effigy of Bakrie at the protest marking nine years since the Lapindo mudflow
The ninth anniversary of the Lapindo mudflow
eruption shows Indonesia needs to urgently change its thinking on disaster
On 29 May protesters gathered in Sidoarjo, East Java, to commemorate the
ninth anniversary of the Lapindo eruption; the world’s largest mudflow, and
which is attributed by some to natural gas drilling.
protest, local victims and human rights activists paraded a giant effigy of
prominent Indonesian politician and businessman Aburizal Bakrie. The oversized
oligarch wound through the streets towards its final destination atop a
section of the levees containing the mud, which continues to flow today. As it
moved up the levee, the effigy began to collapse on itself and its carriers.
procession stalled for several minutes, it was hard not to view the moment
symbolically: the weight of Bakrie’s power and influence overwhelming ordinary
people. While this interpretation is perhaps apt, Bakrie is not the source of
all the trouble in Sidoarjo.
history of the Lapindo case is well known. Nine years ago, a geyser of hot mud
suddenly burst from the ground next to a gas exploration well owned by Lapindo
Brantas, a subsidiary of the Bakrie Group, a conglomerate controlled by the
Bakrie family. The mud accelerated in the months that followed, eventually displacing
over 40,000 residents, killing dozens, and causing numerous cases of
illness, and extensive environmental, economic, and infrastructural
of the Bakrie family and a prominent, and controversial, political and economic
figure in Indonesia, many observers suspect that Bakrie’s influence is behind
many of the controversies related to this disaster. Most famous is the dispute
over what triggered the mudflow, drilling by Lapindo Brantas or the Yogyakarta
earthquake that occurred two days before the eruption, over 200 kilometers
with connections to Lapindo Brantas uniformly blame the earthquake, while
independent scientists tend to point to the drilling. Other Bakrie-related
controversies include media manipulation, a contentious land-purchase program
meant to function as a compensation scheme, the program’s underfundung,
and attempts to sell and dismantle Lapindo Brantas to protect investors.
widespread concern over Bakrie’s influence, I think it is more important to
focus on questions of disaster governance. Of course, Bakrie’s role should not
be ignored, but his spectacular figure tends to distract from considerable
mistakes in the national government’s handling of the mudflow.
then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) issued a decree that established
the BPLS (the Sidoarjo Mudflow Agency) to oversee disaster management
operations, from handling the mudflow to providing aid to victims, with
funding support from Lapindo Brantas. This two-headed disaster management
apparatus suffered from bureaucratic inefficiencies that slowed the
implementation of response projects, caused confusion between different
governing bodies, facilitated corruption, and led to the dissemination of
misinformation, all of which alienated victims.
revisions to the decree eventually phased out Lapindo Brantas’s financing role,
except for requiring that the company satisfy its debt to victims: the
remaining payments from the land-purchase program that were supposed to be
delivered in 2008.
day, the national government continues to oversee disaster management projects
in Sidoarjo via the BPLS, but the conceptualisation and execution of its
policies have shown little evolution since 2008. Thus, while the BPLS has been
fairly successful in handling the physical mudflow (maintaining the levees and
pumping excess mud into nearby waterways) and regional infrastructure
(developing new roads and buildings), it has done little to address
environmental concerns (like pollution to air, land, and water systems) and
rifts with victims (even adopting Lapindo Brantas’s land purchase program to
administer aid as the expanding mudflow has displaced additional victims).
months, much of the news related to the mudflow has focused on President Joko
Widodo’s plan to use federal funds to cover Lapindo Brantas’s debt to victims.
While payments are expected to begin rolling out on 26 June, and should
be completed before Idul Fitri (Indonesia’s festival marking the end of
Ramadan taking place in mid-July this year), the nine-year anniversary is an
opportune time to rethink the entire disaster management apparatus in Sidoarjo.
estimate that the mud will continue to flow for years to come. Rather than
repeating mistakes that not only continue to alienate ordinary residents in the
surrounding neighborhoods and ignore the environmental effects of the mud, but
also have proven to be financially inefficient, it is time to integrate lessons
from the past and develop a new disaster management strategy in Sidoarjo.
studies, it is well known that top-down, centralised disaster management
strategies tend to be inefficient at best. When victims are excluded from the
planning and administration of disaster management policy, when they are not
provided with clear information about the causes and effects of a disaster,
when they are not informed of their legal rights, and when there are no clear
lines of accountability through which victims may act on these rights, a
disaster management institution can actually intensify victims’ hardship
and vulnerability to hazards. Beyond occurring in Sidoarjo, similar problems
with top-down, technocrat-led disaster governance have occurred in New Orleans
and Haiti, to name some infamous examples.
disaster management operations in Sidoarjo would not only benefit mudflow
victims, but would also provide disaster management experts with
ground-level knowledge about inefficiencies, victims in need, and environmental
opening up disaster management operations to be inclusive of local residents,
whether through civil society groups or via local governing institutions, to
freely share both “technical” and “informal” information, to establish clear
roles and responsibilities and a means of evaluating performance, and to move
beyond the spectacle of Bakrie and media stunts by victims, all sides should
“Lapindo says it has spent 2.7 trillion
[rupiah] to help victims,” a displaced resident explained between photographing
the effigy, “but no one saw where it went.” This man, who now lives in central
Sidoarjo, said he brought his wife and daughter to the anniversary protest to
remember their lives before the disaster.
nine years, as a new generation of children grow up in the region with no
memories of life before the mudflow, many current and former residents fear
that nothing will change, regardless of the government’s planned delivery of
levee, an activist with JATAM (the Mining Advocacy Network), which organised
the parade, explained that the event is crucial for countering the sense of
hopelessness that frequently arises. Beyond the parade, victims read poetry,
fell into trances, danced, and sang, all for the sake of demanding justice.
these feelings and the ongoing problems with disaster management in Sidoarjo,
there is no reason to proceed along the current course, unless the weight of
Bakrie or other figures masked in his shadow are truly as great as the symbol
of the collapsing effigy would suggest.
again, after a few minutes, which included some minor adjustments and the
addition of many new hands, the effigy was on the move again, eventually
finding its place on the wall. Perhaps this is a sign that Bakrie’s influence
can be overcome.
of my divergent readings of the effigy’s symbolism, there is now an opportunity
to focus on capacity building, and on empowering local communities both in
Sidoarjo and those vulnerable to social and environmental disasters elsewhere.
History teaches that empowerment and capacity building is always cheaper and
more effective than response and reconstruction projects.
region famous for its political and environmental turbulence, it would be wise
for Indonesia’s government to apply these lessons as various other social and
natural hazards loom.
is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Kansas. His research
and teaching focuses on environmental literature, political ecology, and