Farmers in the Central Java district of Purworejo have so far been able to save to build their homes, buy vehicles, and put their children to school, from farming. But the construction of the Benar Dam, freeing some 600 hectares of land, threatens their livelihood.

The busy traffic of project vehicles passing through the eastern gate of Bener Dam on the Nglaris road in Guntur village, Purworejo District, Central Java, has become a routine sight for the 64-year old Salamah.

Every day, Salamah tends to her farming land on a forest area adjacent to the eastern gate of what is going to be the tallest dam in Indonesia where you can find various plants and shrubs including coconut, durian, clove, cardamom and roots.

For Salamah, the forest is a source of livelihood.

This is why she refused to give up her land near the dam’s eastern gate to Perum Perhutani, the state-owned forestry company tasked to manage the development and construction of Bener Dam, listed as one of the country’s Strategic National Projects (PSN).

The land Salamah is able to work on is the only one remained, after three others located near the Bogowonto river basin could no longer be planted because they were appropriated for the same project.

“People here did not want it (the dam project), but I don’t know what happened. Frankly, revenues from farming in the forests are endless. After harvesting a crop, then I move on to another,” she said while cutting off small branches from a tree with a sickle on August 24, 2021.

While comfortably seated on an embankment, Salamah goes on to explain about the average revenues she earned from selling her crops. Coconuts , she said, can bring her Rp500,00 if not more every month. She can also sell one kilogram of wet local spice known as kemukus (Piper cubeba) for Rp55,000, or up to Rp250,000 if dried. Three kilograms of wet kemukus make one kilogram of dried cubed.

Not long ago, her cardamoms fetched Rp270,000 a kilogram. “If there are many trees, we can harvest five kilos at one time,” said the grandmother of three.

That afternoon, Salamah is not alone. She had asked the help of her relative, Sutoyo, 40, to harvest cloves on her field. Sutoyo’s story is not any different. He lost all his land to the construction of the second package of the Bener Dam project by PT Waskita Karya, one of the three state enterprises working on the dam project.

“I had nine plots, they are all gone. Finished. I can no longer farm,” Sutoyo said while picking up cloves.

Since three years ago, Sutoyo had been forced to take whatever job that was available. He helped others harvest cloves, worked at the construction site, and at times worked on rice fields in other regions.

He said that farming in the forest had been able to provide him with enough to meet his family’s needs, including sending his four children to school.

“I could build a house, buy a motorcycle, send my children to school. All that from this (farming land in the forest) But what can I do, when the government wants something, they don’t care about anything else,” he said.

The pros and cons of an open quarry in Wadas

Unlike Salimah and Sutoyo who lost their land, 61-year-old Yatimah and hundreds of fellow villagers in Wadas, also in Bener Subdistrict, are still fighting to defend the forest in their village.

The environmental impact analysis (ANDAL) document for the Bener Dam construction issued in February 2018 by the Serayu Opak River Basin Agency (BBWSSO) of the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, designated Wadas village as the site of a quarry for andesite, stones require for the dam construction.

According to the document, Wadas was chosen because its andesite stone reserve is estimated to meet the need of the dam construction and located in the proximity of the project.

However, the majority of villagers who are also members of a movement focused on protecting the Wadas environment (GEMPADEWA), objected the designation and they want to conserve the forest in their village which has been their source of livelihood.

Several GEMPADEWA members claimed that the environmental analysis document on the quarry, along with the same document for the dam, were developed without involving the local community.

The head of the dam construction task unit of the BBWSSO, Tampang (52), said that the designation of the quarry location had been approved by all Wadas villagers but it was only later when a number of residents objected the project.

“Basically, everyone agreed initially, but perhaps there were individuals with the power to influence, talked them out of it. When in fact there were more who were in favor,” says Tampang at his office in Sleman on August 10, 2021.

He goes on to say that there was also a misunderstanding about the quarry among the villagers. “Don’t think of it like a coal mine. We will level and dig parts of the hill like in the Breksi Cliff  (a tourist destination in Sleman District) but it doesn’t look as extreme as that. We will only dig about 40 percent in some 100 hectares of land,” Tampang explains.

Ukiran patung naga yang ada di Tebing Breksi. Sumber: Wikimedia/TebingBreksi/ Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0

While GEMPADEWA claims that residents who are in favor of the quarry are few in numbers and most of them were those who did not own land in the affected forest area.

Yatimah, who is also a member of Wadon Wadas, the women wing of GEMPADEWA, airs her organisation’s concern on the impact of such quarry on their farming land, including Alas Wadas, a hill teeming with various non-wood commodities for the village.

“If the mining takes place, the soil will be damaged and automatically the water source would disappear. The housewives at home need water. It’s hard for the children to play when the air is filled with dust from the traffic of project vehicles. No more land for farming as soil become barren. Sources of livelihood would disappear,” says Yatimah when met in Alas Wadas on July 23, 2021.

A report produced by GEMPADEWA, the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI), the Yogyakarta Legal Aid Agency (LBH), and Perpustakaan Jalanan in 2018-2019 showed that non-wood commodities in Wadas village were worth Rp 8.5 billion annually while hardwood yielded another Rp 5.1 billion every five years.

Infografis Komoditas Perkebunan di Desa Wadas
Infographic about the Wadas Village non-wood commodities.

Protected areas

The Purworejo District Regulation on the Regional Spatial Zoning Plan for the Purowrejo District  for 2011-2031 stipulated that the Bener and Gebang subdistricts, where the dam construction will take place, are part of a protected area managed by the local people, as well as a water catchment area.

The same regulation also categorized the two districts as areas prone to landslides and earthquakes. Himawan Kurnidi (34), the head of the advocacy and regional division of WALHI Yogyakarta, the organization working with GEMPADEWA said that the most recent landslide occurred in Wadas in early 2021.

“There was a big landslide in 1988 that left four dead and dozens injured,” he said in a telephone conversation on August 1, 2021.

But Tampang argues that areas where the dam construction will take place and the site of the quarry are not prone to landslides.

The head of commission II of the Purworejo legislative council, who is also the head of special committee for spatial zoning plan, Tunaryo (55), said that the implementation of PSNs is beyond the district administration’s authority.

“According to the law, that falls under the authority of the central government. We (local administration) have no authority over that (PSN),” he said at the district legislative council building on August 17, 2021.

While the secretary of the special commission on the spatial zoning plan, Rokhman (53), added that there were no issues with the execution of the Bener dam construction and that the project does not interfere with the district’s spatial zoning plan.

The impact of Bener Dam

The Bener Dam is one of the 65 dams targeted for completion in 2022. The Ministry of Public Works and Housing, through BBWSSO touted the Bener Dam as the highest dam in Indonesia and the second highest in Southeast Asia after the Tasang dam in the Shan state of Myanmar.

The Tasang dam construction was surrounded by agrarian and social conflicts that resulted in the long delay of the construction that had been proposed by the government in 1990. Construction did not start until 2007.

The construction of Bener dam is facing a similar fate.

Infografik Fungsi Bendungan Bener
Infograpgics on Bener Dam and its function.

According to a government workplan, the Bener dam is expected to supply 1,500 liters of water per second to three districts. Kulon Progo will receive 700 liters per second, Purworejo will receive 500 liters per second while Kebumen will receive 300 liters per second.

Of the 700 liters per second to Kulon Progo, a little less than one third will be used to supply the Yogyakarta International Airport.

Salamah admitted that she is not aware of the fact that the Bener dam will supply more clean water to other regions. “Right now, water is already difficult to get, because the river is being filled by PT Wasktia Karya. Rice fields down there are not getting the irrigation they need and I don’t know what will happen when the dam is operational,” she said.

Salamah said that her family used to get their water from two different sources; the Bogowonto river and Wonosobo. But since the start of the dam project, water no longer flowed from the Bogowonto river basin and her family now practically depended on water from Wonosobo.

Meanwhile, Sutoyo, in his own usual light tone, said that he is aware of the plan to supply water to other regions, but less so of the details of the amount. He only expressed his concern that people around the dam would have difficulties getting clean water when the dam is operational.

He added that since the dam construction started, local residents could no longer draw water from the Bogowonto river basin.

Misrun, 50,  an executive of the Association of People Affected by the Bener Dam (Masterbend) said that since the beginning of the dam’s construction, he fully relied on water from Wonosobo to meet his family’s need.

While the well water that comes from the springs of Bogowonto river basin, could only be used to fill the fish pond behind his home.

“It used to be for bathing, for drinking, but now it is only to fill the pond. The water smells and there is like some rust in it. That has happened since the project began. But residents have no proof. There needs to be research first if we want to know whether that was due to the project.”

Misrun, Assoiation of People Affected by Bener Dam (Masterbend) executive

Himawan spoke of his experience in visiting the site of the Bener Dam in Guntur village about two years ago.

“Farmers there had difficulties getting water supply, not only for drinking but also to irrigate their rice field because the river was filled. People’s compensation money also remained unclear and when explosives were used, many local houses were showing cracks and damages,” he said by telephone on August 1.

Villagers of Guntur whose house were affected by the blasting protested to PT Waskita Karya. The state own construction company responded by sending workers to fill the cracks. At Salamah’s house, the cracks were simply painted over so they were not obvious.

When we visited the Masterbend’s office in Guntur, cracks could be seen at several places on the walls of the three by two meters room.

“Behind the banner is a crack that goes from top to bottom, and parts are also covered by planks. The floor of the bathroom is also cracked and this had been reported and was inspected (by representative of PT Waskita Karya) but nothing has been done so far,” said Misrun.

Faulty land compensation

For farmers whose land has been acquired by the developers, they were to receive Rp120,000 per meter square, to be paid in installments. Sutoyo said he has only received payments for 750 square meters of land while payments for the remaining 2,000 square meters are still unclear.

Tampang said that there are about 600 hectares of land consisting of about 5,300 plots in the Bogowanto river basin and its surrounding that have been acquired for the dam project. The lands will be designated as site area, inundation of dam and the green belt, an open green area that serves as a buffer between the dam and residential areas.

Masterbend chairman, Eko Siswoyo, 38, said that by August 2, 2021, only 36 percent of the 1,549 affected plots had received compensation.  Data from the Bener Subdistrict administration confirmed the figures.

There are still 2,715 of the 4,264 plots of land in Bener and Gebang subdistricts that have not been compensated. Tampang begged to differ.

“There are only some 2,100 plots that have not yet been paid and we have targeted to complete this December 2021,” he said.

Rokhman, the deputy chair of Commission II of the Purworejo legislative council, did not deny that payments of compensation to residents whose land were taken has not been smooth.

“In general the people have accepted (the project), but the administration lacks seriousness, whether due to budget or other reasons,” he said.

Who is the dam for?

Himawan from WALHI Yogyakarta questions whether the Bener Dam development would benefit the people in Purworejo as he points out the vulnerability of the environment surrounding the construction.

“We should question whether this infrastructure is for local residents. Or is it for the interest of others? If we still believe this is an agrarian country, development should support that, and that means it should protect mountains, water, rice fields, and sea.”

Himawan Kurnidi, head of the advocacy and regional division, WALHI Yogyakarta.

Nora Herdiana Pandjaitan, a lecturer at the Civil Engineering and Environment Department of the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) said that plans to build a dam must be preceded by  technical, economic, and social feasibility studies. 

The technical feasibility study for a dam also has to meet a number of criteria, such as building the dam in the basin area and on open land.

“If it is only relying on a technical feasibility study while its not socially viable, then it should not proceed. If the local people reject it, it would be a problem. Economically, if it is too expensive, it should not be built. So, all three requirements must be met,” she said by video conference on August 3, 2021.

Nora adds, before the construction, policy makers must list down the profit and loss of such dam construction.

“If the construction of the dam improves agriculture, people would certainly accept it. That is why social feasibility is required,” she said.

Since it started in 2018, the construction of the Bener Dam has been rife with issues. “Two years were spent on land acquisitions. The people’s objection was related to the land prices, they demanded higher price,” said Tampang.

Eko confirmed that the people had sought higher compensation from BBWSSO.

“We are not objecting to the construction of the dam, but we just want fairness, fight for appropriate compensation. Initially we were offered Rp 60,000 per square meters and only after we fought for it, it increased to Rp 120,000 per square meters, and that does not include the compensation for the crops on the land. So, at present, residents get at least Rp 160,000 per square meter, but that’s after an uphill struggle,” he said at the Masterbend office on August 16.

Eko said that the people affected by the dam project in the Purworejo and Wonosobo districts wants nothing more than clarity and fairness over their land compensation, and for the payments be made immediately so the dam construction can proceed and be completed soon. 

“But, as it is now, people are confused, the compensation money has not been paid to them but they can no longer work their field. So, what can they do? They have no other income,” Eko said.

What’s more important, Eko said, the social impact of this dam development needs the administration’s serious attention. He hopes the government will provide job trainings for farmers, to equip them with other skills.

“It may not be apparent now. Those who have already received compensation can use that money, but the social impact will be evident soon enough. How will farmers who can no longer farm, make a living if they do not have other skills? BBWSSO once promised a training but there hasn’t been any follow up to that,” Edi said.

Misrun, who sat next to Edi, also aired his concern that people in his village will not benefit from the Bener dam construction.

“It is true that the benefit will go to Purworejo, but Purworejo is a big area. The irrigation will be for other subdistricts which will allow them to harvest three times a year. But for us here (Guntur village) and around the dam, what will we be left with? Just managing tourism, with very little earning,” he said.

Edi added that Masterbend had conducted a field survey among the residents around the Sermo Dam in Kulon Progo district. The results showed that people around the dam were left with managing tourism.

He worries that people affected by the construction of the Bener Dam will have similar fate. Instead of being the primary beneficiaries of the dam as they were willing to give up their source of livelihood, they will be on the sideline and deal with impacts of the dam for the rest of their life.

About the writer

Rizka Nur Laily Muallifa

Rizka Nur Laily Muallifa, is a young journalist who is interested in issues involving minorities. She has received several fellowships covering issues of child trafficking, Indonesian migrant workers,...

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