The city of Yogyakarta, locally known as Jogja, is located about an hour’s flight east of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. Mostly a student and retiree city with around 400,000 residents, the city’s informal settlements are nowhere near as destitute or as prolific as in larger Indonesian cities like Surabaya or Jakarta. Nevertheless informal settlements persist, especially along the rivers and near the train tracks. Most of these “kampung” have “modern” stucco or concrete buildings and some have plumbing and electricity. But the problems that accompany a lack of legal land title continue.
Despite the persistence of informal land tenure in Indonesia, a strong bureaucracy and governance structures pervade deeply into the lives of all Indonesians including those in informal settlements. State control has been ingrained into the organisational structures of the cities and villages of Indonesia through a strict hierarchy of state power with the president and parliament at the top down to the desa (in rural areas) or kelurahan (in urban areas) at the bottom. Both kelurahan and desa are usually translated as “village” though the kelurahan is actually a district within a city with a head appointed by the mayor, while the desa has an elected head. Even below the kelurahan, which normally consists of around a thousand individuals, cities are broken into unofficial but incredibly pervasive and standardised bureaucracies that reach their smallest unit in the 10- to 12-household rukun tetangga (RT, pronounced “air-tay” in Indonesian), the literal translation for which is “harmonious neighbour”, though most people translate it as “neighbourhood”.
The RT was designed for tight social control under Japanese occupation. These days, much of that tight control of the neighbourhood still exists with the RT acting as a sort of all-encompassing neighbourhood association of a few dozen households. While entrenched in the hierarchies of a well-defined local bureaucracy, the RT also provides a ready organisational unit for small-scale governance and community-building, especially after the decentralisation laws of 2001 that have redistributed power away from the national government in Jakarta toward local governance.
The women of Jatimulyo Baru
The RT of Jatimulyo Baru (or New Jatimulyo) has questionable legal right to exist; the land titles of the residents are essentially non-existent. In the wet season, their homes flood from the river. Their plumbing is of poor quality. Most residents are lower middle-class at most, have little education, and work in service jobs like driving becak (cycle rickshaws) or selling mie or nasi (noodles or rice) from food carts. Though the residents of Jatimulyo Baru live in a city that is considered wealthy, their Bahasa Indonesia (the national language of Indonesia, though the first language of few outside Jakarta) is strained in daily conversation and they converse mostly in the local language, Javanese.
The women of Jatimulyo Baru have managed to achieve some quite remarkable strides for their community, despite all this. The community fervour for change grew out of their arisan, an activity that is extremely common for the women of an RT to take part in which sees the pooling of a small amount of money each week (maybe 50 cents or a dollar in an area like Jatimulyo Baru) and then the selection of a winner of all the collected money each month. While it is not at all out of the ordinary for women to use their arisan earnings toward home improvement, especially among lower-class families, the women of Jatimulyo Baru began to call for more than home improvement, namely for community improvement.
By the time the women of Jatimulyo Baru reached out for help from trained architects at a local NGO known as Arkom (short for Arsitek Komunitas or Community Architects) in late 2011, they had already built a coalition dedicated to community development. While many of Indonesia’s informal settlements have received funding from the national government for large-scale projects that seek to improve roads or plumbing, few have taken the planning process as wholly into their own hands as the residents of Jatimulyo Baru. Beyond the arisan, which has become a de facto savings system for home improvement, money is set aside each month for neighbourhood governance and improvement.
With Arkom, the 10 or so women of Jatimulyo Baru took their neighbourhood into their own hands. After a bit of training, the women used cartographic methods to take the first step that the government would not — they made a map of their community.
Within the highly patriarchal local bureaucracy, and culture, of Indonesia, the fact that women made the map may be considered striking. One of the women said that she believed that women simply didn’t have the skills to mapmake before Arkom’s involvement in their community; those sorts of things were a man’s job.
Once the map was made however, the community gathered to list the merits of their neighbourhood as well as items that needed to be fixed. The items in need of work for the community were in many ways unsurprising to anyone who has ever spent time in an informal settlement. The land rights are loosely defined, though the residents of Jatimulyo Baru have been successful thus far in keeping evictions at bay, mostly because of the relative benevolence of the Jogja government (though it is widely acknowledged that there have been plans for years to destroy Jatimulyo Baru along with other informal settlements along the riverfront to clear the way for tourism). The plumbing is poor, though not nearly as bad as in many other Jogja informal settlements. The neighbourhood floods every year, despite investments in a small levee.
Other items were less obvious, the need for a community centre chief among them.
Building a centre and a community
After the community pinpointed an appropriate location for a community centre, overlooking the river in a large clearing across from the homes, the members of Arkom drew up some plans. Designed with sustainable and user-friendly bamboo, the women went about budgeting and collecting money to buy supplies while the men began working late into the night and early in the morning to finish the structure. The results are there for all to see in the photos above.
It took over six months to complete and everyone in Jatimulyo Baru hastily adds that the building is not quite done yet; it only needs a few finishing touches. It seems that the process of constructing a community centre has done just as much as the actual edifice to engender community. While the roads, sewage and other infrastructure passed down to the residents in massive (and paternalistic) “aid” packages may indeed have lead to new roads and new sewerage that prove useful, I wonder if the top-down approach only serves to further disempower the individuals that were meant to be helped.
Funding, infrastructure, and urban opportunity
Funding and aid of this large-scale approach for “slum projects” (as many in the West will call projects that seek to help those in informal settlements) has skyrocketed in recent years from organisations like UN-HABITAT and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Indonesian government. There are, by some accounts, a billion humans living in informal settlements in this world and that is a billion too many. At the same time, the intractable problems of informal settlements mean that good solutions are hard to come by. The success of Jatimulyo Baru has attracted the attention of the Indonesian government and foreign aid donors. And the women and men of Jatimulyo Baru deserve all the recognition they can get for the amazing work they have done to improve their community. But I wonder how much we can expect the successes of Jatimulyo Baru to translate to other communities, even in Indonesia where similar bureaucratic structures exist. Certainly Arkom has worked with other communities in Jogja to differing levels of success.
But overall, informal settlements are complex and diverse. They exist for a number of reasons, the chief of which is that city dwelling, even in marginalised spaces, represent opportunity in the developing world. How to catalyse that urban opportunity is not a question I am prepared to answer, but it will mean the difference between cyclical urban poverty and a sustainable, just future.