In recent years, large eruptions from Indonesia’s most active stratovolcano, Mount Merapi (Gunung Merapi; Fire Mountain) on the island of Java, have led to realignments in rural-urban migration flows and shifts in the livelihoods and aspirations of thousands of affected residents. Living with threat and vulnerability is not new to the communities that call the slopes of Mount Merapi home. The volcano, situated in one of the most densely populated and well-connected parts of Indonesia, has erupted more than 70 times since 1548, on average every 8 to 15 years (Mei and Lavigne, 2013, p.172). Over the centuries, Merapi residents have acquired local knowledge to manage this uncertainty, underpinned by a spiritual understanding of the volcano’s reciprocal nature as a destroyer and renewer of life.
This traditional knowledge system has been both unsettled and reinforced by fundamental changes to Indonesia’s governance framework. The initiation of a nationwide democratic decentralization program in 2001 devolved key areas of central state authority and resources to the sub-national scale. Decentralization, or ‘otonomi daerah/ regional autonomy’ as it is called in Indonesia, empowered sub-national administrations in ways that encouraged competition between local governments while making inter-jurisdictional cooperation more difficult in times of disaster. The Merapi area is administratively divided into two provinces (the Special Region of Yogyakarta and Central Java) and five sub-provincial jurisdictions (the city of Yogyakarta, Sleman, Gunungkidul, Kulonprogo and Bantul) that are collectively home to more than 33.8 million people. Alongside these strengthened local governments, line ministries and a centrally coordinated disaster management agency have retained considerable if sometimes ambiguous and overlapping authority at the sub-national scale in the event of disaster.
Violent Merapi eruptions in 2006 and 2010 have highlighted the complexities of this convergence of centralised and decentralized governmental authority. Some 11,000 people were made homeless by a significant eruption shortly before the devastating tectonic earthquake of May 2006 in Yogyakarta. Then in November 2010, the biggest eruption since the 1870s killed 302 people and displaced around 148,000 as lava buried or burned almost 3,000 homes in six villages (Mahdi 2011; p.16).
On the one hand, unresolved tensions and intersections between centralized and decentralized governmental authorities have compromised the efficacy of disaster response and recovery programs in the Merapi area. Poor coordination between the provincial administrations of Yogyakarta and Central Java over centrally-allocated disaster funds and logistical resources has impeded long-term recovery processes and exacerbated inter-jurisdictional competition (Triyana 2013; p.117). For instance, when I drove to Mount Merapi in November 2013, the evacuation road on the mountain in the Special Province of Yogyakarta was mired in potholes and impassable 5 kilometres below the volcano’s summit crater. By contrast, the connecting road leading into Central Java was smoothly paved and well maintained from the beginning of the administrative border. The central government, too, seemed confused over how best to position itself in relation to local dynamics by pledging, for example, compensation schemes for Merapi residents without consulting local stakeholders first to find out what they needed (Sulistiyanto 2014, p.127). Among local and central government authorities alike, personalised power relations and networks of patronage confounded rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts as the Merapi disaster was used by opportunists at all levels of government for political gain.
On the other hand, Indonesia’s democratic decentralization process has empowered non-governmental organisations and civil society actors to mobilise in innovative new ways in disaster preparedness, response and recovery programs. Decentralization has also paved the way for interactive learning possibilities between state and civil society actors in developing more inclusive disaster governance agendas in urban and rural contexts. For example, in and around the city of Yogyakarta a form of ‘disaster theatre’ has proliferated through ‘disaster mitigation simulations’ (simulasi mitigasi bencana) that combine state resources and expertise with local knowledge and active civil society participation. Incentivised by the chance to borrow the city’s emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire trucks, as well as two-way radios, neighbourhood residents can collectively simulate a disaster event (for example, by lighting a bonfire on non-residential land) and practise relocating to a given evacuation site. These disaster simulations have a carnival atmosphere about them as children and adults dress in fake blood and bandages and vie to ride in emergency vehicles to the evacuation site, where a feast is shared by community residents and local state officials.
Importantly, democratic decentralization has pressured local governments in the Merapi area to become increasingly responsive to the voices of disaffected residents. After the 2010 eruption, more than 4,000 people chose to return to their rural homes in designated danger zones on the slopes of Merapi rather than participate in the government’s mandatory permanent resettlement program in nearby towns. Deprived for extended periods of basic state services such as electricity, running water and even a teacher for their school, these residents felt neglected and “like criminals”. Through a combination of media and NGO pressure as well as their own strategies of resilience and social protest, however, the Merapi residents have eventually forced a softening in local government attitudes toward them. While local government authorities are by no means uniformly supportive of these Merapi residents who stayed on the mountain, decentralization has allowed a certain flexibility to enter into state approaches to disaster governance that could translate over time into the development of more responsive policy choices.
This raises questions, then, about the extent to which democratic decentralization can facilitate greater mutual learning opportunities between official discourses and local knowledge. Can the gap be bridged between the state’s emphasis on the moment of the hazard of the volcanic eruption and community-based approaches that rely more on the longer periods in between eruptions? And, will decentralized disaster governance fundamentally realign the ways in which urban and rural residents prepare for, respond to and recover from Merapi eruptions? These are questions I hope to find answers to as I continue research in this vulnerable and incredibly resilient part of Asia.
Mahdi, Paramita (2011). Huntara Merapi. Disaster Temporary Housing. Efforts on Post-Disaster Temporary Settlements (Yogyakarta: Housing Resource Center, July).
Mei, Estuning Tyas Wulan and Lavigne, Franck (2012). ‘Influence of the institutional and socio-economic context for responding to disasters: case study of the 1994 and 2006 eruptions of the Merapi volcano, Indonesia’, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, vol.361, pp.171-86.
Miller, Michelle Ann (2013). “Decentralizing Indonesian City Spaces as New ‘Centers’”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37(3), pp.834-848.
Sulistiyanto, Priyambudi (2014). ‘The politics of the Mount Merapi eruption in Central Java, Indonesia’ in Minako Sakai, Edwin Jurriëns, Jian Zhang and Alec Thornton, eds. Disaster Relief in the Asia Pacific: Agency and Resilience (Abingdon and New York: Routledge), pp.119-131.
Triyana, Heribertus Jaka (2013). ‘The implementation of natural disaster management program in Indonesia between 2007 and 2013’, Mimbar Hukum, 25(1), pp.102-122.