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July 24, 2014

Ijen (Part 2) - Between Risk and Livelihood

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On our way out of the Ijen Crater, there was a warning sign forbidding visitors from descending into the crater. Its white paint looked dull, cracked, and peeled, with some initials and doodles drawn on it. Seeing the number of visitors inside Ijen's crater that morning, it was obvious that the sign was ignored, or unseen until the hikers ascended through that route. I did not even see that sign the previous night as the areas around that sign must have been in solid dark without any light. The sign did not mention any dates. None knows how long the prohibition should apply. Should we assume that the prohibition meant to be applied forever?

Half way up to the edge of the crater

The sign
So I asked Pak Kaoli, our guide, about that sign. “Last year it was forbidden for us to descend into the crater. It was because some Government’s earthquake monitoring devices showed that there were tremors, which were then assumed to be volcanic. Then we received an alert – saying that the volcanic activity here was intensifying, hence it would have been too risky for us to be around this crater.”

I recalled Pak Kaoli’s previous story, that his livelihood was entirely dependent on Ijen. He makes a living from working as the sulfur miner as well as the guide for visitors wishing to descend into the crater.

Pak Kaoli, our guide, at the edge of Ijen crater
“I doubted that the information was right. I have been working here for over twenty years by the lake down there, and I know how this mountain behaves”, Pak Kaoli continued, his eyes looking at the base of the crater.

“How did you know that the Government’s information was inaccurate?”
“Well you know, those earthquake monitoring devices don’t have eyes. They are installed somewhere remotely, and they just recorded the tremors without truly witnessing what actually was happening. Say, if a big rock rolled down that slope, and fell to the lake, it would cause tremors too, right?”

“But how if there were really some volcanic tremors that you couldn’t feel, but the monitoring device could?”
“I know this mountain. If it is about to erupt, there ought to be other signs. When its volcanic activity intensifies, the water in the lake down there will become hotter, so hot that I might not be able to touch it anymore.” 
We were looking at the crater lake down below. Its famous green hue was unseen, covered in thick, grayish fume. 

“When the Government announced Ijen's increased activity, I usually checked the lake’s temperature. I just soaked my hand in, and if it got really hot, then I would alert everybody to be prepared to leave.”

“Weren’t you afraid if you were too late, and all of a sudden the volcano erupted?”
“I know how this mountain behaves. The temperature of the lake, the intensity of the smoke, the smell of the sulfur, the tremors, everything. Everyone who has been living very close to this mountain would have known if it was about to erupt beforehand. And at the time when we know it is about to erupt or it is getting too dangerous, we will surely save ourselves. After all, we work because we want to make a living.” 

Here in this crater, right next to the lake caldera, the Ijen sulfur miners work
Speaking of appreciation towards local wisdom and knowledge, and the harmony between such wisdom and science, so far, in Indonesia, those who are recognized as experts are mostly those who are educated in formal education institutions. On the other hand, many people like Pak Kaoli, who believes in the five senses, think that those faraway experts and man-made devices do not make sense. Pak Kaoli’s statement got me to think of the lasting conversations in disaster risk reduction, that ideally science and local wisdom should orchestrate, and for the purpose of public awareness approach, those should complement each other. None seemed to happen in Ijen.

I wonder when, and if the scientists would (try to) embrace the knowledge of people like Pak Kaoli - the man who has lived for over two decades in an area and noticed each and every single change and symptom. Traditional Javanese culture treasures ‘ilmu titén’ – the knowledge that one develops from having a close look over every single phenomenon in nature, resulting in an empirical web of knowledge on signs/symptoms – events – impacts correlations. Ilmu titén often results in accurate predictions over what some signs would turn out into. Before my trip to Ijen, I had never met anyone who expressed that many traits of ilmu titén on volcanic activities like Pak Kaoli, who is so sure about how a mountain behaves. 

“So you are really sure that you knew when to stay and when to leave?” 
He then laughed, recalling how a non-miner guide – who was not familiar with the crater – ran away after a big rock fell into the crater and caused a minor tremor. “People who are not familiar with Ijen got scared too easily. That is why the best guide for those visiting Ijen are locals or the miners.”

“So what did you do when the Government told you to stay away from the crater?”
“I insisted on staying. I was called to the village administration office, and there were even some people from the House of Representatives meeting us. I had some tough conversations there. I asked them how I would feed my family if I had to stay away from the crater for days and for some uncertain period. I also asked those House Members if they would support the miners’ families if we had to stop working. None could answer that question so I insisted that I would keep working. In the end, those officials gave up and said that if I insisted on keeping on working in the crater, then I would do it at my own risk” 

In disaster risk reduction, one key building block in reducing the vulnerability is ensuring that the community’s livelihood is well taken care of. Distancing the community from hazardous zones is hard to do if the community members do not have any access to economic activities, and worse, cannot feed their families. 

 “Were there any offers of alternative jobs or compensation if you were willing to stay away from the crater?”
“No. There were no such things offered. So not only myself but also my fellow miners were quite worried about how we would feed our family… We, uneducated people, do not have that many options. This (the job) is the thing that we know. We just prayed and tried to believe that nothing bad was going to happen to us.”

“Were you alone when you argued with those officials?”
“I came with some colleagues, but I was the only one speaking. They had the same wish but they did not dare to speak up. But at the end, when they knew that I insisted on keeping on working down there, they followed me.”

I thought that he disregarded the Government’s warning solely because he thought he knew the mountain better than the officials and early warning devices. Now I understood that there was also a significant motivation behind his action.

The conversation with Pak Kaoli reminded me of my findings when I worked on disaster risk reduction projects in Aceh. Just like the fishers along the western coast of Sumatra who came back to their devastated villages after the tsunami despite their sadness and trauma and ‘experts’ advice to move further away from the coastal line, the livelihood considerations, and the statement of “this is the only job that we know” defied the risk reduction lines. I always find it hard to accept the fact that some disaster risk reduction approaches in Indonesia stopped at the stage of knowledge-building, but never really addressed the crucial part of securing the community’s livelihoods. 

Even in more well-planned volcanic hazard zones such as in villages around Mount Merapi, during Merapi's series of eruptions, many people still went from evacuation shelters to their villages – which are located in dangerous zones - during the daytime to feed their cattle despite the risk of encountering sudden eruptions. Livestock are their important assets. After days in the evacuation shelters are over, those are among the important things that would keep them alive, especially considering that it usually takes time to restore their damaged agricultural lands.  

The slope and the traces of lava flows
We took a short break at the edge of the crater. The mountain slope at our right showed traces of lava flows. It was probably what was left from Ijen's latest eruption in 1936. At our left, Mount Raung stood gracefully under the golden morning sun. Pak Kaoli pointed out another part of Ijen’s peak where sunrise would look best. He paused and took a deep breath. A smile was drawn beneath his thick mustache. His facial expression is the kind of expression that I often see in the faces of local people I met on my journeys: I sensed his pride and affection towards Ijen. 

Mount Raung (the one with the flat peak) from a distance 

The track between Ijen and Paltuding was already bright. As we descended, nature granted us stunning views of forests, hills, mountains, and steep trails. Pak Kaoli greeted everyone that we passed by, in Osing* dialect, Javanese language, English, and even French. “My friends still laugh when I speak English but I am glad that most of my guests understand my English.” He then pointed out everything around us – from grass to trees, to mountains – in English. I thought he had a talent to be a polyglot if only he had a chance to learn. Unfortunately, he only made it to the fourth grade of elementary school.

“I know I am old but I still want to learn a lot of things, especially foreign languages.” Pak Kaoli told us that he took a three-day free English course provided by an NGO. “There are many things that I want to explain to my guests”, he said.  As we walked closer to Paltuding, he played ‘oplosan**’ music from his cellphone and whistled to it. 

I wish that life at Ijen would always be calm, nice, and easy for him...

> Read Ijen Part 1 - Chasing the Blue Fire

*Osing is the vernacular spoken by most native Banyuwangi (a district located in the easternmost part of Java, Indonesia) people. The dialect is rooted in ancient Javanese with some influences from the Balinese language.

**oplosan: the new favorite in Javanese traditional music, mixing modern and traditional musical instruments in upbeat tunes. Oplosan's lyrics are usually quite frank, if not vulgar. 

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