Could a natural disaster be perceived as an agent of change?
Events like volcanic eruptions challenge equilibrium models of nature. Villagers living on Mt Merapi have developed a system of religious belief, and a system of agro-ecological practices, that ‘domesticates’ the volcanic hazard. The villagers view eruptions as agents of change, often change for the good. The Indonesian government, on the other hand, technologizes and exoticizes the volcanic hazard, and conceptually and materially separates it from the realm of civil society. The state focuses its attention exclusively on intermittent moments of heightened volcanic activity, whereas the villagers focus their attention on the much longer interim periods when there is little or no such activity. This particular case shows that not just the perception of risk, but the very concept of risk itself can vary. The cultural production of such concepts co-evolves with natural patterns of perturbation.
The 1755 Lisbon quake caused a seemingly random devastation of the earthquake was seen as the greatest challenge to the reason and order of the enlightenment – and towards belief in a divinely ordered and harmonious world – since the fall of the Roman Empire.
As an ode to this event, George Perkins Marsh wrote: “Nature, left undisturbed, so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form, outline, and proportion, except when shattered by geologic convulsions; and in these comparatively rare cases of derangement, she sets herself at once to repair the superficial damage, and to restore, as nearly as practicable, the former aspect of her dominion.”
Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are the defining challenges to the permanence of Nature. As examples of how such cases of “derangement” are “repaired”, Marsh presented accounts of the gradual re-vegetation of Mts. Aetna and Vesuvius following eruptions. He writes, “The eruptive matter of volcanoes, forbidding as is its aspect, does not refuse nutriment to the woods.” Marsh's “Man and Nature” was a pioneering effort to demonstrate that the aggregation, over time, of the simple, everyday practices of human existence can profoundly change the physical geography of the earth.
Marsh's example of constructing lava-diverting ditches reflects an essentially equilibrium-based view of stasis and disturbance. The equilibrium model assumed stasis in both society and environment, and anything that disrupted this was problematized. The general shift in science toward a non-equilibrium model has been associated with a seismic shift in the approach to the study of natural disasters.
A generation ago, the study of natural hazards and disasters focused on natural impact, human response, and prospects for mitigation — but did not problematize any of the key concepts involved, even in cross-cultural contexts. Hazard research has been framed by concepts and assumptions which carry a historically specific view of nature, society and man and hence, by extension, of the relations between them. In particular, a community's capacity to cope with hazards is embedded in and thus a function of its relations of production; and if the latter are weakened, then so is the former.
These hazards are “redefined by the transformation in the social relations of production”. Since the early 20th century, an alternate approach has developed which emphasizes political– economic study of the concept of disaster itself, this field has also stimulated a sub-field of anthropological or ethnographic study of responses to natural hazard. A prominent theme in much of this literature is the difference in the way that natural hazards and disasters are perceived by the proximate communities versus central governments. This field has not contributed as much as might be expected to the vast literature on indigenous knowledge as exceptions, which perhaps reflects the abiding tendency to view disaster and disaster response as outside the parameters of the everyday construction and deployment of knowledge.
The local communities on the volcano have developed a system for living on its slopes and conceptualizing its hazards, which is based on naturalizing, familiarizing, and ‘domesticating’ the threat from the volcano. The state, in contrast, technologizes and thereby exoticizes this threat. Whereas the villagers see eruptions as routinized catalysts for productive change; the state sees them as episodic threats to well-being.
The ‘culture’ of hazard.
There is a marked difference between the local communities on Merapi on the one hand and on the other hand the Indonesian government, in how they situate volcanic hazard with respect to everyday life: whereas the local communities incorporate this hazard into everyday life (thus ‘domesticating’ it), the government firmly separates the two.
The villagers of Turgo have folk legends, it is their belief that there is another world within the crater of Merapi, which they characterize as parallel to their own, and which they believe to be inhabited by baureksa “spirits”. In many respects ‘life’ in Merapi's crater is thought to resemble the everyday life of the Javanese. For example, the Turgo villagers, in whose own lives animal husbandry looms large, believe that the volcano's spirits keep both horses and pigs (the latter being the wild pigs that are abundant on Merapi's slopes). The villagers believe that the spirits graze their pigs in the villagers' own fields and that they graze their horses on the highest grasslands of Merapi. These grasslands are said to belong to the spirits, their grasses are said to be reserved for the spirits' livestock, and they are proscribed for human use. The villagers say that the spirits actively manage these grasslands (the highest and thus most often affected by volcanic activity), citing as proof the fact that they are rejuvenated by every eruption. Major eruptions of Merapi are seen as manifestations of the mundane, day-to-day activities of the spirit palace. The villagers believe that house construction and cleaning is scheduled in the Merapi palace during the first moon of the Islamic calendar, the dirt and waste produced by these activities is ejected as (what the villagers perceive to be) lahar, ash, and gas clouds.
Just as volcanic activity is expressed in an idiom of everyday activity, so too is personal hazard, Turgo villagers express the threat of volcanic hazard as a feeling of getting lost, being confused, and being ‘invited’ to go away to the world within Merapi. The villagers say that those who try to lead them away while in this state of loss and confusion are wewe, female spirits who appear to them as relatives or close friends. The feeling of going off with the wewe is said to be like “the feeling of going home to one's own village — whereas in fact you are going continually upwards [toward the crater, and the home of the wewe].” Two stories told by the villagers of Turgo about people who got ‘lost’ on the volcano are as follows:
(1) “This is a story of someone who went to the market to buy rice cakes, the seller did not speak; when he returned to the village, the rice cakes turned out to be flat rocks.”
(2) “Someone wanted to buy seed rice, got lost, and it turned out that what he bought was thorns.”
These stories and associated beliefs simultaneously emphasize both the familiarity and the ‘otherness’ of the volcano.
The domestication of volcanic hazards on Merapi is important because of the material, economic adaptation to the volcanic environment that it helps to sustain. The key to this adaptation is grass to feed cattle. Turgo, along with other highland communities, never fit the stereotype of a Javanese village surrounded by proximate intensively managed, irrigated rice terraces. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, Turgo's inhabitants cultivated maize and tubers in forest swiddens and grazed cattle on open rangelands. Cattle, now no longer free-grazing but stall-fed, were critically important to this system of agriculture, chiefly for their production of manure, which maintained the fertility of the annually cropped fields. The Turgo villagers in fact explicitly state that their ancestors replaced the function of the former swidden forest fallow with manure. Husbandry of the stall-fed cattle, in turn, depended on the exploitation (especially during the dry season, when grass resources in the vicinity of the village become inadequate) of the grasslands located up-slope, in the area that was officially closed off as state forest. Gathering these grasses is labour intensive: the grasslands are a 60–90 min walk from the village; it takes another hour or so to cut the grasses and then another hour to carry a 55–60 kg bundle of cut grass back to the village. These labour costs restrict this activity to times when there is no intensive work in the cultivated fields by the village.
Given the way that the Turgo villagers have adapted the very basis of their agricultural economy to the volcanic environment, given the way that they not only naturalize but utilize volcanic perturbation, they could be said to have a ‘culture’ of volcanic hazard. In some societies, natural hazards occur with such historical frequency that the constant threat of them has been integrated into the schema of both daily life and attitude to form what can be called ‘cultures of disaster’.” An example of such a culture is the reliance of Bangladeshi farmers upon the “normal” annual flooding of the country's rivers.
The government views the volcanic hazard as something beyond the normal social order of things, as something to be kept separate from society. This is graphically reflected in its central policy tool for dealing with the villagers living on Merapi, namely resettlement. Governmental re-settlement efforts spike upwards after every major eruption. For example, an eruption in May 1961, which destroyed 109 homes and killed five people, was followed by the transmigration of 1905 villagers. In 1978, in the wake of a smaller eruption of hot gases and ash, the government tried but failed to resettle the villagers of Turgo and settled with officially “erasing” the village from government maps. The eruption in November 1994, with a death toll exceeding anything experienced on Merapi since 1930, led to a resurgence of government efforts to remove people from Merapi's slopes — but with limited success.
The Merapi villagers display remarkable unanimity in their opposition to resettlement. In the aftermath of the 1994 eruption, 7962 households in villages lying in the danger zone were interviewed and less than 1% expressed any interest in transmigrating. Many villagers saw the government resettlement program as just another sort of hazard, and they preferred the hazard that they knew to the one that they didn't, according to one villager interviewed, “If you have to die because of the hazards from Merapi, it is the same as dying from giving up to the state”. As an alternative to transmigration, the people of Turgo were offered the option of moving into a newly-built resettlement hamlet called Sidomoro, located about 10 km down the mountain from their existing village.
The houses in Sidomoro, built with public donations, were relatively well-built, and those who settled there received considerable state aid (whereas no aid was given to villagers who returned to Turgo). However, although some villagers initially opted to move into Sidomoro, most returned to Turgo starting a month after the 1994 eruption.
Neither of these classificatory schemes, neither the spatial one nor the temporal one, relate to the local system of knowledge in the communities on the volcano — which is remarkable, given the ancient and rich tradition on Java of folk observation of volcanic activity. The government's schemes amount to an effort to technologize, exoticize, and thereby appropriate, knowledge of the volcano. The Volcanology Service's ongoing effort to assert its authority over the volcano is reflected in its periodic press briefings (drawing data from its monitoring stations on Merapi's slopes), an example of which follows:
“Yesterday, there were no volcanic earthquakes, low frequency earthquakes, or earth tremors. There were only two multi-phase earthquakes and 88 discharges of lava.”
These briefings not only emphasize the government's understanding of, and thus to some extent authority over, the volcano, but their use of scientific language emphasizes the exclusivity of this authority in representing the activity of the volcano to the public. Because government and local communities view the relationship of volcanic activity to everyday life differently, they also view differently the implications of such activity for social change.
Merapi's eruptions have historically proved to be sources of change, sometimes for ill and sometimes for good. For example, the November 1994 eruption led to the emergence of a radically different agricultural economy, with a shift in balance between subsistence-oriented and market-oriented activities. Whereas the villagers of Turgo had previously cultivated annual food crops for their own consumption, now they concentrate on the production of products for market sale. These include fodder grasses, fruit, volcanic sands (for the urban construction industry), fuel-wood and, of most importance, milk and meat from dairy cattle. The market proceeds from these products are used to buy rice which has replaced maize as their staple food grain. After the 1994 eruption, as before, fodder remains the key to the agricultural economy of Mt. Merapi; but whereas fodder grasses were formerly at best semi-managed, now one-half of the annual grass production of Turgo actually comes from planted and cultivated grasses.
These changes in the agro-ecology of Turgo have dramatically improved the villagers' livelihoods. Since the eruption, Turgo has become the foremost producer of milk in its district. The average Turgo villager now has an annual income equal to or (in the case of those who also sell a lot of fruit and fuelwood in addition to milk) greater than the national average. The increasing household income is reflected in improvements in housing “masonry houses” have grown from just over 20% in 1987 to almost 50% at present. In addition, houses are being improved with glass windows, plaster walls, flooring, and electricity. Another measure of improved livelihoods is higher levels of schooling. Many educated children look for work outside Turgo and send back money to invest in cattle. The growth in prosperity also is reflected in the development of non-farm economic activities like food stalls and employment in commercial transport and mountain/ tourism guides. The villagers of Turgo themselves summarize these changes by saying that the 1994 eruption ushered in what they call the “untroubled age”.
Post-eruption environments (e.g., of Krakatau) were long favoured by scientists for studies of ecological succession, based on the perception that volcanic eruptions created a blank slate and so whatever came next was created from “whole cloth”. The villagers on Merapi also see eruptions as important agents of change. They commonly talk about the changes brought about by eruptions, in particular changes in flora and fauna on the mountain. In village oral histories on Merapi, specific, dated eruptions play the same role that is played in the histories of other Indonesian communities by political succession (e.g. WW II, the Soekarno era, the communist putsch, the rise and fall of Soeharto, etc.). Because of the way that eruptions may jumble existing ecological and social relations, they can bring about “clean breaks” with the past, which create new opportunities and makes major innovations in socio-ecological relations possible, as was the case following the 1994 eruption. Such changes are dependent not only on the eruption, however, but also on what is happening at the same time in the wider world, which included, in the case of the 1994 eruption, the decline of the Soeharto regime (he was forced from office in 1998) and the regional monetary crisis (of 1997–1998). It might be more accurate, therefore, to call volcanic eruptions not agents of change, but ‘catalysts’ of change. It could be said that eruptions, rather than causing such changes, act as catalysts, altering the rate at which adjustments in social and political institutions occur. By accelerating rates of change, eruptions may challenge socio-ecological systems to the point that they undergo radical change (analogous to “flipping” of an ecosystem from one state to another as a result of a major disturbance). The association of volcanic eruptions with radical social change has traditionally been threatening to state rulers in the region. In Java and, indeed, throughout Southeast Asia perturbations in the natural realm have long been interpreted as presaging perturbations in the social/political realm.
Continued state sensitivity to natural perturbations, even in the modern era, is reflected in the magnitude of investment by the government of Indonesia in volcanic research and monitoring which is not commensurate with the modest toll in life and property due to volcanic activity, compared with, for example, malnutrition and infant mortality, or even other natural perturbations like fire and flood. This incommensurability reflects the fact that volcanic activity is symbolically loaded in a way that other natural perturbations are not, and death and destruction due to volcanic activity are ‘privileged’ in a way that other deaths are not (including those, for example, in the transmigration sites to which evacuees are sent. Evidence of state investment of symbolic capital in the activity of Merapi and in its ability to understand and control it consists in the amount of high-level political attention that the 1994 eruption garnered (which, again, greatly exceeded that for equal numbers of casualties from other, more mundane causes of death). This attention included early and close involvement in aid efforts by then-president Soeharto himself, including a visit to the evacuee camps. Sensitivity on this issue was also reflected, in the aftermath of the eruption, in the public debate as to whether or not the government Volcanology Service had provided adequate warning of the eruption. State anxiety about the eruption was validated in the popular mind by the fact that Indonesia was subsequently shaken by financial, political, and environmental crises, culminating in the collapse of Soeharto's three-decade-long reign.
The stance taken toward the forces of nature in Turgo is much more in line with collaboration than resistance. Exceptions to this stance are rare, one example being a query to a social worker from the headman of Turgo following the 1994 eruption of Merapi. He had seen “bunkers” in television coverage of the first Gulf War and he wanted to know whether something of that sort could be erected in Turgo to better enable them to withstand future eruptions. For the most part, such a “bunker mentality” does not characterize the stance of the Turgo villagers toward Merapi, with which, to the contrary, they are intimately engaged on a daily basis on both spiritual and material (agro-ecological) terms. This engagement is, moreover, not static but continually evolving. A distinguishing feature of community versus state gaze toward Merapi is the extent to which it focuses on periods of hazard versus periods of non-hazard. The attention of the state is highly intermittent and tied to hazard events. Immediately following (and often also leading up to) major eruptions of Merapi, there is a spike in state interest and intervention. This is when state pressure to resettle or transmigrate villagers is most intense, rather quickly receding in the months following. This is almost the inverse of the pattern of community attention.
Villagers take their chances with the occasional serious eruption, and in the worst cases they can evacuate their communities for a few days; but it is the period between eruptions that consumes their attention. Their daily agro-ecological practices (and attendant evasion of state regulations) are most responsible for enabling the villagers to adapt to Merapi's environment. In contrast, between eruptions the villagers almost disappear from state view. In the case of Turgo, which was officially erased from government maps following the 1978 eruption, the people are quite literally, officially invisible during these interim periods. The exclusive state focus on eruptions as the events most determining of the identity and welfare of these villagers produces inappropriate and unworkable policies. This is so, in part, because these policies are premised on an idealized and unattainable equilibrium. There is a perceptual, cognitive dimension to the concept of risk on Merapi volcano. Attention to this dimension has often been missing from political ecological studies.
The ‘normal’ state of nature on Java is to be recovering from the last disaster, not equilibrium and repose. (Isnt this the case in flood-prone Bihar and Assam, cyclone prone Orissa and tsunami-prone Andamans?) Thus, Merapi's eruptions, and the demand for a response by both state and local communities, are not anomalous for the country. Of greatest interest is the way that such natural perturbations and their cultural construction have historically developed in tandem. According to a leading researcher, “The assimilation and transmutation of Hindu–Buddhist concepts produced a heightened sensitivity among the Javanese to stability and tranquillity and the disruptive effects of change. It also resulted in a time sense that was based on a belief in the repeated and cyclic creation, decline, and destruction of the universe.”
This is the natural and cultural genesis of the view of volcanic eruptions as agents of change, opportunistically embraced by proximate villagers, feared and controlled by the state.
The device of investing hazard with personality, of anthropomorphizing the event, can be seen as an important means of maintaining cultural resilience in a society that experiences frequent disasters caused by natural hazards. It is a form of resilience because it represents an attempt by people to come to terms and deal with such phenomena by reducing ‘the awesome and incomprehensible to something prosaic and simplistic’ and so permits its incorporation within the structure of people's everyday cultural construction of reality. There is still a tendency to underestimate the extent to which disasters are also perceptual phenomena, occurrences that take place and shape in people's minds. The focus on people's physical, social, economic and political vulnerabilities and their comparable capacities or coping practices obscures just how much these are likewise cerebral events that influence behaviour.
This analysis has some obvious implications for disaster management policy in Indonesia and beyond. In particular, it suggests that policy-makers need to be more attentive to the role of perturbation and change in the social life of communities, how this affects risk perception and management, and how state views of risk are themselves inevitably socially constructed and thus contingent in value and efficacy.