When eagles cease to soar
All this month six years ago Yogyakarta and surrounds were on red alert as Merapi blew 38 meters off its peak, bringing it down to 2,930. The nation’s most active volcano threatens regularly forcing evacuations. Should outsiders get involved? Duncan Graham reports.
Once it was a sure portent of troubles to come – eagles soaring higher than normal above Central Java’s ferocious and fickle ‘fire mountain’.
Villagers on the slopes below knew this could prelude black pyroclastic clouds as the rising heat created thermals for the birds to spiral to new heights. But the Javan Hawk Eagle - Indonesia’s national bird - is now rare; there are fewer than 350 breeding pairs left in the wild and extinction expected in a decade.
With the passing of the raptors goes local wisdom that has helped generations cope with the violence of nature. Both are irreplaceable.
So no avian early-warning system for threatened farmers. Now they rely on official alarms provided by government scientists they seldom trust, according to French author Elizabeth Inandiak (above)..
“Villagers tend to be suspicious of authorities,” she said. “That’s why they are often reluctant to leave their homes in an emergency. They are landless agricultural workers but their tenure is through adat (customary law) and fear official agencies won’t recognise their ownership when they return. And few want to be shifted elsewhere.”
Inandiak, now 57, is no ingénue. She’s lived in Central Java since 1989 studying language and culture.
Yet she was still surprised by local resilience and ingenuity following the May 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake which killed 5.700 and injured 37,000. Earlier that month Merapi had erupted and 11,000 were evacuated.
Among the many devastated villages was Bebekan, about 20 kilometers south west of Yogya. Two of the 400 residents were killed and several injured. The writer’s house was not damaged but she was asked to help by one of the women made homeless.
“How could I not get involved,” said Inandiak. “The need was overwhelming and I had contacts in Europe who could donate.”
Within days the Euros started to flow and the European transplant was thrust into a new role. She was already well known in the academic community as translator into French of the almost forgotten Serat Centhini.
This is the Javanese epic of 17th century life first published in the 19th century and known to some as the Kama Sutra of Java for its erotic passages.
Her work won prizes in France including the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor) for services to literature and improving Franco-Indonesian relations.
But for seven years after the earthquake she gave up writing to be involved with community work. She broke the drought this year with her novel Babad Ngalor-Ngidul (the chronicle of pointless pursuits) based around the eruptions of Merapi and the myths of the mountain which last erupted in 2014.
Along the way she climbed a steep learning curve experiencing the emotions of recovery from overwhelming disaster; she saw how people respond in good and bad ways to great stress and grew frustrated with the politics of international aid delivery.
She has harsh words for development agencies’ bureaucratic procedures and expenditure priorities, though not for emergency services or the motives of individuals drawn to help.
Her advice to helpers: “Don’t ask what people need – ask what they wish for … listen to those wishes and respond.
“Use local skills. Never promise more than you can deliver. Women are the key figures in the community.
“Some of the reconstruction is of intangibles – like spiritual connections and cultural practices including as music and art. These might seem impractical when people are homeless, but they are necessary. Recovery has to be holistic.”
A flag showing two ducks (bebek) was designed. Gamelan instruments were obtained, dances held.
While the people of Bebekan and hundreds of other hamlets were sheltering under sheets of iron from ash and rain, agency staff were staying in the Hyatt in Yogyakarta “where one night costs more than rebuilding a house”, though to be fair few hotels were open after the quake.
Pledged Indonesian government re-building grants did not arrive. At the time she wrote: ‘the people of Bebekan do not expect anything from this promise. They still haven't received the survival allowance due to any victim of the earthquake (Rp 90,000 (US $7) and ten kilos of rice per month, and which has already been distributed in many other districts’.
Inandiak shared some of her insights with students, staff and others at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University where she spoke last month (Oct) at a conference on responses to human crises.
Her message was ultimately positive – though not in the way aid agencies like to tell with happy snaps of jolly kids and contented Moms admiring a new well head courtesy of taxpayers in developed nations far away.
For humans everywhere are complex mixes of reason and unreason, neither flawless nor irreparably shattered.
First the language.
“They are not victims but survivors,” Inandiak said. “They have sovereignty over their land. They are not going to be objects of NGOs. They need to decide themselves how and when reconstruction starts.
“They didn’t want the army to get involved because they might lose their surviving possessions and building materials that could be re-used. Salvaging was the people’s responsibility.”
With 9,000 Euros (then about Rp 150 million) mainly donated by French artists, 85 houses were built in less than two months. Inandiak credits this extraordinary achievement to gotong royong (community self help): “I was amazed – these people had globalization within themselves.
“The people who once thought they had no history were restoring Bebekan to the pages of history.”
But along with a slow recovery to some sense of normality came the return of individual egos. “Getting money is not the real difficulty,” she said. “The main problem is human conflict with maybe 70 per cent of time spent trying to resolve issues, even though people greet each other and shake hands regularly to keep the social network intact.”
Sands deposits from the eruption brought contractors from afar, but the locals wanted the deposits left alone. More confrontations.
“To help in these extreme situations you need a serving attitude,” she said. “Be prepared to undergo a mental revolution.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 21 November 2016)