And You Thought NSW Had Problems…

Published on New Matilda here

Jakarta’s new Governor has faced over 200 public demonstrations since his election in August last year, writes Belinda Lopez.

In the Intercontinental Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, the city’s Governor, Fauzi Bowo, throws the floor open for commentary. His audience in the hotel’s executive meeting room is full of foreign media correspondents, many of whom are smirking.

“I have to guarantee 13 per cent of total space in Jakarta will be kept [open], which is impossible, but that’s what the law says,” he says, pausing for effect.

“How can you find space like that in Jakarta? If anybody has any ideas, please tell me. I welcome any suggestions.” The correspondents laugh.

The green space requirement is only the start of his problems. As the first ever directly elected Governor of the capital, Bowo has inherited a city that regularly produces signs of impending apocalypse. Bird flu, water shortages, overcrowding and mosquito-transmitted dengue fever are far from headline news. Forty per cent of its land area is below sea level, and flooding has only been made worse by deforestation on the city’s fringes. The capital’s streets are predicted to be deadlocked with traffic by 2014.

In an area roughly the size of Singapore, Jakarta has twice the population – more than nine million people. It operates what could be described as the polar opposite of Singapore’s model public transport system. Jakartans have a special phrase for when the city’s arteries clog with cars, motorbikes, and buses blowing black smoke. “Macet total” – total traffic jam – is a conversation starter between taxi drivers and passengers while they remain stationary in traffic for an hour, and is the local office worker’s equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”.

“There are some who believe my administration at the moment is far from an efficient one,” Bowo tells the press. Since his election in August 2007, there have been “not less than 210 demonstrations” against his office, he says, almost proudly.

He knows what his critics are saying, too. “He’s cruel, he’s inhumane, he’s acting against human rights”- Bowo generously offers examples. He speaks frankly. Having stepped up from the position of Deputy Governor in the previous, heavily criticised, administration, he won the election on a egalitarian platform. “Jakarta is for everybody”, his campaign materials espoused, but he openly acknowledges the ongoing difficulty of pleasing the 19 political parties who helped get him in office.

The bulk of recent criticism comes from the eviction of squatting families on undeveloped public and privately owned land – in search of that elusive “green space”.

Under the Spatial Layout Law, Jakarta is expected to develop a “green belt”, of 13.94 per cent total of public and private open spaces by 2010 – a drop from the idealistic 37.2 percent target of two decades ago. Of the 650 square kilometres of luxury malls, glass-paned buildings and urban sprawl of shacks and houses in Jakarta, currently only 9 per cent is open space.

Behind the lectern, Bowo says his administration’s attempts to rent low-cost housing to squatters living on flood-prone land – another strategy to build up green space – were rebuffed. “The reply I get is, ‘Pak, this flood, how many days does it last? We’re used to it, we’re quite comfortable’,” he says.

But Wardah Hafidz, a long-time human rights activist and coordinator of the Urban Poor Consortium, a lobby group for squatters and the poor in Jakarta, says Bowo isn’t telling the whole story.

“The apartments he provided are far away from the city in a new area. There’s no real public transport or green areas, it’s not readily accessible, and [the squatters] are taken away from their jobs within a one kilometre radius of where they used to live,” she says.

Ibrahim’s family is one of at least 4500 families who were living under a freeway in Jakarta’s Kolong Tol area before they were evicted last year, the Urban Poor Consortium claims. He and 25 other families who moved to nearby vacated land declined the offer of the low-cost apartments and took the $AU115 offered in compensation instead.

Before entering Ibrahim’s neat one-room house, fringed by mud and rubbish, his guests remove their shoes. The only furniture is a mattress in one corner of the room, where his five-year-old son is playing with a dated Nintendo console – a luxury afforded by Ibrahim’s role as the organiser of local rubbish collectors in the area. Ibrahim, who like many Indonesians only has one name, says since moving he has suffered a severe loss in income.

He is joined by Wartiyah, who was also forced to move from Kolong Tol. Her daughter, Iis, is eight, and has been crying every night since arriving in their mosquito-infested room built on the mud-swamped land. Wartiyah tries to catch the mosquitos, sweeping a large palm leaf covered in sticky cooking oil around their mattress before Iis sleeps.

“The eviction has destroyed the people, we lost our community. We’re poor, we depend on our neighbours,” Wartiyah says.

Wardah says that if the Government was to evict the 165 poor communities dotted across Jakarta, the green space gained would only amount to 0.1 per cent of the city’s land. “When [Bowo] plans to increase the percentage of green area his first target is to evict as many poor communities as possible,” she says.

This week, local environmental NGOs warned that the city’s plan to open 13 new shopping malls would make flooding worse. Bowo says he has attempted to purchase private land for more green space but, like several good ideas for the city, the policy is limited by its coffers, which are frequently raided by corrupt public officials.

But Wardah believes more can be done. The Urban Poor Consortium is lobbying for squatters to be allowed to stay on the land and receive grants to “green” the areas themselves.

“In light of the evictions, I think there’s not that much change from the previous governor. [Bowo] still applies the same methods, he does the same thing as the previous government – acts against the interests of the poor,” she says.

“He needs to do something more daring, and try to find a radical, alternative solution. That is something that I don’t see much of so far.”

Meanwhile, Bowo concludes his pitch to the foreign media with a familiar turn of phrase, leaving the stage a short man without the elevated platform.

“My commitment is to represent everybody, not just a part of the people,” he says, finishing to applause, before he becomes invisible behind a swarm of journalists handing him their business cards.


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