The tragic death of Patmi, one of the women protesting against the construction of cement factories in the Kendeng Mountains, Central Java, has brought a temporary halt to ongoing demonstrations in Jakarta. Patmi passed away in the early hours of Tuesday (21/03) morning on her way to a hospital after a suspected heart attack.
For eight days, 55 brave men and women from the Kendeng Mountains lived with their legs encased in cement blocks, each day gathering in front of the Presidential Palace in Jakarta waiting for their aspirations to be heard by the President.
It was the latest grass roots action in a long series of protests that oppose the building of cement factories in the Kendeng Mountains, a mountain range that encompasses a number of municipal districts within Central Java.
The bravery and sacrifice of Patmi will not be forgotten, her memory and spirit will be carried by those that continue the struggle against the unsustainable development of big corporations. Her now eternal legacy will act to inspire future generations of social activists.
On Tuesday, a commissioner from the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) attended Patmi’s funeral in Central Java to show solidarity and respect for the deceased and her sacrifice. The commission has honored the dedication and sacrifice of Patmi and urged the state to recognize the women human rights defenders of Kendeng who have for years been struggling peacefully to protect their land.
Patmi has been involved in the anti-cement movement since 2006 and was on the front line of a similar demonstration in April last year, a demonstration that saw a group of nine women who were dubbed the Kartinis of Kendeng (in reference to the Indonesian national heroine) cement their feet in front of the Palace. This protest eventually resulted in a meeting with President Joko Widodo after which the president ordered a halt to the construction of cement plants while a strategic environmental assessment is carried out in the Kendeng region.
The Kendeng mountain range is a karst region made up largely of limestone. The range contains numerous underground rivers, springs and reservoirs which are of key importance to the region's agriculture industry.
For cement corporations, the Kendeng Mountains are a prime location to build factories because of the abundance of limestone and water sources available there. Both limestone and water are key ingredients in cement production.
In October 2016, residents of Rembang (a district located in the Kendeng Mountains) won a class action in the Supreme Court that revoked the environmental and mining permits of Semen Gresik and ordered that construction of the company's cement factory be halted.
In response to the Supreme Court decision, the Governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo issued a new permit granting permission for construction to continue in a widely controversial move that some critics said violates national law.
Construction has since progressed and the factory is reportedly 98 percent complete. Total investments in the project amount to nearly Rp 5 trillion.
The people who hail from the mountain range of Kendeng are renowned for their extensive knowledge of, and attachment to, their traditional lands. They regard their land as the mother to them all and worship it as the provider and sustainer of life.
Historically, this area has been a pocket of resistance that opposed Dutch colonization not through violence but through acts of civil disobedience, which ultimately weakened and undermined the enemy's influence.
Two legacies of the people from Kendeng – environmentalism and non-violent resistance – continue in the current struggle to preserve their traditional lands and livelihoods through strategic, peaceful acts of defiance.
In the course of their political struggle, the community has forged alliances with civil society groups, embarked on long marches, launched social media campaigns and erected a permanent protest tent near the site of the factory in Rembang.
The construction of cement factories will compromise vital underground sources of water and reduce the fertility of farming land that is necessary for farmers' livelihoods.
Exposure to dust can cause medical problems including lung function impairment, chronic obstructive lung disease, pneumoconiosis and carcinoma.
Residents of the Kendeng region are split between supporters and opponents of the cement factories, a division that has caused major tensions in once harmonious communities.
Whilst opponents of the factories raise concerns about environmental degradation, compromised water sources and health risks, supporters voice their wish for economic advancement and increased employment in the region.
The anti-cement protests have been remarkable in that they have been largely led by women, known as the "mothers of Kendeng."
It was the nine Kartinis of Kendeng that gained the president’s ear last April after spending 36 hours with their feet in cement blocks and women who have continuously manned the protest tents near the factory site in Rembang.
A 2016 report released by the Komnas Perempuan noted that women human rights defenders in Kendeng have faced multi-layered gender-based violence, including physical violence from security forces, threats from armed gangsters and psychological abuse from police.
Komnas Perempuan has recommended that the central government instruct Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo to cease all operations related to the cement factory in Rembang in accordance to the Supreme Court decision that was issued in October 2016. It further recommends that the strategic environmental assessment ordered by the president should be carried out independently and incorporate all cross sections of the local community, including women’s groups.
The author is a volunteer with Komnas Perempuan in Jakarta. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Komnas Perempuan. Reproduction is authorized provided the source is acknowledged.