Fighting for the Next Generations


For years, a citizens' initiative in the Indonesian Kendeng Karst-Mountain has been fighting against the destruction of their livelihoods by cement factories, among others, a subsidiary of the German HeidelbergCement. The transnational solidarity network Save Kendeng supports the farmers from the Kendeng Mountains.

The plain between the volcano Muria and the Kendeng Karst in Central Java is a fertile agricultural area. As far as the eye can see, there are fields at the foot of the Kendeng Mountains. Rice is grown here, but also sugar cane, corn, soybeans, tomatoes and beans. But the farmers fear the destruction of their livelihoods. Cement companies want to mine limestone and clay here on a large scale. One of them is the company Sahabat Mulia Sakti (SMS), a subsidiary of Indocement, which is majority owned by the German HeidelbergCement. Where now are fields, villages and foothills of the Karst mountains, a huge cement plant is to be created. The plans split the villagers, some hope for quick money. But the majority of the people here want to preserve their land for the next generations.

Guardians of the earth

Gunarti lives in a small settlement in the district Pati where several houses are built in two rows with a courtyard inbetween where rice is dried, kids are playing and villagers passing by. Gunarti is part of the citizens' initiative Jaringan Masyarakat Peduli Pegunungan Kendeng (JMPPK), which has been informing for years about the dangers of the cement factories. The sensitive

ecosystem of the karst mountains would be destroyed, the underground water reservoirs, source of livelihood for hundreds of thousands, would dry up. Beside suing cement companies, JMPPK has repeatedly caught media attention through creative forms of protest: rallies, marches of several hundred kilometers to the provincial capital of Semarang and the capital Jakarta. When all this did not help, the farmers from the Kendeng mountains publicly cemented their feet in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta for days. This agony was nothing compared to the suffering of the people if their environment was destroyed, so they justified their form of protest.

Non-violent resistance has a long tradition in the region. Gunarti belongs to the Sedulur Sikep (Samin). At the end of the 19th century, the founder of this community, Samin Surosentiko, had thousands of followers. His non-violent resistance in the fight against colonial oppression and social justice brought him great sympathy among the poor population. But for the Dutch occupiers he became dangerous. They banished him to the island of Sumatra in 1907, from where he never returned. The memory of him is kept alive within the Samin community until today, in stories or in an old song that says, "Do not blame others, do not steal, do not hate." The Sedulur Sikep are critical of any authority. They do not send their children to state schools. They refuse to pay taxes to the state since colonial times. They do not belong to any of the six officially recognized religions. When Gunarti prays, she addresses Mother Earth, she says. “All strength is united in her.”

“Farmers are the guardians of the earth”, Gunarti says, "we do everything we can to maintain this tradition." Gunarti's family has been growing rice and vegetables for generations. They avoid chemical fertilizers. Behind the houses, in a combined cow and chicken coop, there are several buckets. Gunarti raises a lid, rises from greenish mixtures a pungent odor. Here it stems from plant and fish residues organic fertilizer. Her husband is building a storage area for the cow dung next door. The urine of the cattle emanates from another bucket of pungent odor.

Jamu Simbar Wareh (Traditional herbal medicine)
Not only is the “medicine” for the rice field home made and organic. Gunarti is a walking medical plant dictionary. Behind the cowshed sprouts all kinds of little plants, the importance of which the inexperienced visitor does not immediately realize. Gunarti squats here and there in front of a small plant, tugs a leaflet. "This has a calming effect if people are anxious and stressed," she says. "And this one helps with stomach problems." The landscape around the Kendeng Mountains offered everything they need to live, Gunarti says. She has founded a women's group that plays an active role in the protest against the cement factory. They also disseminate the knowledge about alternative medicine and produce herbal drinks (jamu). The revenues help to finance their next resistance actions.

Simbar Wareh – women as part of a social movement

A monument for Ibu Patmi
The women of Simbar Wareh (the name is composed of the names of a spring and a cave in the Kendeng Mountains) have gathered in the house of the family of Ibu (Ibu means Madam in Indonesian) Patmi. The 48-year-old Ibu Patmi died in March 2017 after she suffered a heart attack during one of the protest actions in Jakarta. Patmi became an icon of resistance for the people of the Kendeng Mountains. A monument consisting of natural rocks was built a few meters from her house to commemorate her. In addition, with the help of donations, a mosque is built, a place to pray and for the gathering of the peasants. This village with the monument, the mosque, the house of Ibu Patmi's family and hundreds of other houses would not exist anymore, if one day the cement factory of the HeidelbergCement subsidiary would be built.

The women of Simbar Wareh want to demonstrate to the visitor the process of making traditional medicine (jamu). They sit in the kitchen on the floor and handle all kinds of vessels. Their yellow hands tell that turmeric plays an important role in jamu production. Turmeric, as well as various kinds of ginger are first grated, mixed with water, then the liquid is extracted and finally boiled with lemongrass and sugar. When all the liquid has evaporated, a powder is left, which is bottled. "This is also a demo, a cooking demo," Amal jokes. She is responsible for selling the jamu, which is also distributed online. Amal has been active at Simbar Wareh for 3 years. For her, the involvement in the women's group is a process of emancipation. She used to be a housewife; she followed her husband and his job to Jakarta and back to the village. Women as part of social movements? "I did not know anything like that." That changed when a friend took her to a meeting of Simbar Wareh. "The women here are impressively strong," says Amal. At first she was afraid to be present at protests against the cement industry, where women were often at the forefront. "But then I experienced that all these actions were peaceful and non-violent."

Simbar Wareh Jamu production
Nonviolent resistance and transnational solidarity

Ambarwati is one of the nine women known as "Kartini Kendeng" who had their feet cemented in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta in April 2016 ( "When I heard that a cement factory was being built here, I knew we needed to protect our environment!" She says. Her children did not want her to participate in the action when she told them about the plan, Ambarwati recalls. “They were afraid that I would break my legs.” "I'll do it for you and for your children," she told them.

Ibu Giyem, a farmer, has also been part of the movement for a long time. "Cement factories destroy our environment, so there is no alternative to resistance”, she says. The district head (bupati) had no right to grant the company a permit for the factory. It is our land." She tells about the protests actions, how the women spent days in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta and how they strengthened each other by singing together. “HeidelbergCement is telling the public in Germany what great things they would do for the villagers as part of their corporate social responsibility. We have not seen any of these 'measures'," Giyem scolds. "And we do not need them either. We have no shortage of drinking water. The Kendeng mountains have so many springs. "

Her fight for the environment has led Gunarti all the way to Germany, invited by the solidarity network Save Kendeng (consisting of numerous individuals as well as NGOs like Südostasien Informationsstelle, Watch Indonesia and Heinrich Böll Stiftung). At the shareholders' meeting of HeidelbergCement on 10 May 2017 (Gunarti was invited by the Ethical Shareholders Germany, she appealed to hundreds of shareholders: "That's why I ask you, as shareholders, to open your heart and not let your money destroy our lives. I, my family and our neighbors see you here in Germany as our fellow human beings. Are we fellow human beings for you, too? If so, then I ask you: Do not agree with the destructive practices of this company.” In addition to Gunarti's speech during the shareholders 'meeting, an action by members of the transnational solidarity network "Save Kendeng" who cemented their feet in front of the building where the shareholders' meeting took place, caused  a lot of media attention   But the logic of the market economy leaves no room for man and nature and for reflections on how to preserve it for the future. Dividend here and now is the motto. HeidelbergCement has responded to inquiries always in the same way: Although there is currently no intention to build a factory, the option is still kept by their subsidiary. That's why another environmental activist from Indonesia traveled to Heidelberg in 2018. Mokh Sobirin, Director of Yayasan Desantara, informed the German public about the consequences of the planned cement factory. He also spoke about questionable political decisions in the run-up to the concession awarded by the local government to the HC subsidiary.

Once again, people gathered in front of the Heidelberg Stadthalle at the day of the HC shareholder meeting to underline the threat for the environment and to show their solidarity with the people of the Kendeng Mountains. On May 9, 2018, in a parallel action, nine people each stuck their feet in cement in Jakarta (in front of the German embassy) and in Heidelberg (in front of the town hall where the shareholders' meeting took place) for several hours. Both groups were connected with a live connection and could see and hear each other: "Long live the Kendeng Mountains!", it sounded from Jakarta. "Cement factories are not great, they destroy land and climate!" - it rang out from Heidelberg.

Solidarity Protest on 8 May 2018 in Heidelberg, Germany - Save Kendeng / Hans Muller

Cement kills the climate

What barely occurres in many climate change debates: cement production is one of the biggest sources of CO2 emissions. A recently published documentary in Germanys public TV ZDF (and shot, among other places, in the Kendeng mountains) was titled "Cement - the secret climate killer" During the manufacture of one ton of cement, 600 kg of CO2 are released: 400 kg from the chalk and 200 kg through the sintering process. Over 4 billion tons of cement are produced worldwide, generating a total of some 3 billion tons of greenhouse gases – four times as much as the international air traffic and between 6 and 9 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Karst mountains are important carbon dioxide reservoirs and, according to Indonesian national law, geological protection zones. Originally, the regulations on spatial planning in Pati saw the region as an agricultural area and as a tourist destination. But in 2010, just at the time when the HeidelbergCement subsidiary became interested in the area, Pati's local parliament cleared the way for industrialization and mining. Due to alleged irregularities, the admissibility of this decision-making process is currently under scrutiny and has been reported to the National Anti Corruption Commission (KPK) by JMPPK.”

Sobirin's visit to Germany took him and his companions from the solidarity network Save Kendeng to people in Germany, who are struggling with energy and creativity for the preservation of natural habitats against industrial megalomania. He was welcomed in solidarity by activists in the Hambach Forest and from the anti-coal-movement Ende Gelände. “The concept of Mother Earth is a linkage between Kendeng issue as a natural resource management and larger issues, such as climate change and extra-territorial obligations. Let us join hand in hand in solidarity and speak up for Mother Earth. After all we are the same human live on the same Earth.”, Sobirin wrote afterwards.

Sedulur Sikep at Yap Thiam Hien Award 2018 - by Petrasa Wacana

[Photo: Sedulur Sikep at Yap Thiam Hien Award 2018 - by Petrasa Wacana]

The jury of the prestigious Indonesian Human Rights Award Yap Thiam Hien Award recently honored the fight for the preservation of this one Earth. On December 12, 2018, the prize was awarded to the Sedulur Sikep (Samin) community together with environmental activist Eva Bande from Sulawesi. “There are problems such as conflicts between people and big corporations, whether they are mining corporations or oil palm plantations,” a jury member said. “People were denied rights to their land and deprived of their land. Therefore, the struggle of those who fight to preserve the environment needed to be highlighted. […] The members of Sedulur Sikep were chosen because they had inspired other groups [to fight for the same cause]. For example, they got academics involved in public discussions, particularly on the impact of [factories] in rural areas. Furthermore, they shed light on rotten dealings behind the business, such as manipulation of licensing practices. More importantly, they managed to inspire changes without using violence.”

*The author is part of the Save Kendeng solidarity network