Sun, Jan 22, 2006 - Page 19 News List

In Java, living off the land can be deadly

Farmers face the increasing risk of landslides on this densely populated island


Activists warn that deforestation will cause more flooding and landslides in Indonesia, especially during the monsoon season.


The terraced hills of this Indonesian village are a perfect place for crops to thrive, with a rich soil that supports tobacco, corn, potatoes and the occasional banana palm.

But for the farmers who work the slopes of the volcanic island of Java, a danger is lurking every time they trudge uphill -- landslides.

More than 150 people were killed on the densely-populated island in two separate landslides earlier this month, and activists warn that the destruction of forests for logging and farming means that more disasters will follow.

"This job does not give us enough money but farming is the best option we have. So being buried by a landslide is the last thing on my mind," says Robiyanti, who works a patch of these hills with her husband Iswahyudi.

"We know we do not have enough money and we are not smart people, but I do not want my children to grow up poor like myself," said the 32-year-old, who began working these fields a year ago to supplement the family's income.

Robiyanti, clad in a headscarf and carrying a black umbrella she uses to shield herself from the annual monsoon rains, said she and her husband are paid a total of US$31 a month for their labor.

They said they have been assured the area is safe.

"The soil of the hills in this area is sturdy, or at least that's what the forestry officials here have told me," Robiyanti said. "So I am not afraid."

Just 30km away, however, the village of Sijeruk in a similar geographical area was buried by a torrent of mud.

Seventy-five of its inhabitants were killed in the disaster, which came days after another slide smashed into several villages in neighboring East Java, killing at least 79 and sweeping away hundreds of houses.

Central Java provincial forestry official Haryono Kusumo said that in 1995, forests outnumbered farms in the Patakbanteng area but they were destroyed during a massive fire in 1997.

He did not say what caused the blaze but activists allege that fires have been purposesly started to clear land -- that would otherwise be kept in its natural state -- so it can be used for farming or plantations.

Since 1997, thousands of residents have gradually converted the land into farms here, he said.

"We cannot stop their actions, although legally we could, since we are outnumbered -- and these people are too stubborn to obey the law due to poverty and a lack of education," he said.

Illegal logging and the conversion of land for farming has left just 11 percent of Java's area covered in plantations or natural forests, but around 30 percent coverage is needed for ecosystems to function normally, activists said.

They have warned that similar disasters are likely to occur more frequently on mountainous Java, one of the world's most densely populated islands, where land is at a premium.

Robiyanti and Iswahyudi work for their neighbor, who they say pays US$266 per year to their village's farmer association for a license to cultivate his land.

They have been hit hard by last year's fuel price hikes, which caused them to shift from using kerosene fuel to wood, a plight shared with many of Indonesia's poor that has put even more pressure on the country's forests.

Flooding and landslides have been an escalating concern in Indonesia during its monsoon season, which hits a peak at the end of January.

Despite the dangers, Iswahyudi is sanguine.

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