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Review: The Lapindo Titanic

Review: The Lapindo Titanic
Published: Dec 17, 2010

When the law betrays, literature must speak

Bosman Batubara

The struggle waged by the Lapindo mudflow victims has been a long and exhausting one. For almost four years, displaced villagers from Sidoarjo have been pressing PT Lapindo Brantas to deliver on compensation for their sunken assets – a feat made the more challenging by the fact that even Indonesian law, a citizen’s last protector and refuge, has betrayed them. Determined to tell the world about what it’s like to cope with disaster day by day, Gus Maksum – a survivor of the now lost village of Jatirejo – has published a memoir, Titanic Made by Lapindo.

Gus Maksum is a local Kiyai, a teacher, and a writer. Before the onset of the mudflow on 29 May 2006, he was responsible for approximately 500 students at the school in Jatirejo that he headed. When disaster struck he hastily moved his classes to Krembung, another sub-district in Sidoarjo, but also began using his time to keep a careful record of his own experiences and those of other victims.

Although the Indonesian media have followed the Lapindo mudflow disaster closely, stories in the press do not delve nearly as deep as Gus’s memoir. For me, reading the book felt like having a personal and profound dialogue with one of the victims. The author helps the reader to see many things, ranging from problems caused by the loss of the village mosque to the implications of compensation never received. He includes stories of life in the refugee camp, and what dike construction really meant to the villagers. In his artfully titled chapter, ‘It’s all about the project, mate!’, he vividly describes how, in the eyes of mudflow victims, efforts at mitigation appeared to be little more than a game that attracted politicians and business people ready to exploit chaos for self-interest.

The fact that this book – a first-hand, personal account of the disaster as experienced by its victims – should exist at all is truly remarkable. Many people have written about the Lapindo mudflow disaster, but most were merely temporary observers. Clearly an author’s position in relation to a subject fundamentally shapes the outcome of his or her work. An observer is an observer; that is to say, detached. This book, however, was born from the lived experiences of the disaster’s victims, people who spent each day caught in the struggle to survive the enormous physical, emotional and financial impact of the Lapindo mudflow.

No justice

In 2009, the East Java Regional Police decided to issue an ‘Order to Stop an Investigation’ (SP3), thereby ending a criminal investigation into PT Lapindo Brantas’s responsibility for the mudflow disaster. From a legal point of view, the pendulum seems to have made a powerful sweep away from justice for the people and towards victory for the gas and oil giant. The SP3 implicitly states that PT Lapindo Brantas is not responsible for the mudflow on the grounds that the disaster was naturally occurring and neither industrial nor man-made. The fact that the regional police would back an order such as the SP3 may come as no surprise to the mudflow victims for, as Gus Maksum argues in his book, ‘The villagers believe that the ultimate goal [has been] to remove the people from their village’. At this point, the East Java Regional Police are clearly more concerned with the interests of PT Lapindo Brantas than with those of the victims.

The SP3 has lent a new air of credibility to PT Lapindo Brantas’s denials of culpability. It has allowed the firm – owned by Aburizal Bakrie, a former minister and one of Indonesia’s richest individuals – to continually postpone the payment of compensation that it is obliged, under Presidential Regulation 14/2007, to provide to mudflow victims for their losses. Under that regulation the government ordered Lapindo Brantas to pay for damage to villagers’ property by compensating losses in two payments: 20 percent of the total amount immediately following the order, and the remaining 80 percent in a second payment one month before the displaced households faced the end of their two-year home rental contracts in July 2008.

From the disaster’s earliest days, scientific experts have been collecting and reviewing data in an effort to deduce the origins of the mudflow. While it does not seem likely that the global community of geoscientists will reach a united conclusion any time soon, the debate itself has become a hot political issue. On one side stand scientists who, much like Lapindo, assert that the mudflow was a natural disaster triggered by tectonic activity along the Watukosek fault during the Yogyakarta earthquake of 27 May 2006. Countering their claims, however, is a broader circle of scientific experts who point to growing evidence that drilling pressures caused an underground blowout in Banjar Panji-1 well, triggering the mudflow and therefore making it an industrial disaster. One of these scientists – Richard Davies, an expert on mud volcanoes at Britain’s Durham University – has led expert investigations into the mudflow and its effects on Sidoarjo since 2006. In June 2008 he went on record saying ‘We are more certain than ever that the Lusi mud volcano is an unnatural disaster and was triggered by drilling the Banjar-Panji-1 well.’ In February 2010, he and a group of experts made international news again by releasing a report outlining new evidence that an operating error committed by PT Lapindo Brantas was what led to the disaster.

The East Java Regional Police issued the SP3 despite the weight of expert opinion, and despite new evidence it has not yet been revoked. We have all become witnesses to the creation of a painful precedent, one in which the law fails to serve the best interests of victims. In cases like this, literature becomes an even more important and powerful public medium. It brings readers close to the lived experiences of those displaced by the mudflow disaster. Gus Maksum’s warm, conversational tone connects readers personally to more than just a moment in history: it connects them to the truth.

S.H. Maksum Zuber, Titanic Made by Lapindo, Yogyakarta: Lafadl Pustaka and The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, 2009.

Bosman Batubara ( is a Masters student in the Interuniversity Programme on Water Resources Engineering, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He was formerly a community organiser at Lafadl Initiatives, working with victims of the mudflow on a women’s economic empowerment project. He would like to thank Rayna Rusenko for assistance in preparing this review.

Inside Indonesia 105: Jul-Sep 2011

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