In Batang Regency, on the north coast of Central Java, one of Indonesia’s largest coal companies have made themselves at home… right in the middle of land owned by local farmers. How are they able to get away with this?
Batang residents hold a protest in their rice farm that is under threat of development by a massive coal-fired power plant project.
“Batang united! Reject the coal power plant!”
My body shivers from head to toe hearing the furious roar of the villagers. For five days in April the people of Batang have been working together, using “art as protest” and erecting large banners, signs painted with death skulls, and hand-drawn portraits of farmers with a clear message about the injustice they have had to endure.
“Coal plants take away land and livelihood!” says one large, yellow sign.
Art as protest. The banner in the background reads “Coal plants take away land and livelihood!” The farmers’ land has been fenced off since March 2016.
Back in March 2016, the Batang farmers suddenly discovered that their farming land, which has been their source of income for generations, was bordered off by a five-kilometre wide aluminium fence.
For the past five years, a mega power plant project has been slowly developing in Batang, touted to be the largest in Southeast Asia. The company behind the project, Bhimasena Power Indonesia (BPI) – a consortium group consisting of two Japanese companies, J-Power and Itochu; and Indonesian coal mining company Adaro – has come under much controversy due to continual delays and disagreements over land compensation with local residents. Land acquisition is required to continue with the project and dozens of landowners are still refusing to sell. But this has not stopped BPI.
“Whether you’re from the police or from the army, open the fence!” screams one farmer as she looks across to security guards standing by.
“Do I have to fly to get to my own farm?” shouts another as she waves around her sickle.
In this video the farmers talk about the anger and frustration they feel about the situation. Farmers, landowners and others who reject the coal power plant often receive threatening text messages. In other cases, paid thugs have visited residents’ houses, intimidating them to sell their land.
For farmers like Pak Cahyadi, access means crawling through gaps in the fence or wading through sewage to reach the plants they’ve tendered and cared for. But after BPI caught on, they blocked these spaces even though harvest season is due to arrive.
Cahyadi even tried to sneak in late at night, hoping the cover of the black night sky would obscure him. But when he tried to reach his cassava field, simply to pick a few for his family to eat, he returned not with a hand-full of cassavas but a heart-full of fear. BPI hired security guards to patrol the area to scare and intimidate the farmers from entering their own farms. Pak Cahyadi has no other source of income. Usually, while he waits for his cassavas to ripe, he sells jasmine flowers plucked from his other field. But the jasmines aren’t in bloom, and the opportunity to harvest his cassavas is now under BPI’s control.
Pak Cahyadi has been active in campaigning against the Batang coal power plant. In June 2015 he addressed the protest crowd in front of the Indonesian presidential palace in Jakarta to call on President Joko Widodo to listen to the people and not the polluters.
BPI’s greed to take control of the land, despite not being granted the land license, is both relentless and strategic. Batang is located on the north coast of Central Java. Coal power plants require easy access to coal, and the simplest route is via the ocean. Additionally coal power plants need a huge volume of water to generate steam so it can power up the turbines. During this process, millions of litres of hot water are dumped into the ocean, seriously affecting the ecosystem. Meanwhile, the smog emitting through the chimneys contain lead and high levels of toxic chemicals. From air to water, Batang’s environment will be impacted. Fish, prawns, squids, octopi and shellfish will no longer be available for fishers to catch.
Furthermore, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has already “officiated” the construction of the Batang plant, giving way to BPI to “legitimately” fence off the land.
An aerial view of the protest carried out by Batang residents and the 5km fence that has blocked off their farm. The banner reads “Illegal”.
But like the Batang farmers who refuse to be backed down by intimidation and are dedicated to fighting for their family, health and land, thousands of people in Indonesia are standing in solidarity. During the world-wide Break Free actions taking place this month, thousands took to the streets to urge the government to end the country’s addiction to coal.
Thousands took to the streets in Jarkarta as part of the global Break Free protests. The marchers carried banners calling for Indonesia to reject coal in favour of clean renewable energy, and to honour the commitment made in the Paris Agreement last year to reduce the country’s carbon emissions.
According to research by Harvard University and Greenpeace Southeast Asia, existing coal plants in Indonesia cause an estimated 7,100 premature deaths every year. This number could climb to over 28,000 per year if the Indonesian government continues to stick with dirty energy, rather than switch on renewables.
Greenpeace demands the government to not jeopardize the livelihoods and health of hundreds of thousands citizens by developing this dirty mega-project. It’s time for President Widodo to lead the energy revolution by choosing a safer and more sustainable source.
Let’s unite with Batang. Reject coal power plants! Switch on renewables!
Aghnia Fasza or Tides is Digital Campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.
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