The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


The last cowboy left in Sawojajar © Duncan Graham 2007

When he first started herding cattle in the open fields east of Malang, Samian could count up to 400 head grazing across the broad commons. Now there are only three.

All his fellow farmers have left, forced off the lands they roamed for generations by housing estates sliced into squares by rivers of endless traffic. Where grass, bushes and trees once painted the landscape a hundred hues of green, there’s now only terracotta red and asphalt black.

“Maybe two or three years more, and then I’ll have to stop,” Samian said. “More homes are being built all the time. People complain about my cows and the mess they make, but I think they should put up with them. I was here first.

“I used to have 15, now just two cows and a calf. But there’s no point in being angry; in the end I know I’ll have to move elsewhere.”

Town planners call it urban sprawl and it’s the curse of Indonesian agriculture, particularly Java, the world’s most fertile and overcrowded island. According to riceland preservation activists an estimated 60,000 hectares of prime paddy is lost to housing and industry every year. For every square meter of rich black volcanic soil smothered by concrete, that’s one less plot to keep the nation self-sufficient in food.

Malang is typical of the trend. The cool East Java hill town, once famous for its plantations of tobacco, tea, fruits and vegetables, has become a major education center. There are more than 30 universities and colleges pulling in students from across the archipelago.

Demand for housing has been spectacular; about 25 years ago the deep-gullied Amprong River, its steep banks cluttered with ancient cemeteries, was properly bridged. This opened the flatlands, dusted daily by ash from the nearby Semeru volcano. And so the suburb of Sawojajar was born.

Free-ranging bovines and fussy cityfolk don’t make a good mix. If you’ve invested in a chintzy mansion with a Doric pillar entrance statement, hopscotching cowpats down the driveway is not the ideal way to maintain the image.

Having your precious darlings confront 300 kilos of beef straddling the path to school isn’t conducive to best parenting practice. For the superstitious, finding a lawn studded with cloven hoofprints can be a devilish experience.

Samian’s long-time survival in this hostile environment along with Inem, 3, and her calf, and Sariem, 11, has much to do with the farmer and his four-legged family’s placid personalities. The local kids like watching the animals’ antics although they’re often spoil sports, evacuating their tank-size bladders and bowels on the improvised soccer pitches and getting their legs entangled with the kite-fliers’ strings.

Samian, 47, is a cheerful chap, sharing jokes with the idlers and curious. When the happy herdsman isn’t thinking about life and its unstoppable changes, he sings in Javanese, anything that comes into his head. If he had a Western repertoire it would surely include Don’t Fence Me In and a bracket from Oklahoma!

Because his frisky little heifer has an Australian dad, courtesy of a government artificial insemination program using semen from Aussie bulls, he’s fascinated by tales of cattle raising Down Under.

The idea of wild steers ranging unfenced arid lands, mechanized dairies where three or four workers can handle hundreds of milkers twice daily, and microchiping cows’ ears to identify their provenance fascinates.

Inem (named after a sinetron (soap opera) sexy maid character) is a cream colored and patient mum. Her russet mate Sariem is expecting. Again, for this is the only way Samian earns money, selling one offspring a year.

Sariem has horns that would make bullfighters blanche but she uses them only to deftly lift the fragile fences smallholders have erected to protect their crops of corn. The sharp points also help maintain passing motorbikes at handlebars’ length.

The cows’ big, brown swimming-pool eyes quickly spot when the boss gets involved in a chatathon with other road users. Then, like naughty truants they seize the chance for misadventure, squeezing their hard heads through loose railings to get a massive munch of some garden-proud newcomer’s pampered palm.

Keeping the trio in line is Samian’s job from 1 pm to nightfall every day. They know the way out to the shrinking herbage and back across a busy road. As the mosques burst into magrib (evening prayers) they wait unfazed at the kerb for the signal to cross.

While other stockmen hold their animals in byres and scour the roadside verges for greenstuff to cut and carry, Samian takes his cows strolling through the suburbs, seeking the undeveloped blocks where weeds are rank.

Unfortunately these vacant lots are also used to dump building site rubbish and household waste, so the cows have to pick their way through sharp-edged concrete rubble and shattered tiles in search of tasty turf.

“Sometimes they eat the plastic bags,” said Samian. “It doesn’t seem to bother them. But I’ve had one poisoned by a jealous neighbor who baited the grass with phosphorous.

“I also had a cow hit by a car. The police got involved. So of course I lost the case and had to pay.”

The other hazard is thieves. Come nightfall the cattle trot home down a one-cow wide lane and are locked into a low-roof stable next to the family’s little house deep in a kampong. Every night they’re given a swill of fermented soybeans. Bells hanging on the bamboo gate are a burglar alert.

“My father was a farmer, but I don’t want my three children to follow me,” Samian said. “I like the outdoor life but there’s no future. I think my sons will have to join the army.

“We have to rely on my wife Suliati selling vegetables for our daily income. Once a year I can sell a yearling for about Rp 10 million (US $1,100) – that’s all the money we get.”

Someday soon the pernickety new arrivals will finally reckon that sharing their space with dung-splashed cows is incompatible with an upmarket lifestyle.

Then the Sawojajar cowboy will be in search of pastures new – should any remain. If this story was a cigarette commercial he’d be astride a roan stallion clip-clopping into a shimmering sunset of a thousand empty acres, as great as all outdoors.

But because this is a slice of real Indonesian life the singing cowboy will shuffle into the smoke of a thousand exhausts in his flip flops, fenced out by builders’ scaffolding, farewelled by the fist-waving urbanites’ security guards.

So closes another chapter in the story of Indonesian rural development.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 July 07)

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