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Java farmers displaced by dam remain treading water after decades

Mongabay - November 8, 2023

Donny Iqbal, Sumedang, Indonesia – Udit Surdiat only became a boat driver after he lost the rights to his farmland. The 63-year-old used to farm a hectare of land in Sumedang district, in Indonesia's West Java province, until the family had to make way for the country's second-largest dam.

"My father was asked to sign in 1984," Udit told Mongabay Indonesia near the banks of the reservoir around Jatigede Dam.

Udit was one of more than 10,000 people who have been required to relocate because of the strategic infrastructure project, which was first planned more than 60 years ago.

Today, he makes the equivalent of a few dollars a day ferrying anglers and commuter passengers around the reservoir.

More than two decades ago, the World Commission on Dams, a multistakeholder body convened under the late South African president Nelson Mandela, estimated between 40 million and 80 million people globally were displaced from their homes by dam construction projects.

West Java's Jatigede Dam has proved a particularly drawn-out affair, with chaotic resettlement of the local community arranged over decades.

For Udit and thousands of others, the project has uprooted families from their homes, for minimal compensation.

Water displacement

Jatigede is a versatile rock-fill dam located on the Cimanuk River, whose reservoir has a total capacity of 980 million cubic meters (259 billion gallons) and covers an area of more than 41 square kilometers (16 square miles). The dam is fed by a catchment area of 1,462 km2 (564 mi2).

The project was conceived in 1963 by a Dutch consultant as a solution for energy demand and irrigation needs among rice farmers. However, in 1982 the World Bank withdrew financing for the project, due in part to inadequate resettlement plans for the affected population.

Land acquisition by the government continued apace despite the lender's withdrawal, and more than 4,000 local families received cash sums in exchange for their land.

Most families at that time received around 7,000 rupiah per 14 square meters, a unit of area traditionally known as a tumbak. That worked out to about 50 U.S. cents per square meter at the time, or 4.5 cents per square foot.

Research studies showed a minority of affected families then joined Indonesia's transmigration program, which relocated families from densely populated areas in Java to semiremote regions around the archipelago. A smaller number chose to move to nearby areas of West Java, such as Garut district.

However, anecdotal testimony indicates many families spent the money they received, having assumed the project was mothballed after more than a decade of inactivity.

In the intervening years, the fallout from the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 forced the government to suspend land acquisition, but the program resumed around seven years later.

A watershed moment for the project arrived in 2005, with the arrival of China as the dam's new sponsor. Construction began two years later, causing disarray for the local population who had chosen not to leave.

Today, the Jatigede management is finalizing preparations to start the turbines of the dam, which have a generating capacity of 110 megawatts, equivalent to a small coal-fired power plant.

Lightning strikes twice

Some residents required to relocate have found themselves bouncing around West Java because of the rapid proliferation of developments authorized under President Joko Widodo, who was first elected in 2014 promising to correct Indonesia's historic deficit in infrastructure spending.

For Imas, life in Sumedang's Cipaku village was simple and predictable. The 43-year-old would till her land to the seasons, growing enough food both to feed her family and to sell. That changed when she was required to relocate because of the dam.

"Moving was confusing at that time," Imas told Mongabay Indonesia. "People were confused about where to go."

Two years later, Imas was required to pack up once again after her new home was zoned for an airport and toll road linking the districts of Cileunyi, Sumedang and Dawuan, known by the portmanteau Cisumdawu.

"In Cipaku I was a resident being chased away by water," Imas said. "Then ... I was a resident being chased away by bulldozers."

A study published in 2019 in the Journal of Asian Development concluded that "only 911 households (3,978 people) chose the option of transmigration, and at least 121 households (525 people) returned to the surrounding area of the reservoir."

Lilis Mulyani, a researcher at Indonesia's National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), said many local families have faced life-changing disruption, poverty and itinerancy as a result of displacement.

"The results of our research show that there are many social problems that have not been cleaned up," Lilis said. "Many live below the poverty line."

Meanwhile, civil society groups such as the Indonesia Forum for the Environment (Walhi) have pointed to environmental damage in the upstream area of the Cimanuk River as a result of the dam construction. Others decry the destruction of ancient megaliths from the old Sumedang kingdom caused by the construction.

Many in Sumedang quietly resent the sacrifices they have been required to make in order to benefit their neighbors.

"Residents of the local community in five subdistricts here have given up their land, have lost their livelihoods, have lost their sense of home – even though Sumedang does not enjoy the irrigation of its water," said Dony Ahmad Munir, Sumedang's elected district leader.

Imas has given up the family tradition of farming, and now runs a small store selling goods to farmers. Udit makes the equivalent of $3-6 a day ferrying anglers to fishing spots around the reservoir.

"It would be better to return the compensation money to the government on condition the land was returned," Udit said, "rather than having to live in hardship in your own homeland."

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2023/11/java-farmers-displaced-by-dam-remain-treading-water-after-decades