Indonesia’s Big Muddy

More than two years on, the mud is still flowing in East Java.

It bubbles, hisses and creeps menacingly close to the top of the dam wall hastily built to contain the disaster zone. So far the mud has drowned 14,000 homes, 33 schools, 65 mosques, a major toll road and an orphanage and it keeps coming at the rate of more than 20 Olympic swimming pools every day. So it's hard to believe that Aburizal Bakrie, the powerful government minister whose family owns the company at the center of the mudflow disaster, would be treated like a king by local villagers, but that's exactly what he claimed in a speech last week.

"If two years ago I came there the people would shout at me," he said. But more recently, "I went there to the new villages, they are kissing my hand."

Geologists, scientists, non-governmental organizations and many victims all blame irresponsible drilling by gas company Lapindo Brantas, a subsidiary of the Bakrie-family owned Energi Mega Perseda, for the disaster. But the company, backed by two court rulings, is insisting the mud volcano, which first erupted on May 29, 2006, was triggered by an earthquake in Yogyakarta, 250 km away.

As if to prove its clean record, it was even cited by the Environment Ministry earlier this month for complying with environmental standards. The award prompted embarrassment from officials and was soundly denounced by environmentalists.

Despite Lapindo's claim of faultlessness, it is paying 4 trillion rupiah (US$437 million) in compensation to villagers who lost their homes to the mudflow. Most people seem to have received 20 per cent of their payment but they are still waiting on the rest.

The compensation is only a fraction of the 26 trillion rupiah that the disaster is estimated to have cost the region. That's just the value of lost assets and doesn't include the disruption to trade and industry caused by destroyed roads, buried farms and thousands of homeless people.

Around the site, the goodwill toward Lapindo that Bakrie describes is nowhere to be seen.

Just four days after his hand-kissing proclamation, a protest by 100 villagers disrupted Independence Day celebrations near the disaster site to demand full payment of the money promised to them. On the walls of a makeshift refugee camp down the road, people have written "Lapindo Detention Centre" and on Tuesday Asia Sentinel witnessed villagers slashing the tires of a Lapindo vehicle at the scene of a new gas leak that had caught fire within meters of surrounding homes.

Gas leaks are increasingly common around the site as the weight of the mud causes the ground to sink and trapped gas makes its way to the surface.

At a small cafe just up the road from the latest leak, the spokesperson for the government's disaster response agency, Badan Pelaksana Penanggulangan Lumpur Sidoargo (BPLS), sat chain-smoking clove cigarettes.

It had been a stressful day.

"Emotions heat up and people get angry but they know I am not the person to blame," said Ahmad Zulkarnaen.

He had been called out to Jalan Flamboyan, where another gas leak was on fire and angry villagers had gathered to protest. Their houses sit just outside the official disaster area and so far they don't qualify for compensation.

Almost every day, he is called out to sites like this or he fields complaints from locals about respiratory problems and severe headaches caused by the noxious gas as well as the lack of compensation. BPLS is also charged with protecting locals from new gas leaks, maintaining the dam walls, monitoring the Lapindo payments, using government funds to rebuild infrastructure and overseeing attempts to actually stop the mudflow. So far, four different strategies, including plugging the hole with cement balls, have proven useless. Now the focus is on shipping the mud out to sea via the Porong River.

"The priority now is on social problems," said Zulkarnaen. "Some say the flow can be stopped, some say it cannot. We have tried four ways and they have all failed."

He wouldn't be drawn into the debate about whether the mudflow was caused by Lapindo's drilling mistake or the earthquake in Yogyakarta.

"I'm not qualified to say whether it was a natural disaster or not," he said. "I will leave that to the legal process."

Meanwhile, villagers are left to live with the consequences.

Hadi Wiyanto, who runs the warung or small café where Zulkarnaen sought some respite, showed us the bubbling well in the courtyard of his now-abandoned house.

Every now and then water spurts up about half a meter and the smell of gas is overpowering. The house is not in the official mudflow area so his family hasn't received any compensation. No one lives in the house anymore because it's too dangerous but some male family members sleep there to guard the property.

"We have no compensation," Wiyanto said. "There is nothing. It is not safe to live here."

The best can be said is that some locals have made a living out of the disaster.

Iyek, a former factory worker, now ferries tourists, journalists and NGO workers around the site on his motorbike. He has his own tour worked out and keeps up to date on where the biggest leaks cause the mud to bubble and spit water meters into the air. He also sells DVDs about the disaster for 30,000 rupiah each.

Looking over a dried bed of mud, he points to where his factory once stood and also indicates where a famous labor activist was murdered.

But landmarks are fast disappearing. Just a year ago, you could see the rooftops of houses peeking above the mud but now all that is left in this particular area are the tip of a mosque, the top floor of a furniture factory and some dead trees.

Iyek's family has so far been given 24 million rupiah for his house and land that were buried under the mud. He is waiting on another 92 million rupiah that should have been paid in May.

He has gone from earning 750,000 rupiah per month to between 30,000 and 150,000 rupiah per day. So some months he is actually better off. Still, there is plenty of competition, with at least hundreds of other villagers selling DVDs and operating as tour guides.

Other locals have been employed to guard the disaster site.

At one post, there are 18 men standing around in hard hats and gumboots.

Some are standing in groups smoking, others sleeping; none are wearing masks. Two of them break the boredom by racing on big dirt motorbikes along the 200m stretch of road to the main gaseous crater.

A team from the United Nations Environment Program is currently putting the finishing touches to a new report, which will lay out the best disaster response options for Indonesia.

Its main author, John McLachlan-Karr, says the mudflow has started to slow and may even stop some time over the next 10 years. But in the meantime the dam walls built to contain it are too steep and sit on unstable ground, making them almost impossible to maintain.

"There is a plan from the local government to move people out of surrounding areas but so far nothing has been done," he said.

As far as disaster responses go, he says, shipping the mud out to sea via the Porong River is the least costly and least damaging option.

While it's not ideal, because it disrupts the river system and dramatically increases the risk of flooding in nearby Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, it seems to be the best option.

"Compared to the scale of the disaster, this is a relatively small price to pay," he said.

Meanwhile, compensation is only just starting to trickle out to the estimated 75,000 people who have been affected by the disaster.

"Lapindo always imply they give this money for nothing," said Winarko, a volunteer at the environmental group Wahli.

"But that's bullshit. They get ownership of the land and have so far only paid 20 per cent of the price. Every time there's a deadline, they make a public show of paying something. They might pay 20 people something."

There are still 573 families, about 2000 people, living at the refugee camp in Porong market. They sleep in 6m by 4m tents and share 15 toilets. Deliveries of clean water and food have long been stopped.

As many as 10,000 people have lived at the market place over the past two years.

One of its residents, Witanto, says most of the remaining people at the camp haven't received any compensation. They don't have documents proving they owned their land and they fear if they move, they will never receive any money.

Those with documents can apply for a property at the Bakrie-owned Kahuripan Nirwana (Heavenly Life) village housing complex, about half an hour's drive from the mudflow site. The complex has a long drive with manicured gardens and big leaf-shaped sculptures. Rows of almost finished houses line the block but many people don't want to live here because it's too far away from their work and lacks the community feel of their old village streets.

Builders said this week that 4,000 houses would be built but only about a quarter were close to being finished. People submit their applications in a big hall at the front of the complex.

One man, who preferred not to be named, said he was trying to swap the land title for his buried home for one of the new houses in the complex. Not because he wanted to live there but so he could try and sell it rather than wait for the remaining compensation payment.

In his national Independence Day address last week, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said all funds were expected to be disbursed to victims by the end of the year. But locals are skeptical. Who could blame them?