This article was originally written and published in Indonesian on 23 November 2022.
The never-ending drilling. The unclean water. The vulnerable quality of the plant. The continuous and uncomfortable engine noises. The people of Dieng have to fight back, even when pitted against their comrades.
Ardiyanto’s ears have grown tired of hearing the engine rumble from Well Pad 9 Geothermal Power Plant owned by Geo Dipa Energi (a government-owned geothermal power plant company). Every morning, he must listen to its roaring sound at close range. A drilling device powered by geothermal energy is placed beside the land he cultivates. He had not found peace even when he returned from the paddock at noon. His family time is interrupted by the engine’s roar, whose noise can be heard in Karangtengah village, where Ardiyanto lives. The same noise keeps him awake at night, even though he has to return to work in the morning.
Fed up, Ardiyanto decided to take action. He repeatedly sends messages filled with protests to the Geo Dipa Energi board of directors. But until now, they did not provide any responses. “Once I complained through WhatsApp, but they replied with photos of Geo Dipa Energi’s workers sleeping. I don’t know what the intention is (by sending the mentioned photo instead of replying to the message),” Ardi said.
Not only their ears but also their lungs are suffering. Their noses have to deal with the gas pipes that proudly cross the village of Karangtengah. A Karangtengah farmer, Suryanto, later told his story about the cruelty of the pipes. He said, “There was one victim a month ago, and that is enough to make everyone afraid.”
The incident occurred on March 12th, 2022 when the victim checked a pipe that opened automatically. Suddenly, the tube was leaking with a high concentration. Other workers were eager to help after seeing the unconscious victim. However, their intention to help sent them to the hospital too. One person was killed, and eight people who received treatment were witnesses to the cruelty of the iron pipes.
The drilling damages the respiratory system and even blocks the source of livelihood. Unin, a housewife and farmer in Karangtengah, also feels the same. “My family’s comfort has been disturbed. As a farmer, my plants were also damaged.” Her paddocks became infertile, and the air quality decreased. The combination makes it difficult for Unin’s plants to grow and even threatens them with death.
As the owner of the paddocks near the pipes, Ardiyanto is familiar with Unin’s problem. Yesterday’s leaking pipes incident made him agitated as a farmer because it can make his plants die. “Even if it grows, it has a hard time growing,” complained Ardi. Even more, he once saw another young farmer using a modern machine, but the result stayed the same.
Not only is the water quality in Karangtengah hazardous to vegetation, but it is also unsafe to drink. According to Ardi, the proximity of water to the Well Pad 28 site plays a role in causing the water to become degraded. “Even more, the water coming out yesterday was warm and smelled of sulfur,” Ardiyanto said.
Close to Karangtengah, a few houses stand next to each other on uneven roads. The corner street is packed with murals and posters protesting geothermal energy. There is a small alleyway inhabited by middle-aged men chatting, a bunch of mothers shopping, and children with oversized bags who have just come home from school. Alongside their mundane and ordinary life, the Bakal villagers eventually heard complaints from Karangtengah.
Although the impact in Bakal Village won’t be as significant as in Karangtengah, these complaints have caused concern. One of those who feels it is Rizal, a young farmer who has vocally opposed the drilling. He is one of many people who have been monitoring geothermal for a long time.
Rizal is concerned about the drilling plan above the Sethulu Spring. This spring is essential for the Bakal people since it is a civilized point, a heritage of the village’s founders and prior Muslim scholars. “It is also one of our most precious assets, while drilling will take place on top of it,” Rizal added.
Sethulu springs are intertwined with various life aspects of the Bakal community. It is enjoyed from downstream to upstream by their society. “From cooking, washing, bathing, to religious activities, everything is provided by this spring,” Rizal said.
Nevertheless, no one knows how long the water can continue to be used. Complaints about the decreasing quality of Karangtengah’s water have already arrived in Bakal. Fresh water became salty and astringent. Rizal worried a similar accident would happen to Bakal’s villagers. “Just imagine, as mountain people we are already gifted with many water resources, but we still have to buy gallons,” he complains.
A Tough Resistance in Karangtengah
The people of Karangtengah have never approved of the Geo Dipa Energi’s geothermal power plant presence. “When people visit one’s village, they should excuse themselves, right? And then, the village leader is supposed to tell the community if there are guests,” complains Suryanto. Contrary to Suryanto’s expectations, village parties never told the local citizens about the licensing issue. Instead, these discourses of new drilling sites have resurfaced.
One of the discourses concerns developing the geothermal power plant Geo Dipa Energi Unit 2, Karangtengah. Its distance is less than one meter from the Karangtengah household. “This one has gone too far. Why is there a geothermal power plant in front of their house,” Ardi complained. In his opinion, the discourse of the geothermal power plant’s development progress sparked the rejection echo again this year.
Ardi wonders. The desire for dialogue instead came from the villagers themselves. It was the villagers that flocked to the village leader. Geo Dipa Energi and the village leader have socialized with the residents several times. Ardi revealed that, for now, the village residents no longer need socialization; they need a decision. “Since comfort and safety are fixed points, the decision must be made to move the drill sites,” said Ardi.
Villagers began mujahadah, an event of fervent communal prayer, as one of their resistance tactics. Residents pray to God for Dieng’s protection from disasters through mujahadah.
The mujahadah event included a discussion of developments in the dynamics of refusal. “All the locals showed up on their own initiative; no one needed to be mobilized,” Ardiyanto said. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Legal Aid Institute and Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (Indonesian Forum for the Environment) were also on hand to assist the residents.
Sealing off the Geo Dipa Energi Unit 2 Dieng power plant is one example of citizen refusal. It was preceded by an agreement between the Banjarnegara Provincial Secretary at the villagers’ meeting and the Regional Leadership Coordination Forum on January 12th, 2022. Based on the deal, no activities are allowed in that area. However, in the end, Geo Dipa Energi broke the agreement. Residents were disappointed; hence they sealed one of the power plants.
Individuals suspected of being police officers under civilian clothes forced the village residents to open the area. Local men blocked the forced opening. An argument had occurred at that time. But the villagers’ efforts to seal off the area remained unsuccessful. The company still forcibly opened the seal, with the excuse of taking a pipe.
Along with diplomatic efforts, villagers have expressed their outrage with agitational banners. The fences around their house became vessels to hang their banners. “The disasters must be kept away, not brought any closer,” contains one of them.
Agitational banners weren’t enough; several protests were held. In the protests of 2019, Unin was one of the demonstrators. She also participated in recent demonstrations. She was angry because the community did not seem to have any right to refuse. “Just because this is a state-owned enterprise does not mean we do not have any chance to refuse, we are also part of the country,” said Unin.
“It is difficult to fight against big state-owned enterprise,” says Ardiyanto. He is fully aware that this struggle is not going to be easy. But he did not want his children and grandchildren to feel the same way. This belief keeps him fighting continuously.
Bakal Sets Up A Stance
The suffering of the neighboring village was evidence that Bakal had to respond. Rizal does not want his days to be interfered with by power plants. “What did the company promise? They had been there since the 1980s, but there is still no sign of prosperity,” Rizal questioned.
The Bakal village residents have prepared a strategy in case what happened to Karangtengah happens to them. Supposing that the water quality changes after drilling, water samples have been prepared for laboratory testing. “If geothermal activities have to be done, we can check the changes in the water through this sample,” Rizal said.
Even more so, the Sethulu spring has to be saved. “We have to preserve this spring, it contains sources of livelihood,” said Rizal. As a successor of the village, Rizal felt it was his duty to continue the life of the Sethulu spring.
With that spirit, the Sethulu Festival is held annually; August 2022 was the third time. According to Dafiqul Fariq, the event’s chairperson, this festival is a step the village residents took to preserve the Sethulu spring as a source of livelihood.
Before the drilling commences, at least all the villagers must know the danger of the drilling. Rara, one of the Bakal residents active in the community’s library, fights for it. Based on her, although the threat behind the project was real, not all of the villagers of Bakal rejected the existence of the geothermal power plant. “This has resulted in our resistance still not being widely spread; there are still those who are saying yes or no, yes or no,” she said.
With people from the library’s community, Rara tries to unite people to reject the drilling through nonton bareng, the activity of watching movies together. Documentary films like Watchdog that bring up environmental issues were played there. Rara hopes the way previous corporate projects destroyed nature in other areas will raise civil awareness.
Bullied Then Pitted
The Dieng people have experienced various natural disasters and interferences over time. They resisted with such a great effort. However, despite the resistance, the company has not remained silent. There are ways for the company to break the movement that the community has built.
Job offers became one of the most effective ways. During the project opening, PT Plumpang Raya Anugrah (PT PRA), the contractor implementing the project, partnered with RT 9 (one of the neighborhoods in the village) to construct Well Pad 9. “PT PRA offered 20 million rupiahs per month to ensure the security,” said Ardiyanto. RT 9 village residents were even offered a generator.
Some people of RT 9 accepted job offers from the company, such as security guards or other labor positions. Villagers of other RT who opposed the project inevitably clashed with the residents of RT 9. These circumstances made the resistance seem half-hearted. “They always use our own community, in the end we have to clash with each other,” said Ardi.
Geo Dipa Energi’s tactics to win support also reached Rizal’s ears. “All you have to do is sit in the post, and you will get paid a lot,” Rizal remarked, imitating Geo Dipa Energi’s way of persuading the village residents. He understood that these tempting offers could distract them from the dangers ahead.
For this reason, Rizal constantly gives a warning to other Bakal village residents who have received job offers from Geo Dipa Energi. “You can work, but when you go home and your uniform is taken off, you are still Bakal people,” he stated. For Rizal, working for Geo Dipa Energi does not erase their rights as a community. He is trying to prevent conflict among the local villagers through communication, as it has already happened in other villages.
The resistance does not go unrecognized. In the previous update (28-10-2022), the village residents of Karangtengah and Bakal villages reached an agreement with Geo Dipa Energi. The signing of the Temporary Office Power Plant Dieng 2 of Geo Dipa Energi has halted the construction of Well Pad 38. The Well pad is part of Power Plant 2, built about one meter from Karangtengah.
The construction fences will be removed. The foundations of the project had to be demolished. The materials had to be removed. To ensure the removal and demolition process is completed, villagers of Bakal and Karangtengah will directly monitor and supervise it.
Sarcastically, Ardi wondered. “Take care of the earth of Dieng. I am not a graduate, but what is the minimal distance between a drill and a residential area?”
Reporter: Albertus Arioseto, Bangkit Adhi Wiguna, Fransiskus Asisi Anggito Enggarjati, Han Revanda Putra, M. Ihsan Nurhidayah, Maria Adelina Puspaningrum, Ryzal Catur Anandha Sandhy Surya, and Venessa Theonia
Authors: M. Fahrul Muharman, Maria Adelina Puspaningrum, and Venessa Theonia
Editor: Bangkit Adhi Wiguna
Illustrator: Fransiskus Asisi Anggito Enggarjati
Translator: Nadia Rifa’i Chairina