Now reading Paving Over Paddy

Paving Over Paddy

The fight to save Yogyakarta's rice paddies.


Ensconced in his rattan throne on the rural outskirts of Yogyakarta, Central Java’s cultural capital, seventy-seven-year-old shaman Noto Raharjo surveys the trees in his front yard. He warns that those who would pave over this bounteous land should not mess with Dewi Sri, the primordial rice goddess. She has jealously presided over Java’s uniquely rich paddy lands for thousands of years, long before the advent of Islam or even Hinduism, let alone modern industrial capitalism.

When oil drillers punched an exploratory well a few years ago in an expanse of paddy down in Sidoharjo, sixty miles east of here, Dewi Sri wreaked a swift vengeance. The outraged land itself exploded in a geyser of mud that killed twenty and displaced forty thousand others, Noto recalls.

Worse could happen here, he hints, if the Yogyakarta administration goes ahead with its plan to pave over 1,450 acres of prime paddy land in Noto’s village for a proposed $700 million airport.

Rice has been the core staple of life here for centuries. It’s the base of most meals, desserts, and snacks. The cycle of wet paddy cultivation has dictated the rhythms of village life and patterns of socialization for millennia.

In Indonesia, the world’s third biggest rice producing nation, one island—Java—supplies more than half the output of the seventeen thousand–island archipelago. Java’s rice surplus fueled the refinement of Yogyakarta’s feudal Mataram sultanate, which is considered an apex of Indonesian high culture. Even to this day, the sultans continue to reign here under a thin veneer of modern bureaucratized provincial administration; the local governorship is passed through bloodlines.

Indonesia’s late dictator, Suharto, stabilized rice output, which boosted population density, education levels, material expectations, and living costs. These changes set the stage for a surge in foreign investment and industrialization—and now paddy fields vie for space against the garment factories, iron sand smelters, and gated suburbs that these outside forces bring with them.

It’s the intersection of these two contradictory trends that has prompted the airport relocation project. Yogyakarta’s old airport, twenty-five miles away, has become too small to accommodate the outbound flow of “guest workers” and the inbound flow of foreign and Indonesian tourists. “Something terrible will come out of the land if the airport is built,” Noto Raharjo darkly murmured to me.

Less cataclysmic worries preoccupy Pak Sudiono as he begins this year’s first harvest on his quarter acre paddy plot in the neighboring district. Just now he’s more concerned with cuts from the rough rice stalks. As we prepare to wade shin-deep into paddy mud, he cautions his harvest crew to smear our bare legs with eucalyptus oil to guard against lacerations.

Still, where Dewi Sri’s concerned, he’s taking no chances. Before we start cutting the chest-high rice plants, he takes time out to ritualistically offer a bouquet of flowers to the goddess—and to Jesus, just to hedge his bets—for the season’s bounty.

We cut the grain with scythes and hold our bundles over a portable thresher—a trellis-mounted two-foot drum, poked through with nails and rigged to a small motor that rolls at a steady pace to tear the rice seeds from their stalks. The grains, still in their husks, spray against the gunnysack walls that backstop the thresher, and drop onto a white collection tarp below.

Cut, bail, carry, thresh. Repeat. For ten hours.

The fields are alive and our cutting creates refugees. Little fish swim in the irrigation canals. Underfoot, I feel hard-shelled snails and squirming eels. I hear frogs. And as I scythe, small swarms of bugs—green jeweled pentagonal ones, grasshoppers, praying mantises—emerge and flee into still uncut patches of rice.

Pak Sudiono’s neighbors come to lend a hand and in exchange take threshed rice stalks away to feed their cows and goats. You cut as much as you want to take away. The remaining stalk stumps get turned back into the soil with a tractor. “That’s how you get rich mud to plant rice in,” explains Sudiono.

At noon, we break for sego wiwit, the celebratory rice dish farmers share with their neighbors to thank them for pitching in on harvest (and for not stealing the plants beforehand.)

The dish is packed with grated coconut and protein: home-dried sardine, shredded chicken, fried tempeh, and tofu. We chase the meal with turmeric tamarind water and coconut water straight out of the shell. I had forgotten how good food tastes after a day of hard labor.

The agriculture cooperative in Pak Sudiono’s village was chosen to receive a combine thresher, tractor, and planter. The minister of agriculture himself came to rev the engine and thresh the paddy plot right opposite the one we are now harvesting. In barely an hour, the machine accomplished four times what it’s taking our five-member crew a whole ten-hour day to achieve.

Nevertheless, by traditional methods, Sudiono expects to reap 1,250 kilograms this go-around. Enough to pay his workers and feed himself, his wife, his two children, and their families for another four months, until the next harvest is ready.

So who needs a fancy machine? The heavy tractor was fast but it crushed perfectly edible paddy eels, Pak Sudiono relates. And the planter did not impress him at all. “Enjok enjok (crooked)” he sighs, tilting his palms this way and that to mimic the wonky machine-planted paddy lines. A live Javanese farmhand, heir to generations of fine-tuned technique, is far more accurate and agile.

But debating the desirability of mechanized harvest feels academic: for denizens of Palihan and Glagah, in the direct flight path of the eventual runways, a whole way of life is at stake.

The winding road into the two villages is lined with red painted wooden plaques. Without farmers, what will people eat? asks one. Farm or die says another.

Martono is the leader of Wahana Tri Tunggal, the local farmers’ anti-airport association. On the black panel glass along the front of his house is a popular rural area sticker: a picture of Suharto waving and giving a crinkle-eyed smile next to words that translate to “How’s it going?” in colloquial Javanese. On the door a sign reads airport project publicists not welcome.

It’s going rather hard, these days, for the anti-airport farmers, as I learn from Martono and his fellow protester Fajar. In February, they relate, the new head of the local police district came unannounced to Palihan and Glagah, flanked by five hundred officers and military cadets. The cops hung out for four hours, detaining village men, slapping them, drubbing them with batons and elbowing them in the gut. Then, as abruptly as they had come, the whole posse headed back to headquarters.

Even so, the farmers of Glagah and Palihan still won’t let authorities come and measure their paddy fields for compensation packages. To do so would be to admit defeat. And once the one-off compensation windfall was spent, they would have to accept their own entrance into the industrial workforce or “guest worker” legions.

“Money can’t be relied on like land,” Fajar points out. To demonstrate what he means, he walks me out of the village, past a thicket of broad bamboo and a long line of coconut trees, to admire his prized “heritage.” It’s half an acre of lush green shoots that will be ready to reap in a couple of weeks—his last harvest, if the government makes good on its projected airport timetable.

We’re standing amidst a vast, flat valley of paddy belonging to farmers from the six surrounding villages. On the far side of this green swath, a long, undulating mountain ridge runs northeast to Borobudur, the world-famous eighth century Buddhist temple. Early this year, Jusuf Kalla, vice president in Indonesia’s recently elected “populist” regime, came here to announce to the assembled press that “there are no more land issues.” The project broke ground in January, and the airport will be operational by 2020.

That reality is beginning to sink in even for Fajar. His village will be turned into a departure terminal-cum-shopping mall. “The tarmac’s going to be T-shaped, and we’re standing right in the middle of it,” he points out, spreading his arms like the wings of a taxiing jetliner.

But then he turns his palms upward in almost prayerful appeal. The sound of crickets and the smell of cut grass fill the air. On a stalk near the dividing bund between paddies, I spot a wad of pink butterfly eggs.

“So rich,” Fajar whispers, shaking his head.