Indramayu. Another month of plying his becak in the capital city and Sarjo will be coming back to this West Java district to harvest the rice ripening on his 1,400 square meter paddy.
Sarjo hopes the harvest will fetch him a timely $325 to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan from July 20 to Aug. 18 before returning to becak-pulling in Jakarta.
Mona, who works as an entertainer in Jakarta’s “Princess Entertainment” nightclub, is also preparing to return home for Ramadan.
“But, my boss has warned me that if I leave for Indramayu without completing my contract I don’t need to come back.”
“Entertainment work is not easy,” says Lisa, another Indramayu girl who works in a Jakarta disco. “I am expected to encourage guests to spend money and for that I need to be attractive, even after staying up night after night keeping drunken clients happy.”
Lisa manages to send Rp one million ($100) every month to her parents. “They are too old to work on the farm, so they depend on my earnings,” she explained.
Many residents of Indramayu, one of Indonesia’s “rice bowls,” are seasonal migrants to the city where there are opportunities to earn cash by pedaling becaks, running street food stalls and working as construction laborers.
Indramayu’s women, too, are part of the exodus to the cities, working the nightspots, massage houses and the entertainment businesses. Those who are not so lucky end up as domestic workers. Either way, they are vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse.
The shuttling between Indramayu and Jakarta is dictated by the rice cropping cycles. The last months of the year, September, October, November and December, referred to as the “ber” period for the last syllable of those months, form the rainy season when rice seedlings are planted.
Four months later, the paddy is ready for harvest — at least that used to be the case until the cycle began to go awry with changing climate and erratic rainfall.
“We can no longer tell when it is going to start raining or when the rice is ready for harvesting, and so we just continue working in the city until we are sure,” says Sarjo. “It costs money and time traveling between Indramayu and Jakarta.”
Over the last few years, rice crops have been failing in Indramayu, not only because of dry conditions but also because unseasonal downpours have inundated paddies, affecting the quality and quantity of harvests.
In a 2007 report titled “Indonesia and Climate Change: Current Status and Policies,” the World Bank warned that the country could become vulnerable to both prolonged droughts and unseasonal downpours.
These conditions, according to the report, could lead to changes in water supply and soil moisture, negatively impacting agriculture. Additionally, the Bank warned of a rise in sea levels and saline ingress into coastal farming zones like Indramayu.
Erratic weather in Indramayu affects jobs in Jakarta, which are often on contract.
“Until a few years ago, we could be sure of our schedules and sign up for specified months,” says Sudira, a construction laborer.
With incomes from both rice farming and the seasonal work in the cities uncertain, many of Indramayu’s farmers have fallen into debt and been forced to sell off their small holdings, weakening their links to the land.
Lisa is unsure what will happen to the family’s rice fields after her parent’s become too old to work them, worrying that the land may have to be sold off. “Already, I am spending more time in Jakarta than in Indramayu.”
A study conducted by the Fahmina Institute, a non-governmental organization (NGO) working on community empowerment, shows that 70 percent of Indramayu’s 11,000 hectares of paddy fields are now owned by about 30 percent of its 125,000 people. The rest have become landless farmers, struggling to make a living in the cities. Many fall prey to human trafficking networks that have links in wealthy Asian countries like Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East.
According to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, a major international NGO, over the last three years, at least 1,500 girls from Indramayu have ended up in Japan as sex workers.
Supali Kasim, chairman of the Indramayu Art Council, explains that female migration from Indramayu goes back to a prolonged drought in the 1960s. That started a trend of women leaving Indramayu in droves to find work in the cities, depriving the rice farms of extra hands.
“Nowadays, women who cannot find work as entertainers in Japan are ‘exported’ as domestic workers to the Middle Eastern countries,” Kasim said.
Currently, there are 93,000 Indramayu women working overseas, going by figures available with insurance companies of which the women are clients.
A student organization in Indramayu, ‘Sarinah’, has petitioned the government to intervene and create conditions that would encourage the district’s women avoid having to look for risky situations abroad.
Warisyah, a female farmer who has stayed back in Indramayu, said the government could start by ensuring that rice farming is viable.
“They can build irrigation networks so that we don’t have to be so dependent on rainfall,” she said.
So far, the government’s response has been to hasten completion of the controversial 900,000 Jatigede mega dam, capable of irrigating Indramayu and adjacent districts. But the dam is also expected to submerge five districts and 39 villages along with 3,000 hectares of rice fields.
In 1988, the World Bank cancelled plans to allocate 37 million dollars to the dam — planning for which began in 1963 — following doubts about its consequences to residents and the environment, but the government has pressed on and the dam is due to be operational by 2014.
By that year more of Indramayu’s men and women are likely to have moved to Jakarta and other cities, many never to return.
Inter Press Service