Successes and Compromises

Hiya readers! This is the first attempt at journaling that I’ve ever actually kept up with, which both surprises and satisfies me. It’s actually something I look forward to doing now. In such a foreign place it’s easy to sit around and not interact with people, staying in my room when I’m not working. I was in this agitated liminality that felt really suffocating. But I found a gym I like, I look forward to walking to work in the morning, and I listen to podcasts, write, and read on the weekends (with the occasional YouTube binge). It’s nice. Nicer than it was for awhile– no matter how much you love adventure, there’s a massive difference between touring a place and living somewhere. Living requires stability, routine, and laundry. Personally, the biggest obstacles that I’ve encountered here are the prosaic ones I’d find moving to any new city. I’m definitely out of my element, and was desperately grasping at normalcy for awhile, but I am tougher than I originally gave myself credit for. But of course, the extra difficulty of not knowing the language very well doesn’t exactly help (which was daunting to deal with at first).

In terms of my research, I was a little more prepared to encountered some delays there. Everything in development is so much more open-ended, and cooperating with multiple stakeholders, including the government, means that I don’t have the authority to structure everything as I had originally wanted. I want to be clear though, I definitely have had a lot more than I thought I would and the city has been BEYOND helpful, but I’m only here for 2.5 months and typical data collection time for a project like this is a 1 year minimum.

I met with Pak Purnomo, Mas Luthfi, Bu Wiwiek and Mbak Mega on the Friday following the 100RC team’s departure. That kicked off the first phase of research (the secondary data collection), which is essentially conducting a preliminary survey of the data that already exists and is accessible. I have been just accumulating the data from the city (within various departments), the Department of Urban and Regional Planning’s data, and some data from IUCCE, as well as downloading open source data from Open Street Map, CIESIN, and NASA– most of which is national with some sets that are sub-national (though no sub-city data, which is to be expected). So since Monday, May 30th I have been working at the University Diponegoro, in the planning office (MPWK) and their SpaceLab, which has computers with GIS on it. At the very beginning they gave me a bunch of data to sort of sift through (80% of which is in Bahasa), and I have just been working with it since– which, unfortunately took a lot longer than I expected it to. But I needed to see the secondary data available in order to transition into the next phase of work, so I’ve spent the past week working on identifying and actually  following through to the next steps.

Last Friday, I met again with the whole team to update everyone on the data that I have, the data that I would like to have, the people I need to connect with in order to jump-start the second phase of the project– the primary data collection. There obviously needed to be some sort of direction, which I left a little open-ended in my proposal so that I could better adjust to the city’s needs and priorities. However, in talking to Bu Wiwiek on Tuesday, we narrowed the possibilities down to the topics of dengue hemorrhagic fever, flooding, mobility, and public space. All of the topics are semi-related so we decided to focus the in-depth analysis on these four major pillars of risk as they interact in space.

The only two obstacles are, as I mentioned, language and accessibility of data. In terms of language, I am learning some Bahasa but not nearly fast enough to work through all of the data– plus, it’s not really my main objective in coming here. However, Bu Wiwiek assigned three students to help me in translating the docs I have as well as the spatial data that’s in Bahasa so I don’t have to put everything through google translate and hope it makes sense. This is INCREDIBLY helpful, but the students had final exams last week, so I understandably haven’t been able to get much help from them… but I will need their help the most next week, when I plan to conduct semi-structured interviews, go-alongs, and community reports in an at-risk coastal village named Kemijen, working with the Hysteria arts collective and the Peka Kota team. I had come into this project wanting to conduct citizen-generated maps of 3 neighborhoods in Semarang, but I’ve had to make a lot of compromises surrounding this ambitious side to the project. Let me explain that in a bit.*

The second obstacle was/is a bit more difficult to overcome, simply because a lot of the data that I need is slightly more sensitive than slope and population density. I asked Bu Wiwiek if the city had any spatial data on zone planning and legal tenure, and her first response was “Yes, but forget it.” I told her that any and all of the data that I use will be encrypted and protected, so as to protect the citizens and the city itself– I only need that data for a larger analysis of the informal adaptations made and to understand the pattern of those adaptations. I can’t even use the data if it would be unethically used to track people. She said perhaps I can explain that to Pak Pur and Luthfi so that I can see to going through the administrative hoops to get that data which, if I could see it, would have been incredible. But alas, while a lot of the basic information is available, the more sensitive information is a lot more helpful to me. As it turns out, it really is impossible to get any (even restricted) access to tenure data in the city (for reasons that I aim to discuss in full in another blog post). However, Pak Purnomo was incredibly generous and gave me the NJOP spatial data of the city!!!!

The NJOP is a list of property values in the city, which is used to identify the property taxes on the land. This offers a really reasonable alternative to finding tenure data, because– though it may not correlate 100% of the time– often, low property values correspond with poorer or more difficult places to live. Interestingly enough, this value is also used to calculate the government’s compensation to property owners in the case of eminent domain– and is almost always lower than the actual, true value of the property. This is because most people will approve a lower valuation of their land in order to legally pay lower taxes– this leaves them unprotected in the case of eminent domain. This exact problem is currently taking place in Kemijen and in the Kota Lama (or “old city”) of Semarang.

Semarang used to be the capital of Java during the Dutch colonial era– there is an incredibly beautiful “old city” to prove it. However, in the past century, the old city has been left to abandon– people moved in to unclaimed buildings on abandoned land and built their livelihoods there (despite not having formal, secure tenure). Indonesia has a law that states if a person lives on land for over 30 years without a formal lease and can prove it, the land is theirs unless somebody else contests it with a better claim. In the past few years, Semarang has looked more seriously into the potential of getting the “old city” registered as a UNESCO Heritage Site in order to stimulate more tourism in the city. (see my blog on tourism here). This means investing in restoring the beautiful old buildings and streets there, as well as uprooting the hundreds of families that lived there for decades. They’re being compensated, but not nearly at the level they deserve.

But, at the risk of sounding crass, this is not just a one-sided issue of fairness. The Kota Lama is incredibly beautiful, and most of these incredible buildings are either abandoned or really poorly maintained– if I were the mayor, I would really want to restore the buildings as well. It could potentially bring more tourism, business, and inspire more interest in the city’s history. My friend Amie (or Amy, I’m not sure how to spell it) is a student of Heritage Studies writing her thesis on this process. Talking to her and my friend Adin with the Hysteria arts collective (check them out) brought up an interesting debate on value. How do we place quantitative value on heritage and history? Likewise, is that value placed over citizens’ livelihoods? Who decides, and how can the restoration of buildings be distributed equitably? (Can it?) There is a clear economic value to restoring the buildings to bring more tourism, business, and research to the city– all with a small cost to the city, comparatively. But how does one calculate the value of a person’s home? Property value is one thing, but history, networks, and livelihood are another. Would paying more money to people being displaced actually make the process fairer?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I am skeptical to jump to any conclusions based in emotional, gut reaction. People had to be displaced for the Shenandoah National Park to be created (and it may have not been an ideal situation), but the park is one of the best decisions the State of Virginia ever made– now a thriving place of conservation, research, and one of my favorite places in the world.

*Let’s Talk Compromises

I entered into this project with a brave and ambitious heart. I had planned to conduct citizen-generated mapping exercises in 3 neighborhoods in Semarang, but I’ve had to make a lot of compromises.

I realized that a project involving such a complex ecosystem of stakeholders, politics, and resources in such a short time is silly (plus most of the volunteers that I would use will be on vacation for 2/3 of my time here)— so I have found a really good alternative working with a local organization, artists collective, and community activists in Kemijen, a kampung that floods every time the tide comes in. These people have been working together on open-source mapping the area, so I plan to analyze that data, go-along with community members, mappers, organizers to see how the process works, develop a workshop for community-driven policy suggestions (to be presented at their festival on the 29th of July), and discuss the process of the mapping exercise to explore the informal adaptations made by the community in combatting environmental and anthropogenic shocks and stresses, as well as the complexity of the relationship between citizen and society in a “young” democracy.

The village of Kemijen offers such a perfect example of all of the biggest issues plaguing Indonesia and the city, I was really excited to hear about it, because it literally makes my work 10x more feasible in the time that I’m doing it. They are at the vertex of climate change’s most urgent shocks, are an older village that is in some serious need of infrastructural updates, and house many of the city’s poorest without formal leases, in a complex state of legal ambiguity–but all this doesn’t keep them from being highly active politically. The mapping exercise began a few months ago and they’re towards the end of their process– with their work culminating in a festival on the 29th of July. This means I can still observe the process of this type of development exercise without needing to mount a full-scale workshop and project (that typically takes multiple months) on my own.

**Plus, the Kemijen kampung leader gave me his personal number and invited me over to break the fast with his family after ramadan (which is like Christmas here, so I was flattered).

I’ve learned so much– most of it about feasibility and patience in this type of work. It’s so, so important. If I were a Type A person who couldn’t handle ambiguity/uncertainty with grace and patience, I definitely wouldn’t have gotten this far. But the ability to maintain tenacity in the hope that patience will yield results has proven to be my most important strength. Not my intelligence, nor ambition (which definitely comes from naïveté). Work in development is as rewarding as it is uncertain.