Friday, March 8, 2013

Grassroots Towards Autonomy

'We farm or we die, resist the iron mine.'

This extremely brave slogan was taken from the Manifesto of the Kulon Progo Farmer's Struggle, written by the Coastal Farmers' Association (PPLP). For the farmers who live in this regency in the western part of Yogyakarta Special Region , this slogan represents the culmination of all their anxiety, anger and resistance to the mining company Indo Mines Ltd, headquartered in Perth, Australia, and supported by the Yogyakarta Special Region government.

However, Java's southern coast tends to attract relatively little attention, and so neither have the farmers' struggles to defend their land there. Java's economic growth has up until now mostly focussed on its northern shore. The southern coast is rich in valuable minerals. Iron sands, gold, vanadium, titanium, uranium, and also mineral water lie below the earth's surface. These minerals have not yet been much exploited.

Protected by claims of development and economic growth, local government believes they need to bring progress to the Southern Java coast. One way is through mining projects. This agenda is surely not without its other implications. For example, the plan to build a southern Java trunk road, funded by loans from the Asian Development Bank, for which it would surely be necessary to expropriate land and evict residents.

Facts such as these have become the focus for the Kulon Progo farmers' nervousness. Especially as they most certainly have to face the planned iron sands mine. A plan which, if enacted, would mean they would lose their farmland.
'We (the Kulon Progo farmers, ed) were nervous at the time. We would chat about how it would be if we got to know other people in struggle. It wasn't on purpose, but we got in contact with others in Lumajang and Kebumen,' said Widodo from PPLP-KP.

Farmers from the three different regencies met at PPLP-KP's third anniversary celebrations in 2009. That was when the idea to build a network came up. People liked the idea and it caught on. After various meetings, people agreed to create a forum. Its objective, to consolidate collective strengths between our communities.

On 20th-22nd December 2011, in the first Autonomous Peasant Farmer Conference, the forum was created. Several points were agreed, includng a name: the Forum for Communication between Agrarian Communities - Forum Komunikasi Masyarakat Agraris (FKMA). There was also a decision to maintain the same intensity of communication between members of the forum.

Communication continues between the different regencies. At the same time, each regency made an effort to be accessible to other communities in struggle. This effort paid off. New groups kept joining FKMA, which went from the original three regencies to encompass twelve regencies. As the members increased, the problems they were facing became more diverse. Whereas in Kulon Progo and Kebumen, peasants were resisting a mine, in Parangtritis, Bantul, street-traders were resisting eviction.

The diversity of problems they are facing is not a problem for FKMA. Because, Widodo explained, the core of the problems are the same. Living space (generally land) is being seized by the State and corporations. Even though it is exactly this living space, they explain, that brings security to their lives.

'I would say that right now, with the land I own, I feel my livelihood is secure', said Widodo.

The groups which have joined FKMA since that time consider the forum important to strengthen networks.

“This forum consolidates our network. So information from Ogan Ilir can reach Jakarta, Jogja, Kulon Progo and so on,” said Muhammad Sazili, a member of the Rengas Youth Front (FPR) Ogan Ilir, and also a student in Bengkulu University, when he was asked why he joined the FKMA.

Over a year passed before the communities involved in FKMA gathered once more for the second Autonomous Farmers Congress. At that event, the participants identified problems and formulated the next steps for their movement. Although intelligence agents (from both the police and military) paid a visit, the congress successfully took place between 8th -10th February 2013.


To imagine a world without farmers is like imagining a world without food. In the same way, if we imagine a nation which ignores its people can we really believe in its sovereignty? Yet the state's architects are engaged in conjuring up such dark visions right now, as they become corporations' loyal servants.

That is the opening paragraph of the statement of the second Autonomous Farmer's Congress. At around 2pm, the statement was read aloud by Sumanto, a Kulon Progo peasant, in a room belonging to the Ambarbinangun Youth Hall in Yogyakarta.

One step behind Sumanto stood 14 people. Sumanto and the other 14 were representatives of the communities which had become victims of the collusion between the state and corporations to take over people's living space. They came from various areas: Sumedang, Kulon Progo, Lumajang, Jepara, Blora, Pati, Ogan Ilir, Parangtritis, Sidoarjo, Tasikmalaya, and Banten. There should also have been a representative of Kebumen in attendance. However, a few hours before the statement was read out, they had to go back home. Military intimidation of an action by peasants back in Kebumen meant they needed to leave before the congress finished.

Cries of 'Hidup Rakyat!', 'Long live the people!' could be heard across the congress room just after the statement was read out. Reading the statement was the closing act of the congress.


A public discussion had taken place for about two hours before the reading of the statement. Apart from those involved in FKMA, several academics, journalists and members of other organisations involved in social movements attended. Mukhlis (a peasant from Ogan Ilir) and Linggo (a peasant from Sumedang) were chosen as spokespeople. According to the theme chosen for the meeting “Towards an Autonomous Grassroots resistance”, Mukhlis and Linggo explained their experience of autonomous struggle to defend living space. They also shared their views on autonomous movements.

“Enough is enough, we just believe in ourselves. That's what we want to say to our friends who have come here.”

Mukhlis' belief in the importance of an autonomous movement didn't come from nowhere. It was learnt from experience. Mukhlis and his colleagues in Ogan Ilir have often been manipulated by people they had originally trusted. For example, they had previously asked several lawyers, and even the Supreme Court, for help in resolving land disputes in Ogan Ilir. But they did not get the results they hoped for. Mukhlis also thinks that the state is ignoring its duty to protect its citizens.

“If you say you live in Indonesia, that's bullshit! This isn't a country,” said the young man who had once been shot by police mobile brigade in Ogan Ilir in 2009.

Mukhlis also mentioned news reports in the mainstream media that don't take the side of the people. He gave the Ogan Ilir conflict as an example. In media reports, the people of Ogan Ilir were portrayed as being the ones who started the conflict because they burnt company property.

“But they didn't mention the reason why the people were burning things.”

This tendency in the mainstream media gave FKMA the initiative to make its own media. It is hoped that this media will be able to balance out the bias from the mainstream media. They are aware how important it is for an autonomous movement to have its own media.

Linggo's opinions about autonomous movements struck a similar note to those of Mukhlis. He said two phrases which in Indonesian use the same words with the order reversed: 'pejuang petani' and 'petani pejuang'. The English translation would be 'those who struggle for peasants' and 'peasants in struggle'. Those who struggle for peasants refers to the movements that try to defend peasant rights. These movements can take the form of NGOs or mass organisations. Although he still expresses his gratitude towards these movements, Linggo believes that what an autonomous movement needs are farmers in struggle. An autonomous movement needs people who are brave enough to fight for their own future.

“Since the nineties, the movement isn't big because it isn't autonomous.”

For him, an autonomous movement is a movement that is not tied down by dependency. When there is an unequal relationship, it is hard for the people to get what they really want. A movement that is not autonomous also brings the potential that the people end up as nothing more than a reserve of voters.

That was something which has actually been experienced by Watin, who was also involved in the discussion. Watin, who was a trader in Parangkusomo before being evicted under Bantul local regulation No 5 about prostitution, told of how a political party approached people in the area. They were enticed with promises of help that would be given if the people agreed to vote for one of the candidates in the 2014 Presidential election. But the people attending the congress seem to be aware of how to react to political parties. This was explicitly stated by Linggo and Watin when they said they would not be voting in the 2014 elections.

If we agree, we suffer. If we do not agree, we face repression. Therefore, what use is it to depend on political parties, on circles of authority?' asked Linggo.

As a response to Mukhlis and Linggo's statements about autonomous movements, the question of solidarity arose in the discussion. A participant named Agus Subhan said that solidarity was an important matter for the movement. Solidarity, in his view was a way for others to make some form of intervention. It is important to clarify how solidarity could fit with an autonomous movement.

Sumanto answered Subhan's concerns. He said that solidarity was still necessary. But communities should still be cautious when building solidarity links with other groups. They must make sure that decision-making still rests in their own hands, free from outside intervention.

“We need to remain alert. Our strength rests at the grassroots. We will continue to rise up and fight.”

Authors: Sita Magfira dan Suluh Pamuji

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