end up in disappointment.

The Mass Media and Us as Spectators

The emergence of these elites has in turn distanced us from the path of taking direct action, and led us instead to mediation – closed negotiations between them and the state and corporation, along with actions designed to grab media sympathy. To understand this approach to the media, we should take another look at the story of Hari Suwandi explained above.

Many of us still remember how we first took action at the edge of the levee constructed to hold back the hot mud, and tears dripped from Hari Suwandi’s face in the hope that they would open the eyes of the government and Lapindo to swiftly resolve the issue (meaning: pay the rest of the compensation). With the media spotlight later focussing every day on Hari Suwandi’s “holy war” as he walked to the capital, it was inevitable that the Lapindo issue would surface once more.

But that was the root of the problem. It is another illu
sion that the mass media is a tool that can be used to fight for our demands; actually, as well as being a vanity competition for people to become known nationwide and confirm their personality status, it also distances us from active participation in resistance. Communication and information flows are of course important to build up the basis for solidarity in struggle with those in other places who also feel the same anger. But the mainstream mass media is a different beast. The mass media needs to attract as many spectators as possible, each nailed to the screen, and so appearances are what become the most important. When the logic of appearances is given the highest priority, then whatever is shown has been filtered by the mass media. They look for interesting issues and then package them to entrap the spectators. We in turn are forced to be no more than spectators ourselves, told to sit and watch our leaders and representatives whom the logic of the mass media considers attractive to fill the role of speaking and acting on our behalf.

Similarly to how group representatives mediate for us in the negotiations, mediation through popular media such as television forms part of the effort to distance us from our ability to take our own decisions about our lives. When Hari Suwandi walked from Porong to Jakarta, we saw the media attention it was getting and so we placed our struggle into his hands. Therefore when Hari Suwandi started crying and begging forgiveness from the Bakrie family, we are shocked and feel betrayed because that’s not what we were wishing for. But why is this? Why do we place all our individual anger on this image of Hari Suwandi on a glass screen? If from the beginning we were not only spectators to this struggle, if each of us from the outset has been an individual with the right to establish their own demands of how to reclaim our lives that have been seized by the hot mud, then there would be no need to feel betrayed by Hari Suwandi. Because he is not each one of us, he is not a manifestation of what we have chosen for ourselves, he is not the image that we want to put forward to represent each one of us, the individual victims of Lapindo.

Looking for a Different Palying Field: Not a Proposal

After more than six years of the Lapindo mud scandal, feelings of weariness and frustration descend on us evermore frequently. This short reflection is only the notes of one individual who has also often felt tired with our repeated failures to face up to the combined force of the state and corporations. This reflection is also not trying to make any kind of proposals of what would be the best choices to finally settle this case. However, as time goes on, whether we like it or not we have to keep looking at the relationships involved in our struggle and what position we should take.

The main concern of this reflection has been how irrelevant our choice of playing field has become as we resist the state and corporations. To use state institutions which are clearly part of the roots of the problem in order to force our demands upon Lapindo clearly won’t get us anywhere. The hope that legal settlements or new laws, or any Presidential Regulations that might be handed out, will usher in the winds of change, can actually only add to our wounds. Law and written pronouncements from the government are forms of struggle that will never let us win. It was never prophesied that state institutions would protect the people and support their struggles. Attempts to improve these regulations or uphold their values we can clearly see as futile. The aim of those regulations was to amputate our resistance movements.

The same is true for how the organised struggle of individuals has been lost, replaced by representatives who in fact do not fight for our choices. We need to retrace just what it is which we have lost in order to try to bring it back. It is not only our land and houses that have been snatched away from us, but our whole lives which have sunk beneath the hot mud. When our representatives continue to reduce the level of our demands, it just leaves us as beggars who place their hopes on the good intentions of the state and corporations to pay for something which actually should already be ours. That is a clear sign that we have strayed a long way from being able to assert the freedom to define how we want to reclaim our lives.

The mass media’s populist mediation has also been proven not to have any effect whatsoever, and just means that we are regarded as objects of fun more entertaining than the popular comedy TV show Opera Van Java. This keeps us at a safe distance from the direct action we could otherwise be taking motivated by our disgust at the state’s lack of support and the corporate imbeciles.

Instead of keeping on fighting the corporate abuse on a playing field that will never let us win, we could take a different kind of action that is not restricted to imagining old concepts that clearly will not bring about our freedom. It is as if it were a football match – using the state, the concept of representatives and the mainstream media for the struggle is just like competing away, in a stadium full of supporters of the home team, and with a referee who has been paid to let the home team win. We will always be the losing team in a place like that.

Forget the old imagination, which can no longer bring about change. In order to keep up the combat against corporate greed which is protected by the state, we have to escape from the traps which during the last six years have held back our ideas for struggle, preventing them from moving forward. We need to produce once more direct actions that attack the heart of the corporation, and be a threat once more to the continuance of structures that oppress us, without mediation from anybody other than ourselves. More than six years sine the Lapindo victims’ struggle started, instead of always being shocked each time we lose, it is not going overboard to try to find out if we still have the possibility to win. At least it couldn’t be worse than crying on live TV after walking all the way from Porong to Jakarta, right?


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