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In Indonesia, the peasant struggle of Kendeng

"We are ‘orang desa’ (country people), far from big cities. Maybe it’s hard for you to imagine that we work close to the earth, outside and sweating from morning until night."

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lead The author's photographs. All rights reserved.Mbak Gunarti, one of the women leaders of the peasant struggle of Kendeng came back last month to Indonesia, in the island of Java where she lives among her Samin people, after having spent several weeks in Germany. There she attended the May 1 protest holding the banner “Save Kendeng”. She also met with the executive committee of the multinational company HeidelbergCement – the world’s second-largest cement producer. It had claimed to be ready to build Donald Trump’s Mexico wall, before withdrawing the offer[1]. In Indonesia, it is part of the cement group, Indocement, which along with other on-going cement and mining projects has been destroying the region of Kendeng, located on the northern coast of central Java. Teeming with subterranean rivers, mineral springs and limestone, this region is a geological area, which supplies in water both the locals and the greater region of Java[2]. Peasantry is for them a spiritual practice that is aligned to a Javanese cosmology.

It is also where the Samin people live, a peasant community that has resisted state rule since the colonial era through civil disobedience, non-violence, and self-organization. Cultivating the land is part of their identity. They claim it allows them to be self sufficient, independent from the state or the system of exploitation. More than just work, peasantry is for them a spiritual practice that is aligned to a Javanese cosmology – according to which humans are responsible for constantly ensuring and readjusting an equilibrium between the world and the cosmos. By working the land with love, they thus interact with nature, ancestors, spirits and divinities. It is on such a basis that the Samin people have established themselves since the nineteenth century as an autonomous movement, free from state politics or ideologies[3].

“Save Kendeng”

For decades, they have faced serious discrimination for not sending their children to school or for refusing to adopt any monotheist religion imposed on people by the State. But today, the Kendeng movement has given their spirit a new political relevance, as they’ve organized peasants throughout the region, crosscutting through cultural differences on common grounds of peasants’ resistance. The Samin people started struggling against cement projects more than ten years ago, in 2006, when the national company Semen Gresik set up a plan to establish a factory in the district of Pati. They obtained a first victory in 2009, when the entrepreneurs finally decided to “postpone” their industrial project. But in 2014, the national company started building a new factory in Rembang, another district of Kendeng, under a new name – PT Semen Indonesia. That’s when the Rembang peasants joined the struggle.

It has since then attracted a great deal of attention for its self-managed organization and independence from NGOs. Artists, intellectuals, and activists from numerous backgrounds have come to support the movement while learning from the people who make it up. In the age of globalisation, this land struggle also became a cultural resistance that reinvented traditions and built new imaginaries through arts and spirituality. Punk musicians – such as the famous band Marjinal – started composing songs based on old Mother Earth prayers. Islam became reinvigorated by Javanese mysticism, allowing people to give new meanings to their religion that contest dominant frameworks. The Kendeng movement has thus become a kind of anti-capitalist ontology that renews Samin teachings in global times.

That’s also what the filmmaker Dandhy Laksono showed in his film “Samin versus Semen”, which was screened in 10 German towns during Mbak Gun’s visit in Europe. There, she campaigned alongside local activists to “Save Kendeng”. The screenings were accompanied by numerous protests, where people put their feet in cement to express their solidarity with the Kendeng struggle. This powerful and theatrical action has indeed become the symbol of the movement, which performs new forms and methods of political resistance.

Women performing resistance

The women of Kendeng first caught attention when they protested in front of the Presidential Palace in 2016. For a week, they sat down dressed in their beautiful traditional batik clothes, with their feet buried in buckets of cement. Known as the “ibu-ibu” - which means both “women” and “mothers”, they’ve embodied the movement’s vision of non-violence and spiritual ecology. For a week, they sat down dressed in their beautiful traditional batik clothes, with their feet buried in buckets of cement.

These women put the emphasis on what they are defending, rather than what they’re fighting against. Re-embracing their responsibilities as mothers and wives, performing their bodies in the public space made their struggle a public concern. It is a struggle for life and future generations: how will their households survive if there is no more water? How will they take care of their children and ensure them a good life?

For many years, the women were on a daily basis at the forefront of struggle. In Rembang, they launched a permanent occupation – through a system of rotation – of a protest tent set up at the entrance to the gigantic industrial site. This reinforced solidarities within the communities, as the women made the private political. The struggle entered into family relations and transformed them. While the Kendeng movement didn’t aim to take on patriarchal structures, the fact is that the struggle has enabled them to break down some barriers and uplift certain norms through a sense of togetherness. The women also made the tent feel like “home” – a place where people cook, eat, sleep, sing, pray, discuss and invent new ways of thinking. It became the door to another world, where the impossible is made magic.

While embedded in everyday concerns, the women gave the struggle a mystical dimension. Their performances contributed to creating a stage in reality which bridges the sacred with the profane. Their protests in Jakarta alternated between everyday conversations, light and joyful, with prayers, chants and tears – as if their performances gave women the possibility to go beyond their individual beings, and tap into the collective and symbolic body of Mother Earth. These women put the emphasis on what they are defending, rather than what they’re fighting against.

Once, they blocked the road leading to the gigantic industrial site, with a sit-down by the tent. Face to face with the authorities, they started dancing and chanting together, calling out to the powerful spirits of nature. Another time, they unbuttoned their shirts. Speaking to us, one of the women recalls how in Javanese traditions, women expose their breasts to put spells on people. The consequences were immediate: some policemen got fired; others had accidents, one even died.

The struggle of Kendeng has also been violent. A few months ago, in March 2017, Bu Patmi (Mother Patmi), who had been involved since the very beginning, died during a protest in Jakarta. For the second time, peasants cemented their feet: this time, the women along with men and activists. When Bu Patmi removed her feet from the cement, she felt dizzy and nauseous; the blood had coagulated. Her death sparked great emotion throughout the archipelago. From the island of Sumatra to Papua, numerous organisations of women, workers, peasants, students and indigenous groups manifested their solidarity with Kendeng by putting their “feet in cement” as well. Such an action revived the memories of the far too numerous deaths and other oppressions that haunt Indonesia’s contemporary history.

Reclaiming democracy

For a while, an alliance with the president Joko Widodo – “Jokowi” seemed almost within reach. “He’s like us”, said one the peasant, while wearing a tee shirt with the face of the president, like a new type of Obama. Jokowi had campaigned on a break with past politics and the heritage of the New Order regime (1965-1998). Boasting about his peasant origins, he claimed to speak to “the people”. Once elected, he also made it possible for people wearing sandals to enter the Presidential Palace. “He understands us.  If we wore shoes, we would look like clowns”, the peasant also explained.  On the walls of his wooden house, with furniture he had carved himself, one could see a photograph capturing a memorable moment: in August 2016, when the peasants sat at the table of the president, who promised them that he would cancel the industrial plant in Rembang. In February 2017, he implemented a new law, which re-legalized the construction of the cement factory.

It was a first step towards a victory which should have happened in October 2016 – when the Supreme Court suspended the construction permit of the enterprise PT Semen Indonesia, as it violated the environmental protection laws that designate the Kendeng region a “geological area”. The governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo, first accepted this decision. But in February 2017, he implemented a new law, which re-legalized the construction of the cement factory. In the meantime, a “pro-cement” nationalist group set fire to the tent in December. It was in the context of such injustice that the peasants protested last March, in front of the President Palace. Jokowi received Mbak Gun – the woman who was in Germany last month. But this time, he shifted responsibility for the Kendeng case to local authorities.

Mas Gunretno, the Samin leader of the movement – also the brother of Mbak Gun – told us: “We are not struggling against the state, but for our freedom”.

But when the state starts infringing on their freedom, they answer back. They reclaim democracy, as embedded in the unfinished story of decolonisation. In a vehement letter addressed to the president, the peasants wrote collectively last March 2017:

“Mister President, when we protest in villages, in provincial capitals and in the country’s capital, we are always bothered by threats and violence. We really are ‘orang desa’ (country people), far from big cities. Maybe it’s hard for you to imagine that we work close to the earth, outside and sweating from morning until night.

 

When we come now to protest in front of the Presidential Office or the National Palace, we are circled by the police, the army and officers – who spy on us and shoot us one by one. We feel as if we were wild animals that had to be captured so they wouldn’t do any harm (…) But this building is no longer that of the Dutch East Indies, Mister President. This old building, which we have reached, is now a symbol of Indonesia’s independence. We are citizens who are very proud and worthy to be peasants, Mister President.”

They added:

“Mister President, we know that the majority of government employees are at your service, as state functionaries. However, those who have been disturbing our lives and despising our human dignity, breaking the unity of our peasant people in the Kendeng mountains, and blame us as if we were bad people – those are precisely heads of governmental offices, functionaries of the highest rank, university professors with the best education. Most of them know the law, yet it has become the law and its jurisdictions that have been betraying the people”.

Here we see the central idea that the “people” know more about what they need for their country than do the experts and technocrats that manage it.

Freedom of the mind

Since the beginning of the movement, one of the challenges has been to prove that the construction of the cement factory is illegal and based on falsified data. Environment policies require that industrial projects be validated by the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) – which in Indonesian refers to AMDAL (Analisis Mengenai Dampak Lingkungan). But in the case of Rembang, this report produced false information. As early as 2014, the commissioner of the National Commission of Human Rights (KOMNAS HAM), Muhammad Nur Khoiron declared that this was a violation of human rights. He also underlined the national dimension of the problem: “Conflicts between local populations and enterprises that follow AMDAL agreements don’t only occur in Rembang, but also in other regions”[4].

Facing this reality, the Kendeng peasants built alliances with several groups of environmental organisations, scientists and lawyers. They also engaged in a series of geological explorations, in order to scientifically refute the legitimacy of the AMDAL report.

This was also the occasion to venture into the discovery of their territory. Using headlamps, cameras and hand phones, one of the missions was to descend 20 metres into a cave in order to find an underground river, while filming the performance. “The struggle taught us to do so many things”, said Mas Joko Priyanto who also leads the movement. Their quick thinking and willingness to learn gives full meaning to the Samin saying, according to which: “Nature is our school, and we are all the professors of one another.” “Nature is our school, and we are all the professors of one another.”

In a similar way that the Samin children do not attend an official school, the education of the Rembang peasants involved in the struggle rarely goes beyond the elementary level. Yet when we meet them, they reveal a deep wisdom and understanding of the world, through which they distinguish their intelligence from a scholarly or institutionalized knowledge. Here, culture isn’t an individual property, nor a title that serves as an added value in the marketplace of power and economics. Culture is something alive, which circulates, gets reinvented and strengthens everyday relationships. The Kendeng struggle has helped to amplify this, allowing many talents to develop according to different skills and personalities. While they keep working in the field, people have become filmmakers, spokesmen, mediators, communicants, illustrators, and teachers.

In that way, their movement reveals how science acts as a battlefield, polarizing two opposing visions. The peasants teach us a freedom of mind and a reappropriation of collective intelligence, which breaks through alienation and grows with the world. While they keep working in the field, people have become filmmakers, spokesmen, mediators, communicants, illustrators, and teachers.

With the world

Before concluding, I’d like to recall an anecdote. Last year, in August 2016, soon after the peasants first met with the President, we were spending a joyful evening in the “tent”, at the entrance to the industrial site. More than 90% of the factory was already built, and the mountains were already widely destroyed by the roads, the gigantic plant and the nearby mine.

As we watched, late at night, the ongoing, back-and-forth movement of trucks that were actively building the factory, the Kendeng struggle suddenly seemed impossible. What could they do, facing the inexorable power of capital and time? As I was focused on watching the trucks, Mas Joko Priyanto changed the direction I was looking in. He pointed to the sky filled with beautiful stars, then to the rustling jungle. I understood that they have the world of nature with them, and that makes them stronger than anyone. In some way, this movement happens in a space and time of endless possibilities.

Now finished, the factory was originally supposed to be inaugurated in April 2017. We are now in June, and the peasants are waiting for the results of a final environmental report. People say that this time, the scientific team should be objective, and expect that Jokowi will make his final decision based on the report – which should one again prove the Rembang factory to be illegal. But 5 trillion Indonesian rupiahs (about 376 million dollars) have already been invested in the gigantic project, sprawling across 850 hectares in the middle of the forest. The peasants keep repeating that they’ve struggled against the project from the very beginning, and that such an amount is nothing compared with the damage that will be caused in the future. The entrepreneurs have on their side led a campaign saying that the factory would create more jobs and respect green standards of globalisation. The “people” know more about what they need for their country than do the experts and technocrats that manage it.

It is impossible to know at this moment how the situation will evolve in the coming months, but it’s under pressure. In April 2017, the former intelligence chief Sutiyoso, a retired three-star army general, was appointed the top commissioner of PT Semen Indonesia. Meanwhile, the peasants keep struggling with the same constancy. For them, such a project is simply impossible because it violates the very principles of the world order. And they will continue their struggle to the very end, with their bodies and souls. As Bu Murtini told us: “I’m always ready, at any hour of the day and of the night”. With an unshakable and mystical confidence, they often claim they are not scared of death. But we must also get ready for the worst-case scenario. Forced displacements and violent conflicts due to land grabbing or the opening of gigantic industrial sites have become common in Indonesia. They have already killed so many people, whose names have been erased from our memories. “Rembang melawan, Rembang menang” – Rembang struggles, Rembang wins.

As we are writing these lines, the peasants of Rembang are building a new spot that will replace the tent, this time made of bamboo. On Facebook, we read “Rembang melawan, Rembang menang” – Rembang struggles, Rembang wins. In some way, the ongoing struggle is already a victory in itself. That has also been the way the Samin people have never lost a battle, throughout history. They’ve always been able to readjust and find new strategies to defend their land and spirit. The Kendeng movement is a new challenge in global times.

Note: An earlier and longer version of this article was published on May 15 2017 in French “Les pieds dans le ciment: la lutte des paysans de Kendeng” on the website Mémoires des Luttes.


[1] « Who will build Trump’s long promised border wall ? » published on March 05 2017, http://www.dw.com/en/who-will-build-trumps-long-promised-border-wall/a-37816935

[2] « Dirty Cement : The Case of Indonesia » by Anett Keller and Marianne Klute, first published  in the German edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, 13 October 2016. An English version can be found on : https://th.boell.org/en/2016/12/09/dirty-cement-case-indonesia

[3] « The Samin Movement and Millenarism », A Korver, 1976 first published in : Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 132 no: 2/3, Leiden, 249-266. Available on line.

[4] “Komnas HAM: Pembuatan Amdal Pabrik Semen di Rembang Langgar Ham”, Kompas.com, December 2 2014.

How to cite:
Sakasi, A. (2017) In Indonesia, the peasant struggle of Kendeng , Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 11 July. https://opendemocracy.net/alice-sakasi/in-indonesia-peasant-struggle-of-kendeng
About the author

Alice Sakasi is a PhD candidate in political anthropology (Paris 7, CESSMA). She is working on people's struggles in Indonesia with a focus on women and new ways of performing political resistance.

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