“Ibu bumi wis maringi / ibu bumi dilarani / ibu bumi kang ngadili (Mother Earth Has Given/Mother Earth is Being Hurt/Mother Earth Will Judge). These are the Sanksrit words etched on Yu Sukinah’s wooden blocks that help encase her feet with cement. Each block weighs 15 kilos or 30 pounds. Sukinah has been cemented to them for over 168 hours. Sukinah is a farmer and activist from Kendeng, Indonesia and the leader of a group of farmers that have cemented their feet for over a week in front of the Indonesian Presidential Palace. Almost a hundred people have taken part in cementing their feet in hopes that the Indonesian President will intervene and halt the opening of the cement factory that threatens Sukinah’s region.
Yu Sukinah and her probono legal team have previously taken their grievances all the way to the Supreme Court and won. But the governor of her state has decided to just issue new licences instead. Citing that the cement company, which is state-owned, has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars and, as such, the project must go on as planned.
The construction has already resulted in Sukinah and other farmers struggling to have sufficient water to irrigate their fields. And environmental experts note that further construction and operation of the factory and mines will irrevocably destroy the water systems of the Kendeng region, leading to more landslides, draught and unknown consequences. When asked for how long she will continue her protest she simply said, “I don’t know, til we win”.
Stephanie Tangkilisan had a chance to talk to Yu Sukinah. Here is the interview, accompanied by stunning photographs taken by Stephanie.
ATW: What is the purpose of this protest?
Sukinah: To meet with President Jokowi and ask him to shut down all the factories and mines in Rembang, and to stop activities in Central Java. We need to revitalize the environment there because Java is already a hotspot for disaster (landslides and volcanic eruptions), and the citizens there can anticipate the disasters before they happen.
ATW: Why do you want to participate in this protest yourself?
Sukinah: Because Mother Earth is like my own mother. If humans give birth to humans, then the earth gives birth to water and to plants that will feed the creatures of this earth.
ATW: What do you think is the hardest part of the protest?
Sukinah: I think a lot of people don’t realize that our feet are cemented 24/7. We don’t break the cement blocks to sleep. So, we need to be carried and carted to even go to the bathroom. We get to shower but the thing is we haven’t had a change of underwear for a week! (laughs) Some people have bruising and swelling on their feet, since the blocks are cutting off circulation. The doctor and nurses monitor our condition, but we have to make sure that the swelling doesn’t get to bad.
ATW: The media reports that some of the people in your village agree to the cement factory? Is that true?
Sukinah: Yes, that is true, a lot of them are the ones who sold their land to the factory so in a way they are paid. They also are paid to intimidate and say horrible things to us. It really hurts, because we know a lot of these people. It’s a small village, so a lot of us grew up together. And to be betrayed like that, it is really sad. Today, they’re not even paid a lot, maybe they only get money for coffee.
All the Women: Do you think there is any positive impact from the cement factories?
Sukinah: For myself and the other farmers, none whatsoever.
ATW: There are allegations that you are being funded for this, and that the women in this movement have been manipulated. Is this true?
Sukinah: Absolutely not. That’s honestly confusing to me. Women are leading this protest, and to say that we are being manipulated…(laughs) is funny.
ATW: How is the group’s morale? Is there anything we can do to help?
Sukinah: Lots of volunteers come and talk to us, it’s really nice to see young people care about our issues. We farmers, we just joke a lot and have fun after each protest. Sometimes I think of my three cows back home and wonder how they’re doing. Laughing is the only way to make this unbearable situation better.
ATW: What’s a funny thing a volunteer has asked?
Sukinah: A girl asked if she can give us a manicure or pedicure, which is really funny to me, it was a nice suggestion made by a city girl. It’s funny and she was apologetic about being such a city girl. I told her it’s OK, because I’m from the rural areas, she’s from the city, but we can get along. The point is to not force the city girl to be a village girl, and the village girl to be a city girl. We need both the city and the village to grow at it’s own pace. he city people want to come to the rural area too sometimes to get away from the city. We’re fighting for city folks too, to protect our beautiful country so she and her kids can eventually visit the rural areas too and see how beautiful it is.
ATW: What is Kendeng like? Is the environment still beautiful?
Sukinah: In the past, yes. Now, with mining happening, it has become less beautiful — and will continue to be come less beautiful if we have more factories and more mines.
ATW: I understand that you’ve been protesting for a long time. Could you share more about past efforts?
Sukinah: We built a makeshift tent in front of Governor Pranowo’s office, we camped there for around 3 years. Everyday we would take shifts of manning the tent, but one-day local law enforcement decided to burn our home of 3 years because they said it was an eyesore to the community. We all cried that day, that tent had become like our home.
ATW: How long do you want to stay protesting?
Sukinah: I don’t know how long. As long as it takes, I guess.
After giving this Interview, one of Sukinah’s friend and fellow protestor, Yu Patmi passed away from a heart attack after breaking her cement blocks. It is unclear if her heart attack had anything to do with her participating in the protest.
(photo of the group of women) Yu Patmi is pictured in the blue jilbab.
All photos by Stephanie Tangkilisan.