Post-Disaster Land Grabs

SBY’s administration is happy to announce 12 families from the volcano-affected areas in Java have transmigrated to Kalimantan. But I am suspicious. Having lived in Bali for two months now, and being an immigrant myself, I get a sense that it might be quite a lofty goal for a farmer – who has lived his whole life in Java and has all his family in Java – to move to another island overnight. For people who live still traditional lives, place is more than one’s home, but one’s identity and livelihood.

Yet when whole villages are uprooted by natural disasters policymakers are forced to ask, “Where should the evacuees live?” Surely, the camp in a Padang or Yogyakarta stadium is no long-term solution. As it turns out, many evacuees do not return to their land.

I hope that critical minds realize that the recent pushes to relocate evacuees may be less than well-intentioned pleas to persuade irrational villagers. In the Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein argues that the shock of a natural disaster creates the rare opportunity for policymakers to implement radical free-market policies. Take a look at Klein’s description of the land grabs that occurred in the 2004 tsunami-hit coastal villages:

“All the tsunami-struck countries imposed “buffer zones” preventing villagers from rebuilding on the coasts, freeing up the land for increased development. (In Aceh, Indonesia, the zones were two kilometers wide, though the government was eventually forces to repeal the edict.)

A year after the tsunami, the respected NGO ActionAid, which monitors foreign aid spending, published the results of an extensive survey of fifty thousand tsunami survivors in five countries. The same patterns repeated everywhere: residents were barred from rebuilding, but hotels were showered with incentives; temporary camps were miserable militarized holding pens, and almost no permanent reconstruction had been done; entire ways of life were being extinguished. It concluded that the setbacks could not be chalked up to the usual villains of poor communication, underfunding or corruption. The problems were structural and deliberate: “Governments have largely failed in their responsibility to provide land for permanent housing,” the report concluded. “They have stood by or been complicit as land has been grabbed and coastal communities pushed aside in favor of commercial interests.”

For Klein, the worst case was the Maldives, where the Gayoom administration announced just one year after the evacuation of “un-safe islands”, that thirty-five of them, would be available to be leased to resorts for up to fifty years. Meanwhile, on the so-called “safe” islands, unemployment was rampant, and violence was breaking out between the newcomers and the original residents.
In the Maldives “the storm did such an effective job of clearing the beach, a process of displacement and gentrification that would normally unfold over years took place in a matter of days or weeks. What it looked like was hundreds of thousands of poor, brown-skinned people (the fishing people deemed “unproductive” by the World Bank) being moved against their wishes to make room for the ultra-rich, mostly light-skinned people (the “high-yield” tourists).”

I am not suggesting that Merapi evacuees should return and risk the unpredictability of Merapi’s eruptions. I am suggesting that there should be more recognition that the transmigration of the evacuees is not always the best option. Beware the hidden motives of policymakers who automatically suggest the relocation of evacuees in the name of safety.

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