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Shifting strategy? A reflection of seven years of Lapindo mud

By Anton Novenanto
[This is the original English version of an article published in German entitled “Sieben Jahre des Lapindo-Falls: Eine Rücksau”, translated by Melinda Sudibyo, appeared in Suara Watch Indonesia! Vol. 1 (October), 2013 (pdf file of the German version)]
Lapindo Mud

I understand mud-volcano disaster in East Java as not merely environmental problem, but rather as a political ecological matter. The root of all the aftermath problems of such disaster is related to the political ecological context in Indonesia. It, then, represents a political ecological disaster in Indonesia (Batubara 2010; McMichael 2009;  Schiller et al. 2008).

On May 29, 2006, hot mud erupted in Porong, Sidoarjo as a result of a drilling activity for oil and natural gas exploration of Lapindo Brantas Inc. [Lapindo] in Banjar Panji 1 Well. Until now, the mudflow is still erupting. It becomes a threat for people who live surrounding that area. Nobody can be sure about if it will still occur and stop in the near in the future. A group of geologists predicts that it will occur at least for three decades (Davies et al. 2011), while during fieldwork I heard rumours within people of Porong saying it will remains for a century and some others said that it will not stop at all.

Nevertheless, thousands of people have lost their livelihood. They were forcedly displaced, as it is impossible to return to old homes. The mudflow has engulfed dozens of villages and every public and commercial facility (factories, toll road, schools, government offices, etc.) on those areas. It has forcedly displaced more than 30,000 inhabitants of those villages. Ten factories have been covered by mud so that they must stop their activities, and were forced to dismiss thousands of their workers. The disconnection of Porong-Gempol toll way has disrupted transportation between Tanjung Perak port in Surabaya (East Java capital) and other industrial areas in southern and eastern East Java (e.g., Pasuruan, Probolinggo, Malang, Jember, Lumajang, and Banyuwangi), plus Bali and Lombok. For that reason, the impact of this hazard is not only affecting the local communities in Sidoarjo, but also influencing environmental, social, and economic lives in the other regions in East Java (Badan Pemeriksa Keuangan Republik Indonesia 2007; Danareksa 2006; McMichael 2009; Schiller et al. 2008).

However, the handling of the disaster aftermath has never been well designed since the beginning. The situation is getting worst on the grounds that ambiguous position of the leading figure of Lapindo’s shareholders, Aburizal Bakrie, who was also the Minister of Public Welfare. Once, in February 2008, Aburizal led the cabinet meeting about the handling of the mudflow impacts for 45 minutes, replacing the President Yudhoyono who had to leave earlier (Setyarso et al. 2008). Aburizal was acting, on one hand, as the State representation (Minister of Public Welfare) and, on the other, as prominent figure of The Bakries, Lapindo’s holding company.

Natural vs. Man-Made Disaster

The politicisation of disaster is started from its scientific explanation (see Anderson 2011; Button 2010), it is also occurred in the case of mud-volcano disaster in East Java. Although there are contradicting scientific claims concerning the birth of such mud-volcano, the geologists agreed about the distinction between ‘cause’ and ‘trigger’ (Batubara 2009). For the cause, geologists have agreed that the geological land structures in Sidoarjo, East Java are conducive for the birth of mud-volcano. These geological conditions are proven by the existence of other mud-volcanoes in the surroundings of the one in Porong. But, what was the trigger for that mud-volcano birth? Such question is still highly debated and competed.

According to daily report of Energi Mega Persada [EMP], Lapindo’s parent company, Lapindo started to spud the Banjar Panji 1 Well in Renokenongo Village, Porong, Sidoarjo, on March, 9, 2006 (Adams 2006; Wilson 2006). It means that the drilling was barely four months when mud and gas begun to erupt on May 29, 2006 in Siring Village, about 150-200 meters from Banjar Panji 1 Well. The next day (May 30, 2006), Kompas Daily raised the issue in its national pages by quoting a statement from Syahdun, the foreman of PT Tiga Musim Mas Jaya, the subcontractor for Lapindo’s drilling in Banjar Panji 1 Well, who said that the leaks were linked to the drilling activities in that well (LAS 2006). So, the breach was due to industrial accident. In other words, it is man-made disaster.

The discourse of “man-made disaster” was getting stronger after Medco Brantas [Medco], who had 32 percent shares in the well, issued a letter entitled “Banjar Panji 1 Well Drilling Incident” to Lapindo on June 5, 2006 (Medco 2006). In that letter, Medco claimed that the incident in that exploration well occurred due to the “gross negligence” of the Operator, that is, Lapindo. Medco claimed that Lapindo did not follow the drilling procedure that had been agreed before. Prior to the well incident, Medco had warned Lapindo about the instalment of safety casing as the borehole reached the depth of 8,500 ft. [ca. 2,591 m], but Lapindo neglected that warning. The mud and gas from the Earth’s belly came out from the cracked borehole walls that were not protected by a proper safety casing (cf. LAS 2006). Such claim was strengthened by two reports from third parties—by TriTech Petroleum (Wilson 2006) and by Neal Adams Services (Adams 2006). Both reports were ordered and funded by Medco. Critically, we can assume that Medco was trying to escape from the incident consequences by saying “Lapindo had made a gross negligence”. But, somehow, the discourse of “man-made disaster” has already arisen and has remained as “public truth” in the Lapindo case.

In mid-October 2008, there was a meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geology (AAPG) in Cape Town, South Africa, in which one of the panels focused on discussing the birth of mud-volcano in East Java. As there was no final conclusion, the forum took a vote to decide about the trigger of that mud-volcano birth. More than half of the voters (42 of 74 people who had rights to vote in that conference) voted for the drilling argument; three voted for the earthquake argument; 13 voted that the mud-volcano’s birth was combination of both drilling and earthquake; and the remains said that the discussion was not to be concluded (Batubara 2009; Mudhoffir 2008). However, voting mechanism is a non-scientific process of decision-making; rather, it is political mechanism. Such mechanism of deciding scientific truth has downgraded the scientific process of finding about the nature of a natural phenomenon. One could say that the voting is a totally scandal for the geological, scientific forum. Thus, the reproduction of the voting result that had been winning the drilling argument could be used a boomerang for the argument’s proponents. The critical question arises as to how can in a scientific forum exist on the basis of power and domination of the majority over the minority? Scientific debate has to be solved in a scientific way, that is, by doing further scientific research, not by voting. In short, expert debate and its conclusion have muddied the truth about the mud-volcano (cf. Batubara 2009).

Batubara (2009) gives two different scenarios laid behind that expert debate. First, if the geologists had agreed to the drilling argument, then all the liabilities caused by the mud-volcano would be borne to Lapindo solely; and second, if the experts had agreed to the earthquake argument, then the government would cover all the liabilities. According to Presidential Decree No 14 Year 2007 (Perpres 14), Lapindo had to pay up to IDR 3.8 trillion [c.a. USD 241m] for the purchasing of the impacted lands and buildings as per March 22, 2007. However, since the mudflow has not stopped yet, the impacted areas have grown larger and larger. Schiller et al. argue that it is obvious that Lapindo, with its modalities, tried to withdraw all the responsibilities related to the mud-volcano with “a substantial public relations effort using the mass media, academic conferences and seminars, and paid ‘experts’ to tell its side of the story” (Schiller et al. 2008: 62–63); that is, framing the mudflow not as man-made disaster but as natural disaster.

Distorted Information

One strategy for the successful construct of environmental issues is to control public debate in the media (see Button 1996, 2002; Gamson & Modigliani 1989; Hannigan 1995: 77–78). In mid-2008, The Bakries occupied Surabaya Post Daily’s shares, one of the prestigious newspapers in Surabaya. The Bakries set two prominent figures of Minarak Lapindo Jaya[1] (Bambang Prasetyo Widodo and Gesang Budiarjo) as the managing directors of the newspaper (Tapsell 2010: 9). After that acquisition, some journalists were complaining about the change of the organisation culture until the naming of such event. Dhimam Abror Djuraid, Surabaya Post’s chief editor, the Post was very conscious in naming that event. Referring to Lapindo’s legal status in this incident, Djuraid said in an interview:

If I called it Lumpur Lapindo [Lapindo Mud], I’m attributing all the guilt to Lapindo. But the facts are not that simple. The court trial is still in progress, it hasn’t been decided that Lapindo is guilty for this disaster. (in Novenanto 2009: 17)

Similarly, such effort to not using the term Lumpur Lapindo was found in other media group (television) affiliated to The Bakries. Karni Ilyas argues that the naming of a disaster event must refer to the place, not the company. Ilyas gave BhopalChernobyl, and Buyat, for examples (Ambarwati, 2007 in Andriarti 2010: 80). At the time of the interview [2007], Ilyas was Anteve’s chief editor. Recently, he is TVOne’s news director in chief. Both Anteve and TVOne are subsidiaries of The Bakries.

Both Ilyas and Djuraid assured that the naming of the incident, as Lumpur Sidoarjo, was not under direct order from the owner of their media, The Bakries. However, they were very aware that the term Lumpur Lapindo was highly associated with the making of public opinion concerning the full responsibility of Lapindo in the mud incident.

In both media (TVOne and Surabaya Post), there has been “special treatment” [perlakuan khusus] for any news about Lapindo. There is an internal censor mechanism for any news about Lapindo.[2] Andriarti (2010) tracked down that some TVOne’s journalists—from reporter level to producer level—had been trying very hard to stick idealistically with journalism principles in making news on Lapindo. Still, the organisation rules [the structure] of TVOne were too strong for those actors’ manoeuvres. Based on her interviews with some journalists of TVOne, Andriarti (2010: 112–115) discovered that any news materials about Lapindo were “being monitored” [selalu diawasi]. For such news, as it could be predicted, the people in Jakarta office would take any measures needed to secure the image of TVOne’s shareholders. The similar internal censorship can also be found in the Surabaya Post, as the chief editor has decided not to write any (bad) news about Lapindo (Novenanto 2009: 40; Tapsell 2010: 9). A Surabaya Post journalist, confirmed this position, as that journalist said:

It is true that we have been told to not write bad things about Lapindo in relation to the mud-volcano. Bosses have said, “don’t write the details”, like if there is a rally against Lapindo. Mostly we are pressured to use sources from our own company, those that are also involved with Lapindo. (in Tapsell 2010: 9)


Elsewhere I had argue, instead of constructing a concrete imagination, the media are deconstructing imagination of Lapindo case (Novenanto 2008, 2009, 2010a, 2010b). In addition, the more complicated Lapindo case represented in media, the more public surfeits to follow the detail and the origin of such case (Lim 2013: 13–14). Such condition is beneficial for The Bakries and Lapindo.

According to my observation, I witness that most people, especially new comers to Lapindo case, only see the case partially. Bakrie factor is the easiest to see and the most appealing element in the case. Most of them are using Lapindo case as ammunition to attack Aburizal’s political and economy agendas, but less of them are focusing on the completion of the disaster aftermath, the comprehensive handlings of the victims, and further risk reduction mitigation strategies for the ecological degradations in Sidoarjo.

The media reportages concerning Lapindo case are whirling public opinions around the issues of unfinished payments, Lapindo legal status, and the controversy of the trigger (see Suryandaru 2009). I argue, although the Lapindo case is a facticity, highly newsworthy, yet there is no single media organisation which has a clear agenda setting about how this case should be solved. Thus, the reportages on Lapindo case are only re-writing old issues and, if any, emerging new problems.

I totally understand why such conditions occurred. Many people have exhausted in following the case. Many activists have declared their losses of defending the case on behalf of the victims. It needs a special militancy for anyone who wants to study the case. However, I propose that Lapindo case could not be resolved by hit-and-run tactic; rather, I argue it should be cracked down from inside, the Trojan horse tactic. But, all in all, my subsequent question would be: who wants to be sacrificed by sent inside that Trojan horse, without being defeated by the enemy first?


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[1] Minarak Lapindo Jaya (MLJ) is a new company, established to deal with any matter related to the transactions of Sidoarjo residents’ lands and buildings. Based on the villagers’ documents, they mentioned that the transactions were between the villagers (as the sellers) and MLJ, not Lapindo Brantas or The Bakries (as the buyer).
[2] However, internal censorship had also been a measure for other directors-related-news about Century affair, which was connected to Erick Thohir, chief director of TVOne (Andriarti 2010: 109).

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