• Jatigede Dam in West Java was built by China's Sinohydro
  • President Widodo is on a drive to start delayed projects

Indonesian President Joko Widodo ordered that a dam which has been delayed for decades be switched on, forcing the remaining villagers to evacuate as the valley fills with water over the next seven months.

Initial filling of the Jatigede Dam in West Java started Monday with Public Works and Housing Minister Basuki Hadimuljono sounding a siren. Still in the way of the irrigation and hydroelectric-power project: about a fifth of the 40,000 villagers living in the valley who have yet to receive compensation.

The Jatigede Dam in West Java on Monday, Aug. 31, 2015.
The Jatigede Dam in West Java on Monday, Aug. 31, 2015.
Photographer: Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg

“Where are we going to go?” said Casma Casmita, a rice farmer who was born in the village of Cipaku, near the dam. He says he received 29 million rupiah ($2,060) in compensation, but has nowhere to move to. “Where is my son going to go to school? We are not moving, we are being driven out.”

Around him, villagers dismantled their homes while their children attended school. They have been told the water will reach them in 52 days, sooner if it rains.

Villagers have been given plenty of time to move out and they are being compensated, said Hadimuljono. “We have been planning this for months. Up until last night we were combing villages looking for holdouts.”

It’s the second time within days that Jokowi, as the president is known, has pushed ahead with a power project over the objections of landowners and villagers. On Friday, the president attended a ceremony to start construction of a $4 billion coal-fired power project in Batang, Central Java, even as some farmers hold out against selling their land.

The determination to force through infrastructure encapsulates Indonesia’s struggle to forge a modern economy in its scattered archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. The country can generate only about 53 gigawatts of power, less than Australia, which has about one-tenth of the population.

To change that, Jokowi has to overturn centuries of culture based on an agrarian society. Land, and especially rice fields, are central to the social hierarchy and the loss of precious farms, fear of unemployment and pollution, and allegations of corruption have hardened resistance to change.

“It looks either desperate or exasperated,” said Paul Rowland, an independent Jakarta-based political consultant. “He is staking personal prestige on these things. If it works, he is golden. If it doesn’t, he risks losing public confidence on a key issue.”

In Cipaku, one of the first villages that will be flooded for the Jatigede Dam, at least 1,000 people remain even though the director of dams at the public works ministry said earlier Monday it had been emptied. Villagers were piling up tiles and wooden beams and washing cupboards as they took apart their homes.

Cipaku village and rice fields in West Java.
Cipaku village and rice fields in West Java.
Photographer: Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg

“There is a place to put rubbish, why is there no place to put me and my family?” said Casmita, the farmer.
 
Planning for the Jatigede Dam on the Cimanuk River stretches back to at least the 1960s. A World Bank report from 1979 said the Indonesian government had decided not to proceed because of the cost of construction and relocation of residents.

Construction of the dam finally began in 2007 and was largely completed last year by Sinohydro Corp. under an engineering, procurement and construction contract. The Beijing-based company, the world’s largest dam builder, says it has 40 overseas dams under construction. The dam was funded by a concessionary loan from the Export-Import Bank of China.

An attempt to flood people out of their homes to make the dam operational would violate World Bank guidelines on resettlement.

“Trying to resettle and compensate affected people during dam construction has led to project failures and human rights disasters around the world,” said Peter Bosshard, interim executive director of International Rivers, an advocacy group. “The Indonesian government has raised hopes of people’s power, and should not sacrifice the livelihoods of poor farmers in its projects.”

While the dam is ready, it can’t start while people are still living in the valley, Sinohydro President Liang Jun said in an interview Monday.

The relocation program “is the responsibility of the client, in this case the Indonesian government,” he said on the dam overlooking the valley before the government started flooding it. “The country needs this dam. The local people are waiting for water.”

The Jatigede Dam’s $150 million turbines are expected to start operating in 2019, according to Sinohydro’s website. The dam would flood almost 50 square kilometers (19 square miles). It will be Indonesia’s second-largest dam, according to the website of the public works ministry.

At the Batang power project Jokowi inaugurated on Friday, full-scale work at the site in central Java will begin when the remaining 10 percent of land is acquired, said Masao Kitakaze, a Tokyo-based spokesman for Japan’s Electric Power Development Co., one of the project’s developers.

On June 30, the Central Java government issued a notice assigning state electricity company PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara the right to use a 2012 land law to acquire the remaining 12.5 hectares of land for the Batang project. The land law, which was formulated to speed up bottlenecked public infrastructure projects, allows for compulsory purchase of land within set timeframes.

“The problem is that if they use the land acquisition law, it could take up to two years and he doesn’t have two years to wait,” said Rowland, the political consultant.

At the Jatigede Dam, Jokowi had ordered the project to begin flooding the valley on July 1 but delayed the start because compensation had not been arranged for several thousand villagers. He set a new deadline for Aug. 31. The process has been complicated because a previous government made payments to thousands of villagers in the 1980s. When there was no progress on construction then, the villagers returned or never left.

While about 20 percent of the 40,000 villagers living in the valley have yet to receive compensation, these are in the high villages so they have some time to be paid, according to Imam Santoso, the director of dams at the public works ministry.

“You need to remember we have already acquired the land,” West Java Governor Ahmad Heryawan said Monday, referring to payments made to villages in 1982 and 1986. “The government has been so good to give them extra.”

Jokowi issued a decree in January ordering the public works ministry to pay compensation to people living in 28 villages affected by the project. The money was to provide new homes and livelihoods. The decree said the dam was needed to provide irrigation and power.

“This dam is going to be a disaster,” said Dewi Amelia, a member of an activist group. “Thousands are still waiting for money, the environmental impact isn’t clear and it will end the culture of hard work and togetherness of those living here.”

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