An eight-hour trip from Jakarta brought us to a small town in Surade district of Sukabumi regency, West Java. The journey continued 30Km southwest across stony path to a stretch of hill overlooking a river where the beauty nature could best afford blended with the complexity life had brought upon human beings.
Poor infrastructure coupled with extreme terrain resulted in hours of additional traveling time, which is the reason only a few outsiders had set foot on this nearly inaccessible place by common mode of transportation.
Here, as team surveyor spent days on a mission of studying geological and topographical aspects of the surrounding hills and the river down in the middle that streams out southward to the Indian Ocean, they became more intrigued by the daily scenes of the people who eked out a living on this remote land.
Those are scrambled pieces of a story that tells about hardship, greed, faith, deception and struggles for a hope of a better tomorrow. It is also here that reality puts inhabitants’ traditional reverence to nature and pressing means to survive on a collision course.
When residents of a specific location live in persistent isolation not only because of geographical difficulties, but primarily of purported policy of negligence, they are left with little or no choice to make to make ends meet. This is a situation that resembles those of many places in Indonesia – the fourth-biggest country in the world by population – where the length of paved road is disparately scant that it cripples the opportunity for development.
Drought season that began in May put the 10AM sun sky high early on with scorching heat as if it was already midday. Some rock workers excused themselves from fasting, which is understandable considering the arduous work they have to sustain through the day. It was unlikely to see anyone at the site who performed the religious task of the month like other Muslims do.
Unless, you are the landowner who for most of the time gave orders and supervised the men, like Ependi. Shunning retirement, the old man still came to his “office” shack, sitting on bamboo stand. There appears to be no certain treatment toward people who have reached their 60s. Besides, for someone who owns a land that has a considerable amount of stone beneath, and while the demand is there on the wait, a grin on Ependi’s face as he gazed to the leaving truck showed that life is good for business is good.
He said that he has been receiving order from a neighboring head of village some hundreds cubic meters of rocks in preparation for road construction project. In addition, he has been supplying materials to the district-level transportation agency for annual provincial road maintenance project.
The accumulation of both demands, he believed, keeps business on the run for the entire year. According to the locals, this area is the only source of rock materials for the region. Surade district receives stable supply needed to initiate various infrastructure projects throughout times from this place which occupies around fifty hectares in total size.
The local road construction plan in 2003-2004, which in reality had protracted to a five-year long exhausting project was said to have required over ten thousand cubic meters of rocks taken from this place. Covered by soil where tall grass rooted in, some parts on the stretch of hill used to be leveled during years of continual exploitation. But according to workers, the soil beneath still contain huge amount of materials that could support another long-period supplies.
Villagers for life
There are seven men working for Ependi. One of them is the adjacent landowner’s son in law. It is not surprising to find out that the people who work with you here are your close relatives, or your neighbors.
The apparent homogenous society is most likely due to the remoteness of the area. Moreover, this also causes many people of productive ages stay here for most possibly the rest of their lives. Most, if not all, were here since they were born until they became grandparents. Only a few, for various reasons, left the village and migrated elsewhere.
These people do not constitute tribal societies found in parts of the country that refused some aspects of modernity and contact with outer world. Nonetheless, it is an interesting point to highlight as there is a place just a couple hundreds of kilometers from Jakarta where the mobility of its residence is a rarity.
The pillar religion
The village gets electricity. Contacts with outsiders, if any, are rare, but television brings familiarity to different culture and society. Despite being so inclusive in nature, the residents engage themselves with outsiders in friendly opening conversation.
The true case remains unknown whether this sign of general hospitality originates from their genuine behavior or on a mere basis of curiosity. Islam is not the majority, but the only religion flourishing in the village of less than a hundred households.
A musholla, a substitution for the bigger and unaffordable mosque stood at the center of the village. Repertoires of prayers were a strict routine like the way they always are.
Ramadan that occurred in coincidence with our temporary presence saw an edict in which each person is charged with a minimum amount of Rp25,000 (a little less than $3) to be donated to the house of prayers.
From landowners’ perspective, such as Ependi or some other who had accomplished their Hajj to Saudi Arabia, the musholla can expect to collect a bulk of donation higher than they have least required. But for workers like those who work on the rocky hill, it has restrained holiday spending as one has to bear parents’ or children’s shares of donation.
When asked to one of them if he would choose to compensate the edict for a guarantee that his family can have merrier holiday, the answer was that it was something of a duty. It is a common sight for these men and women of productive ages to be responsible for the well-beings of not only their nuclear family, but also a sizable extended family.
In a place of underdeveloped agriculture where rice is the only available agricultural product for trade, chances are someone can choose to be a rice peasant or nothing at all. Of course one can opt for a job in rock crushing sites that mostly concentrated across the hill by the river, but with more grueling working conditions.
The stagnated job diversification and abandonment of pro-rural industry compounds project proved to bring grave consequences for tens of thousands of people. It is alleged that there was no a breakthrough in social living sector for over two decades.
Literacy is relatively high, largely owing to an elementary school opened in the village since 40 years ago. That said, inhabitants born since 1970s has good literacy rate.
Still, the shortfall in educational sector is indicated by the lack of junior and senior high schools which are found in the district-level vicinity kilometers away. As a result, many students are discouraged to continue their education to the higher stage.
Upon their early graduation, most are found in the farm. Due to the demanding working condition, none of these under aged people work in the rocky hill. The workers on the site consist of people in their 30s up to 50s.
Many of them showed good passive Indonesian language skill. Verbal communication showed no problem during exchanges of short replies, however hampered when it comes to the workers’ part of conveying ideas or more complex utterance. This suggested a shortage in speaking skill. Sundanese, instead, is the commonly spoken language.
Information dissemination is more effective when using this language. This kind of social approach, in spite of its popularity and effectiveness among local governments as a way to engage with rural inhabitants, portrays an act of conformity to their inability to improve the quality of education.
The rural social gap
While poverty is commonplace in rural community such as clearly exemplified here, and to some extent, has become normalcy, or an accepted living condition, wealth gap appears to be staggering as well. A case in point, the head of village built a house that looked too lavish compared to the neighbors.
Car ownership is extremely rare, as what is found parked at the open garage in front of the two-storey house. One cannot help but wonder if economic development and the age of modernity bring equality of wealth or disparity.
Although one might say that diligence and hard-working ethos is a determining key aspect to success, creating equal opportunity as a prerequisite to acquiring better living, such as education and infrastructure, are other things that have to be put into consideration.
Ependi, for instance, is one of the village head’s neighbors who lives in a small house with usual dark grey tone and went to his workplace by foot every day. Just like his informal employees, a roughly four kilometers distance between the village and the river area is definitely an indiscriminate daily routine.
These people, while lacking skill, are not lazy as early assumed. Moreover, the typical laidback rural life does not affect them much. The reality they live in does not provide any option for improvements. Struggling either in the farm or in the rocky hill are two of the viable options of earning money.
Examples of resilience can be found in the decision by some villagers to open a small kiosk at the front of the house next to the road, selling edible stuff or various types of body-care products. These kiosks that occupy the house terraces are emblematic to rural economy.
The inhabitants’ heavy reliance on natural resources to make a living brought environmental impact especially to the river, pitted against surrounding hills where mining activities are intense.
Landslides continuously occurred since people began exploitation long time ago. As a result, some sites can no longer be extracted of rocks and declared closed forever. Today, the rocks that scatter across the river suggested that some parts of the hill collapsed and fell down on the aftermath of frequent landslides.
The environmental impact
Meanwhile, laborers also make do with rocks found on the narrow river banks, and placed the crushed rocks there so that they impeded river flow. On the west side of the river where the stream comes from, there spotted piles of rocks sitting near the river banks, that, combined with the huge layer of naturally formed rocks at its center, has choked the stream, thus contributed to the eventual weak flow at the end of the other side.
On account of its importance in irrigating the farms and making the surrounding soil fertile, the river’s function has been compromised for a very long time.
Casualties from such man-made landslides are seldom heard. People have become accustomed to the risk. Grinning, some of them made similar expression when they said that it is all in a day’s job.
On the rainy season, working condition can get tougher. Narrow paths to the site get slippery, especially for the trucks carrying heavy load. Although it never happened as far as they remembered, careless driver might slip off the path and fell to at least five meters down the surface below.
For the workers part, rains pose threats to rock falls from another working site located above, or in the worst scenario, flash landslides.
Traditional and illegal mining
There is no record on how much the traditional rock mining sector has contributed to the local GDP or how many people are involved since it was mostly done by the landowners’ initiative, and without proper supervision by the government. As for the latter, there is not any data in any local department about the particular sector because it is an illegal activity.
Then it raises another question, why there is not any crackdown on such ubiquitous exploitation? It is the power that corrupts, and so in its practice, illicit activities that reward many with money will be spared of lengthy legal procedures.
There has actually been made regulation to prevent the potential over-exploitation in the area. According to several farmers who work on their paddy fields near the river, the surrounding rocky hill is declared state-owned land in early 1980s and ever since the government has prohibited rock extraction, on fear of landslides.
It was more than a decade before local residents started having a piece of red paper which indicates a proof of ownership in possession. It is called Surat Pembayaran Pajak Terhutang (SPPT), kind of an annual tax proof of payment. In it contains the total size of land, which in general does not exceed one hectare each, the name of taxpayer, and other registration information. One who pays for the SPPT claims his piece of land, although it does not necessarily mean that he obtains the permit to undergo exploitation.
“There is no permit ever issued by the government. Anyone who claims that he owns one is a liar,” said a farmer who asserted that he knows all too well about the matter. He furthermore said that it needs acknowledgment by the head of village and related agencies as an intangible seal of guarantee.
There are at least four bureaucratic back doors to pass in order to get full approval to mining activity. Beginning with the proposal signature of village secretariat office and to the head of village, who then would follow up to the head of district, after which the two of them must form cooperation with local Forestry Agency and Energy and Mining Agency.
This secret liaison serves for one purpose: to issue bogus infrastructure material mining permit, such as rock and soil, or in Indonesian is popularly described as Ijin Galian C, either under the name written on SPPT, or, when it is considered necessary, the head of village’s name. One and another mining site on the hill bear different stories. In several cases even it is possible to issue a permit containing location which is not the exact place where the mining activity is at.
“Everything can be arranged,” said Ependi’s group, hinting at ways to manipulate the regulation. The previously completed projects had gone through similarly foul cooperation.
Ependi admitted that he does not have the so-called mining permit. He holds on to the SPPT on his hands, which literally bear no significance when it comes to mining activity such he and his employees are there for, and a statement of approval by the head of village, whom he apparently has family bonds with.
Whether Ependi and others alike are aware of their involvement in crime as much as they harm their own living environment is not the subject of focus in this article.
To exploit for profit
The enactment of land reform some ten years ago has resulted in the relatively equal distribution of land ownerships to each family in the village. Exploiting the rocks kept in the inner layer of the soil is one’s decision to make.
Others are reluctant to jump on the bandwagon. Instead, they opted for regular paddy farming which can support steady means of living for generations to come, albeit with much less reward.
For Ependi, the profit he has accumulated so far makes him able to finance his daughter’s university admission test last month, not to mention a sum he has prepared for her tuition, accommodation and the living cost in Bogor, Jakarta’s southern suburbs. It is all for the sake of a better tomorrow, a dream those peasant families cannot afford to wish.
To see more photographs of rock workers of Ciracap Mountain, visit think archipelago Flickr account https://www.flickr.com/photos/purnadiphanphotography/