A toxic plant, mobilized villagers, and maps as a weapon for resistance

#Health #Pollution #Java #Participatory_Cartography #Water #Waste #Toxic_Waste

11 December 2016


by Aude Vidal

author of Petite écologie de la Malaisie.
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The villagers of Lakardowo (Mojokerto, Java East) used to go in secret to the office of environmental organisation Ecoton. “When [the women] first visited us to learn about environmental law and hazardous materials they had to lie to their family and neighbours. The men visited us at 10pm”. Riska, the youngest member of Ecoton, remembers the first contacts of the villagers with her team of militant biologists. It’s a few months now and she’s glad to see the villagers coming by day, ever more numerous, to elaborate with the CSO (civil society organisation) a strategy to address the problems they’ve been facing for six years.

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The PT PRIA plant in Lakardowo
Picture: Linda Nursanti and Mada Arir

In 2010 a toxic waste treatment plant, PT PRIA (Putra Restu Ibu Abadi), arrives in Lakardowo, asserting to the village authorities that it manufactures bricks and recycled paper. It will take some years, ill children and whistle blowers to realise that the bricks are one of the products into which the plant gets rid of toxic waste. Today all around the village are still standing these low walls of greyish brick, down market material for poor rural people.

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Wall made of toxic waste
Picture: Aude Vidal

Juwita is the mother of a child who has been suffering serious dermatological disorders for the last three years. She claims the illness of her child comes from the water quality. Before the plant arrived, she could drink the water, now it must be boiled. Every household in Javanese countryside has a well providing the necessary water but she now seeks other sources of water, for drinking and for bathing. But bottled water is expensive and the water supply networks don’t reach the village, though the region has been industrialised since the 1970’s. She has to bath her daughter in this well water she knows to be damaging for her health.

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PT PRIA plant in Lakardowo
Picture: Linda Nursanti and Mada Arir

Yet when she had an occasion to work at the factory, she took it. The wages were double that of her previous job’s and she was one of the villagers who didn’t take sides, not truly convinced by the activism against PT PRIA. She was hired as a cleaning lady however sometimes used at the selection process where she manipulated waste without proper protection. She could have brought home some waste, as some of her colleagues did, not aware of their toxicity. She remembers how she saw a worker taking home a hospital blanket stained with blood. After a few months on the job, she quits in February 2016.

The first serious alerts were issued in 2013. The villagers attempted to become better organised in 2016 however this made their struggle more intense due to sabotage by the plant (one of their leaders was given a vice director position) and in spite of the dissent in the village regarding the effects of pollution. Only in late February 2016 the struggle was taken to an other level after the repression of a demonstration at the doors of the plant. Twenty four people with minor injuries were enough to traumatise a whole village. On this occasion many villagers who were still irresolute decided to commit themselves to opposing PT PRIA. Among them many women like Juwita were repressed which later turned into harassment by the police patrolling every night on the roads of Lakardowo and removing the banners put up by the villagers.

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Women of Lakardowo during a public meeting, October 4th 2016
Picture: Linda Nursanti and Mada Arir

Upset and shocked, the women of the village are there at every demonstration, whether it’s at Mojokerto regency or at the governor’s residence at Surabaya or in Jakarta to negotiate with the ministry of Environment and Forestry — on October 25th the protesters staged a less gentle demonstration at the ministry in Jakarta after reporting the case with their lawyer to human rights commission, police watch monitoring centre, national police headquarters and the house of representatives. This visit leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of Sutama and Rumiati, two women who came for the day at Ecoton, ten kilometers from their village. There they attended training on environmental health or toxic waste, meeting activists from Minamata where one of the biggest environmental scandals in post-war Japan took place. They have a voice and are greeted by the representatives of USAID in Jakarta who came to support Ecoton in their effort for environmental justice and citizen participation.

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Picture: Linda Nursanti and Mada Arir

PT PRIA is the only plant in this part of Indonesia (Java East and the islands East of the archipelago) that manages medical waste from 1500 hospitals and medical centres, waste from electric plants and various industries... It handles no less than 58 different types of hazardous material, at a low cost. But its processes are not cautious enough for the danger it represents, Daru explains. According to this founding member of Ecoton, the substances are mixed together without care for a possible “cocktail effect”, and a disregard for chemical reactions that could happen; waste is being incinerated in equipment failing to meet the safety standards; storage spaces are not waterproof and the plant is not officially allowed to stock hazardous substances anyway.

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Near the plant
Picture: Linda Nursanti and Mada Arir

PT PRIA is leaking, not only as workers take waste to their homes. Incineration fumes are not being filtered and contaminate the environment. More than the air, the water is being contaminated. As the plant is built on a hill, tropical rains trickle down all the substances that are not in hermetic containers. As holes were simply dug in the ground to dispose the waste, tests run by Ecoton in the monitoring well of the plant show that it has been contaminated with heavy metals and bacteria e.coli coming from coal ash and medical waste. This well is used to monitor the quality of the superficial groundwater sheet, from which the wells of the village get their water.

Having made this report and based on the findings of a geodesy expert, Daru draws a geological map of the premises for the representative of the ministry sent in Lakardowo on the morning of October 4th.

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Sketch of the plant, the surveillance well and the village wells
Drawing: Daru Rini, Ecoton

One can feel the tension in the village. A hundred or so policemen are ready to intervene in case of a riot and they would be supported by the workers wearing PT PRIA green uniforms. The strategy of the ministry, the only authority capable of protecting the villagers, is not a surprise. It currenty underestimates the danger of the plant premises, though Ecoton has been seriously documenting it, and refuses to understand the connexion between pollution and the villagers poor health.

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Water testing near the plant
Picture: Linda Nursanti and Mada Arir

The meeting is ended at noon and the representative who came to explain the villagers that everything is doing fine receives nothing but sarcasms and booing. The activists meet Ecoton staff in the headquarters of the movement, a simple house next to a warung where they drink coffee and share the news. Sutama and Rumiati tell the story of how they started in June a project of village mapping to be able to visualise any connexion between the exposure of the inhabitants to pollution and their illness.

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The village is mobilized
Picture: Linda Nursanti and Mada Arir

In every hamlet, twenty women were in charge of gathering information about peoples occupation at the plant, health issues of the villagers and toxic materials circulation: coal ash building material, medical waste and expired food. This moment of secret investigation took advantage of the village social life, especially active among women, and of the lack of privacy in the Indonesian countryside. Sutama remembers that they could get hold of the personal files at the local medical centre — having previously been cruelly rebuked for daring to ask on matters that are inappropriate for an uneducated rural woman. Once all the data have been gathered, the women of the village used them to fill in a base map they previously drew by hand. No official nor on line map have been used in the making, the important thing for them was to identify precisely every house. It took ten days to map the four hamlets of the village and present the result to the inhabitants.

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Aerial photography of the plant’s surroundings

The supporters of the plant, who have been spied on, didn’t seem to appreciative but the map makes visible to all the links between illness and exposure that until then remained difficult to understand. Riska, translating Sumata and Rumiati, sums things up: “The elaboration of this map helped them to find a relation between their health and their experience”. With this finer understanding they could convince other villagers among those not willing to take sides. The head of the village resigned in the meantime.

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Map of one of the hamlets, by the women of the village
Picture: Ecoton

This health map of Lakardowo won’t constitute legal evidence to establish the responsibilities of the plant in the health issues of the villagers. In matters of environmental health the connexions are always difficult to establish between health and environment, every body reacting differently to a similar exposure. But this first step, which the villagers designed and implemented by themselves, will be useful to Ecoton, the CSO that helps them whenever they ask. With this tool they can raise the interest of new partners who are able to pay for bio-chemical analysis that have been too costly to make so far or to identify with more accuracy the illnesses than the staff in a rural medical centre who failed to treat them properly. This information could help the protesters to win the legal battle that they are to fight against PT PRIA.

Pollution from the plant eats into the skin and mucous membrane of ever more children in the village. Arthritis and respiratory diseases are also blamed on the toxicity of the waste processed by the plant. In six years only, the health of the village has been severely deteriorating. The accumulation of exposure to pollution and latency periods of more serious diseases could lead to a huge scandal in matter of public health in Indonesia. Somewhere in East Java, simple villagers and concerned scientists don’t want this to happen.

↬ Aude Vidal

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