Nov 17, 2018 Last Updated 12:17 PM, Nov 15, 2018

Water, land, and Suharto

Published: Oct 01, 2001


Ron Witton

In 1625 Sultan Agung of the East Javanese kingdom of Mataram conquered Surabaya by besieging the city and poisoning its water supply by throwing rotting animal carcasses in the Brantas River that flows into the city. The first book under review is a tale of what happened 350 years later, when the people of Surabaya again faced a poisoned water supply. This time, it was caused by New Order 'development' industries on the river banks, dumping their toxic effluent into the Brantas. The way the book describes local authorities and NGOs fighting valiantly throughout the New Order period to oppose the rich and powerfully connected is quite gripping.

After the Suharto era, environmental politics flourished as they never could before. The title refers to a traditional community attitude that always saw the river as an easy way of getting rid of rubbish. Disaster results when chemical firms and other highly polluting industries adopt the same attitude. A wonderful collection of cartoons from Surabaya's surprisingly outspoken newspapers illustrates the struggle over the city's water supply.

The second book documents two case studies where the land of ordinary people was alienated by the New Order's elite. In one, it became golf links for the rich. In the other, a cattle ranch for Suharto. The story highlights the bravery of those ordinary people who dared to speak out. Doomed to failure under the New Order, they can now at last hope for justice. This book, perhaps, marks the beginning of that process.

Both books illustrate the way the Suharto family exploited Indonesia. In one, we read of Suharto's ranch. In the other, Tommy Suharto's water pipeline company defaulted its contractual obligations with impunity, and thus managed to extract vast sums of money from the Surabaya provincial government.

Anton Lucas with Arief Djati, The dog is dead, so throw it in the river: Environmental politics and water pollution in Indonesia, Clayton: Monash Asia Institute, 2000, 152pp, ISBN 0732611814.

Dianto Bachriadi and Anton Lucas, Merampas tanah rakyat: Kasus Tapos dan Cimacan [Plundering the people's land: The Tapos and Cimacan cases], Jakarta: Gramedia, 2001, 360pp, ISBN 9799023440.

Dr Ron Witton (rwitton@uow.edu.au) has taught social science in Australia, Indonesia, Fiji and Malaysia.

Inside Indonesia 68: Oct - Dec 2001

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