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Kafil Yamin

BANDUNG, Dec 8 2008 (IPS) - She wore a scruffy, batik turban for protection against the midday sun. Aas Juasih, 42, looked satisfied with the paddy growing on the ‘illegal’ sawah (paddy field) that she has been cultivating for more than 15 years.

Juasih’s sawah slopes down into the huge Saguling dam lake in the countryside of Bandung, West Java. In the dry season, the water level goes down a few metres and leaves enough space for Juasih and hundreds of farmers to grow rice, corn, cucumbers and other crops.

But this is precarious. During the rainy season the water level rises, the farms submerge and the crops vanish. And now, with the uncertainty of seasons, attributed to climate change, rain could come anytime and visit ruination upon farmers like her.

Farmers recall that until about five years ago such disasters occurred only every now and then and that the farmers could still easily tide over them.

"Usually the water level would reach the upper side of the dam in February and remain at that level until the end of April. In May, the water would start to go down and, in June, we could start planting in time for the harvest in December or January, before the water starts going up," Juasih recalled.

But now the cycle has been disrupted and is often at variance with the season.

"The water level would go far down, creating huge spaces along the slope for us to farm, but along with the rainfall, the water levels have become unpredictable,'' said Juasih. ‘’Now I have given up,'' she said, staring into the horizon. "I just regard this as betting at a lottery," she added.

Needless to say, the stakes are high. Hours of labour and tonnes of rice can disappear in moments or the crops could wilt in the dry season.

Where do they get the water in the dry season? The men get together and rent a pump to lift water to the paddies on the slope. A farmer pays Rp 20,000 (1.7 US dollars) for two hours of pumping. The bigger the paddy field, the longer a farmer needs to keep the pump turned on. A quarter hectare of paddy field would take at least six hours of watering or Rp120,000 (10.2 dollars).

But there are problems. Pumping up water lowers the level in the lake and affects power supply. Odah binti Supirta, 75, keeps four petak (square) of sawah and around 400 sq m of vegetable farm. Her plantation is almost on the waterline and she is acutely aware that it can get inundated in the heavy rains.

What if the water inundated her paddy and vegetables? "I just see myself betting in a lottery,’’ she said echoing Juasih.

Supirta realises that the land she is working on is not hers anymore, having been taken over by the dam authorities. But with time and situation changing, soul ties with the land cannot just be cut off.

"This land used to belong to me, to our family," she said. "Then one day government officials came to my house and told us that the government was planning to build a huge dam and that our farms were inside the dam area. They said the dam was for the good of the whole country and so we should give up the land at the price they set Rp 400 [0.03 cents] per sq m."

"There was no way for us to refuse," she recalled.

Constructed in 1985, the 700 megawatt power plant occupies an area of 1,500 sq km converted from land occupied by some 2,000 villages. Many villagers said the land acquisition was done by force.

The dam and agricultural lands encircling it are managed by Indonesia Power, a subsidiary of the state electricity utility.

Supirta is still working on the same land, but she is now a landless farmer and much poorer.

Omo Suminta, 73, is growing corn on his 800 sq m, just above Supirta’s. He says he farms solely for his own family's consumption. Almost all farmers on the slope are in it to feed their families and sell only if there is surplus.

And this practice is linked to the past, long before the gigantic dam came into existence, when the farmers had their own lands, cultivated their own farms and managed their own properties.

"What they once said, that this dam is for the good of the whole nation, is a big lie. We were better off than we are now. We used to have our own properties," said Mansyur Ma'mun, a Cililin community leader, reminiscing the days when rice and vegetables grew well and life was easy.

"We used to have a small river here called the Ciminyak, where the women did the washing and children swam. We enjoyed our days without need for money," he told IPS.

Mansyur leads the farmers in their demands that the government fulfil promises made to them. "Until today, we fight for the realisation of promises the government made."

One of the promises, Mansyur said, is to make the entire Saguling lakeside an agro-tourism site, where farmers would be given rights to grow fruits and financial assistance for agro enterprises.

According to Joni Santoso, land manager for Indonesia Power, there are around 8,000 farmers that farm on some 800 hectares around the lake, which is under the authority of the utility.

Santoso said his office is concerned that such farming could cause sedimentation in the Saguling.

Population density around the upper catchment of Saguling is high and the extensive agriculture there has been blamed for soil erosion while industries that have come up are contaminating the lake. The heavy metals and pesticides entering the lake are killing off the fish.

The farmers, said Santoso, were provided with funds to develop friendlier cultivation around the lakeside areas. "We have even assisted them with best variety of trees which are good for land conservation."

"We recommend they grow hard trees that have economic value, such as mango, avocado, sukun [breadfruit], rambutan or coconut. But the farmers showed little interest," Santoso told IPS.

However, the farmers complained that such varieties take years to yield. They said they need trees that can feed them two or three months after planting. So, instead of growing hard trees, the farmers stick to vegetables and other regular crops along the lakeside areas.

During prolonged droughts, as the water level goes down, local farmers see vast empty spaces on the slope as being too good to be ignored, though this is highly risky. ‘’I just ask myself: am I lucky? If I am, then the water will stay low and will only rise up after the harvest,’’ explains Euis Taslimah, a 31-year-old woman who grows cucumber close to the waterline.

Santoso says he keeps reminding the farmers that they are risking their time and energy farming in the inner side of the lake.

Mansyur said the farming practice can hardly be branded as 'illegal' because the villagers are actually organised by Indonesian Power.

Santoso acknowledged that his office organises the farmers under the Saguling Community Cooperatives through which farmers are provided information and counselling about dam safety and good agriculture. Legality, though, is an open question.

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