Theterraced hills of this Indonesian village are a perfect place for crops tothrive, with a rich soil that supports tobacco, corn, potatoes and theoccasional banana palm. But for the farmers who work the slopes of the volcanicisland of Java, a danger is lurking every time they trudge uphill — landslides.More than 150 people were killed on the densely-populated island in two separatelandslides earlier this month, and activists warn that the destruction offorests for logging and farming means that more disasters will follow.
“This job does not give us enough money butfarming is the best option we have. So being buried by a landslide is the lastthing on my mind,” says Robiyanti, who works a patch of these hills withher husband Iswahyudi. “We know we do not have enough money and we are notsmart people, but I do not want my children to grow up poor like myself,”says the 32-year-old, who began working these fields a year ago to supplementthe family’s income. Robiyanti, clad in a headscarf and carrying the blackumbrella she uses to shield herself from the annual monsoon rains, says she andher husband are paid a total of 300,000 rupiah (31 dollars) a month for theirlabour.
They say they have been assured the area is safe.”The soil of the hills in this area is sturdy, or at least that’s what theforestry officials here have told me, Robiyanti says. “So I am not afraid.”Just 30 kilometers (18 miles) away, however, the village of Sijeruk in a similargeographical area was buried by a torrent of mud. Seventy-five of itsinhabitants were killed in the disaster, which came days after another slidesmashed into several villages in neighbouring East Java, killing at least 79 andsweeping away hundreds of houses.
Central Java provincial forestry officialHaryono Kusumo told AFP that in 1995, forests outnumbered farms in thePatakbanteng area but they were destroyed during a massive fire in 1997. He didnot say what caused the blaze but activists allege that fires have beenpurposesly started to clear land — that would otherwise be kept in its naturalstate — so it can be used for farming or plantations. Since 1997, thousands ofresidents have gradually converted the land into farms here, he said. “Wecannot stop their actions, although legally we could, since we are outnumbered– and these people are too stubborn to obey the law due to poverty and a lackof education,” he says.
Illegal logging and the conversion of land forfarming has left just 11 percent of Java’s area covered in plantations ornatural forests, but around 30 percent coverage is needed for ecosystems tofunction normally, activists say. They have warned that similar disasters arelikely to occur more frequently on mountainous Java, one of the world’s mostdensely populated islands, where land is at a premium.
Robiyanti and Iswahyudi work for their neighbour,who they say pays 2.5 million rupiah per year to their village’s farmerassociation for a license to cultivate his land. They have been hit hard by lastyear’s fuel price hikes, which caused them to shift from using kerosene fuel towood, a plight shared with many of Indonesia’s poor that has put even morepressure on the country’s forests.
For 65-year-old potato farmer Hadi Asnawi, wholives in the nearby farming village of Tieng, farming is a “way oflife” — although the land available per person continues to shrink asJava’s population expands. “We are poor and we just have to utilise theland that we have to support our families,” Asnawi says. “There’s noneed for me to be afraid of landslides because I have lived here all my life andI know that the water retention is good.”
Flooding and landslides have been an escalatingconcern in Indonesia during its monsoon season, which hits a peak at the end ofJanuary. In 2003 more than 200 people died when flash floods tore throughBahorok, a popular riverside resort in North Sumatra province. Some officialsdenied environmentalist charges that deforestation was the cause. Despite thedangers, Iswahyudi is sanguine.”I’m not worried about what happened inSijeruk happening here,” he says. “Not unless God wants it to.”