Farmers bind feet in concrete during Jakarta protest
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Farmers bind feet in concrete during Jakarta protest

FARMERS have protested for the third day at the Indonesian state palace in Central Jakarta, many with their feet bound in concrete inside wooden boxes.

The group, from Mount Kendeng in rural Central Java, are protesting an environmental permit granted by the provincial government to state-owned cement manufacturing giant PT Semen Indonesia. The permit allows the company to operate factories and a mine in the Rembang regency.

Protesters claim the presence of the factory compromises the quality of mountainous water sources, having disastrous consequences for agriculture in the highly fertile region. They insist any damage to their feet from cementing them inside wooden boxes is insignificant when compared to lasting consequences to the environment, their community and future generations.

According to Jakarta-based Women Research Institute executive director Sita Aripurnami, the people of Kendeng live highly traditional Javanese life based upon local wisdom.

She said they believed the construction of factories would ruin the fabric of society and disturb their centuries-old tata kehidupan or way of life. She told Asian Correspondent the community also believes if the cosmology of Kendeng was disrupted, so will the whole of Java, because everything was interconnected.

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A man pours cement into a wooden box as part of a planned four-day protest outside the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, on March 16, 2017. Source: Reuters/Beawiharta

Having fought against the company for years, the Kendeng farmer group won a case against Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo and Semen Indonesia at the Indonesian Constitutional Court in October 2016. The court ordered the company shut down all its factories in Rembang.

Nevertheless, last month, Pranowo quietly reissued an environmental permit to Semen Indonesia, allowing them to continue production.

On Wednesday, 11 mostly-female farmers arrived at the Istana Negara presidential palace in Central Jakarta, their feet bound in boxes filled with concrete, which had grown to 20 by the following day.

Pleading with the president

The Kendeng group first staged a protest with cemented feet in April 2016, which has become a potent symbol of farmer resistance to big business in Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

They now insist on being allowed to speak to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who met with 17 protesters at Istana Negara last August after running protests. Back then, he ordered an environmental study to investigate the issue and for the suspension of Semen Indonesia’s activities in Rembang for at least a year after hearing their grievances.

“The number of farmers fusing their feet with cement will continue to grow until Jokowi revokes the licence of the cement factory,” a protestor told Kompas.

Last month, some 250 farmers blockaded the entrance to Semen Indonesia’s cement factory in Rembang halting production.

The company claimed it had not continued with further construction of the factory, but defends its right to maintain its property. Just days later, the movement’s “Struggle Tent”, which was erected in 2013 to protest the cement factories, was attacked and set on fire. Perpetrators were allegedly local residents who are in favour of the factory.

As Kendeng farmers remained outside the palace on Friday, Indonesian media outlet Detik reported a new Semen Indonesia factory will begin operation from April 2017, and that the state-owned enterprises minister visited the site in preparation for Jokowi to inaugurate its opening.

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Aripurnami of the Women Research Institute says “the problem is the political interests of the leaders. The laws are clear but not carried out, this shows the arrogance of the leaders.”

“So now [the protesters] are left to the last option: attempting to appeal to the heart of our highest leader – the president.”

Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono told Asian Correspondent the Jokowi administration “should find a third way in the Kendeng dispute.” He said the President should “look for a sustainable development approach and obviously should scrap the Kendeng project.”

Farmer activism as women’s activism

A lead protester named Sukinah, a 41-year-old rice farmer from the village of Tegaldowo, has long been nicknamed the “Kartini of Kendeng”.

Kartini is a feminist icon in Indonesia, whose writings on improving women’s education, public health and economic welfare are highly influential. Her legacy is marked every April 21 by Kartini Day, where women throughout the archipelago wear traditional dress to symbolise unity.

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According to Aripurnami, the Kendeng farmers present an “exemplary case of gender equality in the relationship between men and women, both in domestic household and in the public sphere, in terms of their environmental protection efforts.”

Aripurnami points to other examples of successful environmental activism in Indonesia led by women, including in North Sumatra during the 1980s when a group of farmers resisted a corporation who sought to demolish the community’s plantations.

When the bulldozers rolled in, “women were the ones who stood in front.” Given the local culture of respecting and obeying maternal leaders, the bulldozers “didn’t dare to” proceed, “and they [the community] won.”

Indeed, LBH Jakarta said on Thursday the demonstration was not only for the farmers of Kendeng and Karawang, but “for farmers throughout all of Indonesia as well.” The group plans to continue the protest on Saturday.

According to Harsono, “Indonesia has suffered a lot of environmental degradation since the Suharto era. Development should be made without sacrificing the environment.”