Kendeng Women Rise Up to Resist Cement Factory, Save Mother Earth

DECEMBER 23, 2016

Women have taken the lead in a grassroots campaign to save the Kendeng karst mountains in Central Java from environmental destruction brought upon by a new Semen Indonesia cement factory.

Sukinah, one of the female leaders of the campaign, appeared on the popular Mata Najwa talk show on Wednesday (21/12) to express her hope that man should quit making Mother Nature angry.

Sukinah was one of the Kendeng women who cast their legs in concrete in front of the State Palace in Jakarta earlier this year to protest against the cement plant.

At that time, Sukinah said: "As a mother I give birth to children, but Mother Earth brings to life vegetation, rice and everything else that we eat. We need to take care of Mother Earth by sticking to a sustainable lifestyle."

Earlier this month, hundreds of women from Kendeng along with other farmers embarked on a five-day march on foot from Rembang in Central Java to the province's capital Semarang to seek an audience with Governor Ganjar Pranowo.

They demanded the governor implement the Supreme Court's decision to revoke the cement factory's environmental permit, which will effectively end its operation.

But the Kendeng women and farmers were left disappointed because instead of the permit being revoked, they received word that the governor had simply issued another environmental permit in response to the Supreme Court's move.

Despite their disappointment, the women and farmers persevered, camping out in makeshift tents in front of the Central Java Governor's office in Semarang.

They managed to keep the protest tents for five days until the governor ordered their demolition on Friday (23/12).

Kendeng's unique karst ecosystem

Karst mountains stretch across the northern part of Java from Grobogan and Pati in Central Java to the northern part of Jombang in East Java.

The women of Kendeng rejected the plan to build another Semen Indonesia factory in Rembang, arguing that the groundwater basin of Watu Putih should be protected — as ordered by a Presidential Decree — since it houses sources of clean water and irrigation for hundreds of thousands of farmers in ​​Rembang and Tuban.

According to The Community Network to Save Kendeng (JMPPK), there are at least 77 caves, 154 springs, 15 sinkholes and 4 underground rivers in the basin.

Women at the forefront

The work of the women of Kendeng has simply been phenomenal, as they face head-on the might of Semen Indonesia's bigwigs, backed by government officials, and do their best to shut down the cement factory in Rembang.

The women argue that the cement factory threatens their basic human rights, especially their right to clean water.

They have used a multiple-advocacy approach cleverly by launching court litigation, networking with experts and increasing public involvement through a cultural movement, becoming true blue activists in the process.

Tent diplomacy

The Kendeng women first built a tent complex near the Semen Indonesia factory in 2014 as a symbol of resistance against the cement industry. The tents, made from bamboo poles and plastic tarp roof, have been the home of these women for more than two years.

To support their cause, the women organized theatrical performances to gain public sympathy and support.

One of them was the action of the so-called "Nine Kartinis of Kendeng" who cast their legs in concrete in front of the State Palace on April 14, sending a strong message to President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and the public that the cement industry has already put their collective livelihood in shackles.

The theatrical action successfully attracted the attention of the president. The Kendeng women met with President Jokowi on Aug. 2, after which the president ordered a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) on Kendeng's karst mountains.

Long march

On National Awakening Day, May 20 this year, the Kendeng women marched for 20 kilometers on foot to demand that President Jokowi stick to his Nawacita (Nine Goals) — one of them being "food sovereignty" — and protect everyone who fights for it.

The women-led campaign in Kendeng has shown strong awareness, creativity, networking nous and an unbreakable determination to defend ordinary people's rights, especially their right to water.

So far the women's struggle has successfully influenced court decisions and policy decisions, proving that even a business-oriented government will tread cautiously in exerting its authority on sensitive environmental issues if an effective public campaign puts them in the spotlight.

Mimin Dwi Hartono is a senior staff at the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM). The views and opinions expressed are his own.