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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Dungeons and Dragons – a sweet game       
Sugar shortage?  Not here
Neither accountancy abilities, nor the skills to spot red ink in a company’s books are necessary to sense this business seems to be running in the black.  Proof is in the taste and the taste is in the air.
For those with coarse palates there’s another indicator: A line of suppliers so long that drivers wait up to 24 hours to deliver their produce, yet seem content to queue.
Indonesia’s sugar industry may be dissolving under a flood of imports, according to the Indonesian Sugarcane Farmers’ Association (APTRI), but in Java’s largest mill production is flat out and prospects look good
Speaking in Jakarta this week (on 16 Oct) APTRI chair Arum Sabil also said low yields were crippling the government’s aim to have the nation self-sufficient by 2014.
 “It has been a poor season largely because we had rain in July when it’s normally dry,” said Gatot Sudjarwato, head of engineering at Kebon Agung which also claims to be the most modern mill in Java.
“There are predictions of an early start to the wet season, so that could also have an impact.”
While still respecting Mr Sabil’s claims, indigenous industries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe are forever paranoid about imports, while farmers are genetically programed to complain about the weather.  Whatever the rhetoric, the reality is that Kebon Agung (great garden) in the East Java town of Pakisaji appears to be doing lip-smacking OK.
The factory was built in 1905 but little remains of that age apart from the shell of a Dutch building with fortress-thick walls and arched doorways, plus a dead 1922 steam loco. Unlike some of the 56 mills operating in Java, Kebon Agung doesn’t have any colonial era relics in its production line.
Instead much of the equipment is relatively new.  Other factories have teams of workers nursing ancient bearings with drips of cooling oil, but this plant is spookily free of labor, despite having 700 on the payroll working three shifts, day and night.
The system is controlled through mimic boards in a sealed air-conditioned cabin (discard shoes, this is sacred ground), high in the gods over the roaring machines.  Here The Jakarta Post catches the two young controllers slacking. Call the boss – the men are playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Wrong, though indeed they might be; the images on their computers aren’t cartoon characters but graphic representations of the whole process from cane to crystals. Above the colored screens are 12 monitors showing closed-circuit TV pictures of the rolling, spinning and shaking equipment below.
While real trucks, each carrying about 15 tonnes, pull in at the two dumping bays to have their loads lifted into the crusher, the operators watch an animated vehicle delivering the cane and see it fed into the system.
If there’s a blockage or breakdown a machine can be bypassed or stopped – though that might be difficult, despite Gatot’s assurances that all would be well.
That’s because the cavernous factory houses a dragon, and it’s well known that such mighty fiends do awful damage when annoyed, even though this one’s an herbivore.
The beast that commands Kebon Agung has cruel black teeth inside a mouth that demands unstoppable feeding.
His jaws crush and shred the cane. The steam-powered stomach muscles squeeze the pulp with such force the cane juices squirt free.  The creature convulses and belches volcanically, but the odor is sweet.
Further down the alimentary tract, evaporators and centrifuges clean up the mash while the waste fiber called bagasse is excreted. This is burned to heat the boilers and produce steam.
Proving that dragons are ruminants the sugar, no longer a sticky brown mess, is discharged as 50 kilo white pellets. These are stacked in ten-meter high square sugar cubes, each of 4,600 tonnes.
“We’re still looking for ways to make the plant more efficient,” said Gatot. “That includes using the bagasse to produce bio-ethanol, which is done overseas.
“We’re processing about 10,000 tonnes of cane a day but plan to lift capacity by 50 per cent. The work is already underway.”

Off the rails

It’s a wonder the old rail lines used when locomotives hauled cane to the mill still survive in East Java’s sugar towns.  They remain long after road haulage took over, congesting the highways and sometimes toppling their over-size loads.
As scrap the steel must be worth recovering, but at present they’re dust-covered lines, usually running parallel to the road, pointing to nearby cane fields, a sure guide to a district’s industry..
Other indicators are the palatial homes of the long-gone sugar barons, though these squat and  spacious mansions are now hard to spot behind later street-front developments.
Growing and harvesting is a tough job.  Workers slash the two to three meter high cane, strip off the leaves, chop the stalks to size, bundle, stack and later load – all the while being alert to cobras attracted by rats.
Unlike rice threshers the men work with no shelter.
GrowerAbdul Rokim has been in the business since 1977 and brought in a truck full of thin cane, the best quality.
“The turnaround here is now much faster,” he said. “I arrived at six last night after driving for 25 kilometers and I’m almost ready to unload. (This was at 3 pm).  Before we had to wait for days.”  He expects to get about Rp 420,000 (US $ 38) a tonne for his cane.
Farmers are now free to deliver to any mill, making competition keener. During the Soeharto period growers were assigned to a specific factory.

Another spoonful, please
The sugar you’re spooning into your coffee this morning should be Indonesian, but if you’re drinking a can of cola the sweetness has probably been imported from Brazil, Australia or Thailand.
Health scares labelling sugar responsible for obesity, diabetes and heart disease seem to have had little impact in Indonesia, though some cool drink manufacturers are now offering low or no sugar products.
Sugar is number two on the government’s price-monitored Sembako list of nine essential household goods. The first is rice.
Indonesia’s self-sufficiency policy due to start next year seems doomed with politicians and producers agreeing a shortfall is inevitable, perhaps up to five million tonnes. Estimates depend on the lobbyist and the free-market or protectionist barrow they’re pushing.
The reasons include inefficient mills and insufficient investments, reduced plantings, floundering policies, dud data and – of course – the weather.
The world price varies, but is currently around US$360 (RP 4 million) to $390 a tonne (RP 4.3 million.). This month (Oct) the international bank Rabobank published a report on the global sugar industry predicting another world surplus, the fourth in succession.
Despite being a major producer, Indonesia is the second largest sugar importer in the world, just behind the European Union. Before World War 11 Indonesia exported sugar. ##
First published in The Jakarta Post 23 Oct 2013


Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Facing death calmly      

They’re on death row with no hope of reprieve.  Appeals for clemency to the courts, even the President, will certainly fail.
Yet the condemned spend their final days on good terms with their friendly jailers.  They live well though their predicament is dire. 
Apart from sexual frustration there’s no sign of rebellion and despair: This is what happens when the tribe fails to record the past so cannot imagine the future.
If just one could read the signs and remember, then the captives would surely rebel, smash down their cells and dash screaming into the streets.
There will be screaming when they finally realize the betrayal next week. (15 Oct)  The hands that groomed will whet bright steel on the sidewalk and then, with a brief prayer, slice open the throbbing throat over a gore-soaked pit.
Idul Adha, the story of Ibrahim’s (Abraham) test of faith by sacrificing his son, is shared by Muslims, Christians and Jews.  In the secular west it’s just a myth, but in Indonesia God’s substitution of a ram for Ishnael (Isaac) is re-enacted every year.
It’s also big business, with the benevolent rich buying animals whose meat is given to the poor.  In Sawojajar a pop-up market has appeared to satisfy the trade. Mostly it’s Billy goats and young bulls. Rams are rare in East Java.  Religion can be flexible.
Indonesians have a reputation for cruelty. Two years ago live cattle exports from Australia stopped after a public outcry when scenes of gratuitous brutality in Indonesian abattoirs were telecast.
The Indonesian government retaliated by banning imports.  Beef prices rocketed and consumers suffered; few understood that in the West those walking on four legs also have rights,  
These include a humane death, and by Australian standards the Indonesian ritual is unacceptable, even when done with care.
The animals are conscious (not stunned by shooting or electrocution) when knife saws flesh and clearly feel dreadful pain. They smell the execution ground and hear the screams.  Their terror is primitive and raw.
Yet the killing – in the yard of a nearby mosque - is conducted calmly, swiftly and efficiently.  In the slaughters witnessed by this writer there’s been no bashing or goading. 
Squeamish Westerners would throw up their gluten-free muesli at the sight, but the tougher Indonesian kids come from afar (and a different tradition) to see the public butchering, learning more about anatomy than a year of schoolroom biology lessons.

Lucky year

Goat trader Poniti (see above with her husband)  reckons 2013 will be a fine year for sales.  Since she started in business in 1996 she’s noticed that uneven years deliver most profit.
She also knows that smart operators open early to display their wares, so she’s the first to trade in Sawojajar, picking the best spot ahead of her four rivals.
Poniti  has 88 Billy goats and one ram under canvas and had already sold 15, each daubed with the buyer’s number. Another 100 are at home waiting for their transmigration orders once new yards are set up.
Prices range from Rp 1.5 (US $130) to Rp 3 million (US $260) depending on the animal’s size and condition.
“I like the goats and feel a little sorry they’re being sold for slaughter,” Poniti said.”But that’s business. It’s cost me Rp 10 million (US $ 870) just to bring them (from Sumber Manjing, a two hour drive west) to here and build the pens. 
“The location’s good, right among the houses and near main roads.”
With her husband Pardi, 50, and relatives to keep the animals fed and watered, Poniti, 42, camps with the goats to prevent theft.  The family eats and sleeps alongside the pens, and uses a tributary of the Kwansan River as bath and toilet.
The traders have set up opposite a primary school, so  has become a little zoo where homeward kids linger to giggle and gape at the animal antics.
The government has shut down Internet porn sites but it can’t legislate for beastly behavior. Anyone claiming same-sex pairings don’t exist in nature hasn’t visited a goat yard. When they’re not eating or sleeping the randy Billies are desperately trying to mate with each other, and when ththe tether is too short, the water barrels.
Visitors are given the evil eye – it’s no accident the devil is often portrayed as a goat.  And if the liquid lascivious glare doesn’t repel the odor will.
None of this disturbs Poniti. For her it’s all the sweet smell of money.
(Breakout two)
Picking and choosing

He doesn’t know it yet, but the chocolate-coated Billy in row one will soon be feeding children in a local orphanage.  Two of his mates, yet to be selected, will feature on plates in a mosque and school.
The buyer, retired Forestry Department official Suyono, 66, brought his two-year old grandson Mohammad Anom to inspect the offerings and learn about life.
“Sometimes I go to the villages to buy goats because they’re cheaper and there’s more selection,” he said.  “But these people will deliver and I can select without going away from home.
“I’m looking for big animals that are well covered and brawny.”
While Grandpop chatted, toddler Mohammed made friends with the only ram on offer. 
The little woollen fellow responded gently. The child found him safe to pat.  It was a touching scene, literally and metaphorically. So a good moment to leave the story before it all turns to blood and tears. As it will.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 October 2013)

Thursday, October 10, 2013


West Side Story  
It’s every parent’s horror movie: Their kids fall in with the wrong crowd and end up on the streets, students at Campus Crime.
But in the suburb of Bandulan on Malang’s west side, dads and moms happily push their offspring out of the house, into a gang and off to the harsh city where they bash, smash and frighten sensitive folk. 
The oldies even lay on transport, a cut-down Toyota Kijang that’s little more than four naked tires and two wonky axles, a hazard on the highway and a magnet for cops.
Irresponsible? Just the opposite. Civic authorities worried about youth packs turning feral for want of work should send their welfare staff to Malang right now.  Their assignment: Check the music patrols.
The first started in Bandulan more than five years ago when T-shirt printer Aries Kusuma Brasmantha had a smack-brow idea, beautiful in its simplicity.
His neighborhood had all the usual headaches: lots of kids with little to do.  “I looked at the situation and knew something had to change,” Aries said. He’s now 24, but at the time was a serious-minded teen.
If Bandulan had been in Malvern, a suburb of Melbourne, he’d apply for a community development grant.  But this is Malang, East Java. “We had to do it ourselves,” he said, “the government wasn’t going to help.”
Like many traditional kampong, Bandulan also had the remnants of a gamelan orchestra, stuff that had been lying around forever.  Solid metallophones doubled as doorstops, drums cluttered cupboards, gongs sat silent atop wardrobes. If they hadn’t been brass they’d have rusted away last century.
Performances were rare, space limited and enthusiasm falling faster than the rupiah.  Then there was the music. Rock?  For Generation Now, gamelan is rubble. 
Reasoned the lateral-thinking Aries: “If the people won’t come to listen, let’s go to them, brighten the sound and give it wheels.”
There was a small precedent.  During the holy fasting month of Ramadhan the faithful (and the rest) are roused for their pre-dawn meal by car horns and loud speakers.
Some streets competed for the most creative wake-up call, leading to more sounds than bells and whistles.
Aries mouse-clicked his way into secular society, nibbling ideas from here and there. You Tube videos of carnivals in Spain were to his taste, with street parades of spectacular displays.
Why not build a multi-level stage on an old vehicle chassis, make it into a fantasy chariot of fiery colors, fill it with musicians – and away we go?
The kids thought this wasn’t just cool, it was chillingly revolutionary. The music patrol was born and has been so successful it’s been copied.  Now about 30 teams compete for mayoral prizes.
It works like this; a community - in Aries’ case the families who worship at the Al-Hidayah Musholla (prayer room) - club together to buy a dead van. 
They strip out the engine and bodywork, then build an elaborate framework for the players and their instruments, creating a benign juggernaut. Because space is limited and the construction less than sturdy, the lightweaight kids are the performers.

The youngest is six, mister tambourine man Galih Fitro (pictured left).. 
Like sailors on a 16th century Man o’War frigate, they perch in the rigging while their dads push and steer the monster, its tiger figurehead snarling away the traffic.
Dancing in front are the girls, singing and swaying to the beat behind. Flashing lights, flags, swooping cardboard eagles, bunting and banners, Javanese designs swirling in color, drapes, calligraphy – and sound.
If noise could be weighed, the music patrols would pulverize the pavement. In competitions it’s not just the flamboyance of the display, it’s also about decibels. The kids whack the gongs and drums with such vigor and style the show becomes a spectacle to be appreciated even when wearing earplugs. They’re X Factor plus.
Having no funds for instruments the kampong did what it does best – improvise. Discarded 200 liter steel and plastic containers have been salvaged and the tops sliced, car inner tube rubber stretched across the gap. Sew on a skirt and you’ve drummed up a drum. Add water to change the pitch. Unbeatable!
The total crew of cooks, costume stitchers, water carriers, traffic marshals, maintenance men, musical advisers, choreographers, moms with tissues, grans with snacks and dads with gaffer tape comes to 120. Whatever your talent, you’re wanted.

It all sounds creatively chaotic but the show has now got so big that discipline, rehearsals and forward planning are necessary.
Malang’s music patrols fit into the tradition of medieval Europe’s long-gone strolling minstrels and Trinidad’s steelpan drum bands, entertainment nurtured in poverty, need and a determination to enjoy life.  The beat goes on.
The Al-Hidayah Crew (AHC) snared trophies and public attention. Sponsors (not the cigarette companies that infiltrate most youth music) helped with uniforms. Would the crew play at festivals and commercial events?  They would.
Businessman Wahyu Pambudi wanted something bright and different for the opening of his convenience store – so for Rp 1 million (US $88) plus meals and drinks he got the AHC to drum up business (minus their chariot) and smother the traffic noise, which they did with splendid ease.
“I wanted this group because since I heard them at a percussion festival,” he said. “They’re school kids but they play with such enthusiasm. They make you feel good and proud.”
Despite its Islamic credentials the AHC’s repertoire is far from solemn.  “It’s supposed to be religious,” said Aries. “But we get a bit bored with this, so compose our own, and include pop.”  
Half the income goes to buying more gear and paying for dancing instructors; the rest goes to the kids as pocket money, said AHC treasurer Widya Astuti.
That makes it worth being on the streets.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 October 2013)


Sunday, October 06, 2013


Trapped under the yellow yoke   
The mountain landscape is curvaceous and feminine, but Kawah Ijen is male.  No female could be so brutal to her children, nor belch so rudely.
You can smell his acrid breath from far away, even when filtered through plantations of coffee and forests of cloves.  It’s an odor so noxious it should repel, yet it lures toilers who sacrifice their health in his service.
What they seek is colored gold, but it’s not the precious metal.
Most days, starting long before dawn, men jog down the mountain carrying raw sulphur slabs in baskets across their backs. Each load equals the weight of four full water-cooler barrels.
The baskets flex and creak and squeak in pain. The men work in silence; the bamboo groans for them.
The story of the Kawah (crater) Ijen sulfur miners of Banyuwangi, East Java is well known overseas as an example of a hazardous job in an appalling work environment. 
It’s been featured on BBC television and in the mainstream press.  A new documentary Where Heaven meets Hell by American cinematographer Sasha Friedlander has already won several international awards.
Consequently thousands of tourists, mainly from Europe, (though few from Australia and Indonesia) come to wonder at the magnificent scenery– and be shocked by the men’s lot.  Some give money to the miners, or buy sulfur souvenirs.

The men work in conditions that mirror 18th century Europe before industrial relations reforms and the rise of organized labor. Another view is that they are Indonesian Luddites, fearing change and resisting available improvements.
The issue is far more complex than workers’ health and safety, though these are critical.  Also in the same basket is the shake-up of government responsibilities following decentralization.
Failure by authorities to enforce proper working conditions and care for its citizens are other factors in a business that’s allowed to continue despite the obvious dangers.
Sudden spurts of gas can kill. A slip into the hot water, said to be the world’s largest acid lake, could cause a ghastly death.  In 1976 11 people reportedly died when a giant gas bubble blew out of the lake.
Every kilogram of the yellow mineral spewed from the volcano’s stinking bowels and lugged down the twisting, slippery mountain tracks earns a miner Rp 780 (US$ 0.67). The men say they want a minimum of Rp 1,000 - about ten US cents more.
The world price varies, but averages more than ten times the men’s current pay. With a load of 80 kilos twice a day a man can earn 124,800 rupiah (US $11.50).
That’s far better than the East Java base monthly wage of around Rp 1 million (US $88) – though not all employers pay even this. The men say they have no welfare benefits, no continuity of work or accident insurance, though this has been promised.
The 300 workers have families to support so more than 1,000 people depend on the mine, making the average individual income just above the UN poverty line of US$2 a day.  So this is also about the state of the economy in faraway places. The much boosted ‘emerging middle class’ isn’t surfacing here.
Technically the miners are freelance contractors paid in cash on the spot.  The buyer, PT Candi Ngrimbi has a monopoly on the trade.
Budi Wahono, head of mining in Banyuwangi Regency denied the government was indifferent to the workers’ plight.  He said they’d been issued with helmets, masks and boots, but many didn’t want to use them.
Responsibility for licensing the mine was being moved from the province to the regency.  “The company’s six-year permit expires this year and new local regulations will be introduced,” he said.
“Royalties aren’t paid by the company but it’s taxed 25 per cent on earnings and has to pay for surveys and mapping.
“If it’s true that sick miners are still paying hospital fees then we’ll investigate and try to improve communications.”

Samsuri (left) with  Kholik from the Banyuwangi People's Association

”For almost 15 years my father, Arifin, worked as a sulfur miner at Kawah Ijen.  Every day he’d tramp up the three kilometer dirt path to the 2,380 meter summit, then a further 200 meters down a narrow track between boulders to get to the source.
“Ceramic pipes have been rammed into a volcanic vent.  Molten sulfur flows out onto the rocks and hardens.  The men break it into slabs and then become porters, carrying it in baskets up a slope of around 50 degrees.
“They can only labor in the morning. After noon the gas clouds get too thick. The turquoise crater lake looks lovely but the water is more corrosive than battery acid.
“I hated my father’s job. I first saw him working when I was 14, and it was awful. Now I’m almost 30 and nothing has changed in the men’s work conditions.
“Dad was always exhausted and seldom had enough money for his children. Although many sons follow their fathers into the mine I was determined not to – and so was my Dad. He pushed me to stay at school and somehow found the rupiah.
“My father quit about ten years ago to become a farmer.  He’s fitter and happier.
“I went to university in Malang to study Indonesian language and literature.   I had to do this to show other young people in my village that there’s a way out.
“Now I teach at an Islamic school.  So does my wife.  I also act as a tour guide and activist. I want a better deal for the men.
“Their job could be easier. A mechanical pulley could be used to bring the sulfur slabs to the crater rim and then taken in wooden carts down the mountain where the track is wide enough.
“But the government won’t allow any machines in the park so it condemns the men to do everything by hand.”
(This was denied by the regency’s Budi Wahono.  “The men don’t want to use machines because they think that would reduce the number of jobs,” he said. “So they stick to traditional methods.”)
“Some foreigners in Bali have organized handouts of second-hand clothing for the men.  They say this is ‘to bring a little sunshine into their dull lives’.  It’s a well meaning gesture, but wrong.
“The men have dignity and pride.  They work together and enjoy the companionship that goes with team work. They are cheerful.  They don’t want pity. They need better conditions and a fair return on their labor to buy what they want.
“We invited the Banyuwangi Bupati (regent) Abdullah Azwar Anas to support us.  He came to the parking area (where trucks collect the sulfur) but didn’t go up the mountain.
“Unfortunately the men haven’t formed a union or cooperative to fight for their rights. The buyer has a stockpile of many tonnes while the men earn and spend the same day.
“They have no ability to save.  There are few other jobs available, particular for those with limited education.  The men are too afraid of losing work, though eventually that will happen.
“Most miners are middle aged to elderly. Young people don’t want to do this dreadful job, whatever the wage, so the mine will close –probably within ten years.  That’s because not enough people care for the men’s welfare.”


The Old Testament, revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians, talks of a hell of fire and brimstone reserved for sinners.
Brimstone is sulfur.
There are only two sulfur mines in Indonesia.  The other is on Mount Welirang, also in East Java, but the trade is smaller.  Most sulfur is now produced as a by-product in oil refineries.
After sorting and partially crushing, the sulfur mined at Kawah Ijen is used for sugar refining. 
Sulfur is used in a vast range of products from medicine to food to fertilizer and cosmetics.  It was once a popular cure for rashes.  The men say they don’t have skin diseases but most have grown large fleshy lumps on their shoulders where the bamboo yoke rid.
Many miners are toothless or have blackened teeth.  The acidic lake is seeping into the ground water used by villagers on the foothills, killing rice fields and damaging gums, though heavy smoking is also a factor.
Last year a 1.5 kilometer exclusion zone imposed when the mountain seemed ready to erupt.  But the miners kept working.


Yudi Santoso, 23, thinks he’s the youngest miner on Kawah Ijen. Although strong and sturdy he has yet to develop the stamina and stoicism of his older colleagues.  When he spoke to The Sunday Post he was carrying 72 kilos and settled for one trip.
“I don’t like the work, but what can I do?” he said. “If I could get a job in a restaurant the work would be easier but the pay less, around Rp 900,000  (US $78) a month.  I have a wife and child to support.
“I only completed primary school so don’t have a high school certificate that most employers want. Though not to be a miner.”
About Rp 35 million (US $4,000) raised overseas from showings of Ms Friedlander’s film has been used by Ikawangi (the association of Banyuwangi people) to pay for the education of miners’ children and start a library.
If there is a leader of the men it’s Madrusin, 43, who said the price of sulphur was high and the workers wanted their fair share. However discussions with the government and PT Candi Ngrimbi concentrated on medical care.
He said the miners were afraid of upsetting the company and the government because they might lose their jobs.
(First published in The Sunday Post 6 October 2013)