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Harry Surjadi: From swords to cell phones

  • Harry Bhaskara

    The Jakarta Post

Brisbane, Australia | Tue, June 18, 2013 | 12:19 pm
Harry Surjadi: From swords to cell phones

JP/Harry Bhaskara

Farmers in remote villages in West Kalimantan have turned their cell phones into formidable weapons to fight land grabbing, illegal logging and illicit land clearing.

For years violation after violation, often committed by plantation companies, has gone unpunished and farmers were forced from their land.Things began to change last year after some farmers were mobilized to fight back; not with swords, but with words.

Harry Surjadi, a Jakarta-based freelance journalist and media trainer, spent a year in the province offering journalism training to farmers. While in Brisbane to collect an award from the University of Queensland he spoke to The Jakarta Post.

The Communication for Social Change award from the University of Queensland, which focuses on the creative use of communication technology, is administered by the school of journalism and communication at the university. It presents awards in two categories '€” organization and individual '€” both receive a A$2,500 prize.

This year'€™s organization category, presented late last month, was bestowed upon the Cambodia Centre for Human Rights for its website sithi.org and its work to monitor and document human rights problems in Cambodia. In total there were 65 nominations from 27 countries.

Surjadi, a former journalist from the Kompas daily, is the second Indonesian to win the individual award. In 2010 the award went to Tosca Santoso of 68H Radio Jakarta.

So far Surjadi'€™s project has seen a total of 160 farmers graduate from the course.

'€œMany are only middle school graduates but are really keen students,'€ he said, '€œalthough they learned fast only a dozen of them eventually became citizen journalists.'€

Surjadi moved from one village to another in the province, including Ampaning, Lanjak and Seruat Dua villages, to teach the farmers how to, nonviolently, fight back.

Once the farmers understood how to write a news format, Surjadi invented a computer system connected to the local TV station, RuaiTV. Farmers record violations they find and through their cell phones send the information to an editor before the news items are sent to RuaiTV where they are displayed as news tickers.

Surjadi also made it possible for cell phone owners in the villages to subscribe to the farmers'€™ news.

'€œThere are around 600 subscribers and 150 of them are top local government officials and members of the police,'€ Surjadi said.

Surjadi recounted one instance when a police officer was offended by a news item and summoned the farmer who wrote it. The system does not credit the author with a byline so the police officer never knew who the writer was.

Frustrated, the police officer summoned the head of RuaiTV and asked him to name the farmer but RuaiTV refused point blank.

'€œFinally, the police officer went to the village to talk with the farmers and they all agreed to work together to solve the issue,'€ Surjadi said.

The farmers are not short of news. More than 300 oil palm plantation companies operate in West Kalimantan. About one third of the province'€™s 14.6 million hectare area '€” three times the size of the Netherlands '€” has been cleared for oil palm plantations. Many companies have control over their allotted land for 160 years.

The practices of land grabbing, illegal logging and land clearing without permits are rampant and farmers are helpless. Land grabbing affects communities economically and culturally. NGOs claimed that by 2011 conflicts with local farmers spread affected 104 districts in West Kalimantan.

A similar situation to the provinces happens across the whole of Kalimantan, an area of more than 60 million hectares. It is home to large numbers of mammal species; a third of which face extinction.

Surjadi'€™s actions may appear trivial given the scale of the problem besetting the huge island but it is one small step forward nonetheless.

'€œFarmers gain benefit from this newly acquired knowledge,'€ Surjadi said, '€œwhen an oil palm company turned a passable village road into a pool of mud it fixed the road promptly thanks to a report by a farmer.'€

When asked about how he came up with the idea of using cell phones to assist the project Harry said '€œall the farmers owned cell phones so it was a handy tool to empower them.'€

In response to the question; what impressed him most about the farmers, who Surjadi likes to call '€œinformation brokers'€ he said: '€œIt was a mobile phone message from a farmer that said '€˜before, we used mandau [traditional Dayak swords] in our protests. Now we use mobile phones'€™.'€

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