Jakarta’s ‘Riverbank People’

by Catherine Osborn:

The first four times they were evicted from their homes in North Jakarta, the members of the Kebon Bayem community resettled after just a few weeks. The fifth time, the city police brought guns. They had visited in the morning with a 24-hour eviction notice, and around 10 p.m. more troops arrived. Snipers began to perch on the highway overpass that looms over the neighborhood. When the eviction began at dawn, these soldiers’ rubber bullets caused less damage than the bulldozers that reduced the community’s homes to rubble.

A resident of kampung Kebon Bayem is reflected in an irrigation ditch that runs through the spinach fields for which the community is named. (Osborn/TYG)

This happened in late August 2008, explained Kebon Bayem treasurer Asep, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the new community mosque. Earlier that month, public order officers called Satpol PP had spray painted X’s on the doors of several homes to mark them for demolition. When the Satpol PP arrived on eviction day, their force numbered 8,000, double the number of families in the community at the time. Because it was a Sunday, would-be community defenders from Jakarta legal Aid and the city government were not on call.

Other members of the village, or kampung, listened as Asep, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, told the story. When he paused to gather his thoughts, they offered additional details. Some men and women tried to resist the Satpol PP, but they were beaten. A few had to be hospitalized. The residents fled, leaving their homes to be burned down by the officers’ firecrackers.

The workers in Kebon Bayem rebuilt “elsewhere” this time. For fear of losing their customer base in the area, the new location was on the opposite side of a concrete wall that used to border their community. This wall had separated them from railroad tracks and a drainage ditch where some homes now stand on stilts.


The city government’s official justification for evicting Kebon Bayem was that it was an unregistered community living in an area slated to become an urban green space. Its residents include vendors, trash collectors, merchants, and taxi drivers who are part of the 70 percent of working Jakartans employed in the informal sector. This sector often lives in unconventional spaces: along riverbanks, in fields, and under highway overpasses. Many of them came to the city in pursuit of economic opportunities more readily available here than in the countryside, part of the rural-to-urban migration trend currently reshaping populations around the world. By 2030, one-third of humanity will be living in an informal urban settlement. The livelihood of these workers is the dilemma of the urban future: City infrastructures are not evolving fast enough to safely accommodate so many people.

Jakarta Mayor Fauzi Bowo knows his city’s informal sector—“the riverbank people,” as one activist called them—is a problem he must address. But Bowo has many problems. As Indonesia grows wealthier, multinational companies push to add more and more steroidal skyscrapers to the already super-sized downtown, and developers roll new apartment buildings far into the suburbs. Jakarta has quickly become famous for its unforgiving traffic. Under international pressure to make the city less congested, Bowo has announced a plan to increase the amount of green space in the city from less than 10 percent to over 30 percent by 2030.

This is an attractive concept to watchful Westerners, and Bowo is prepared to allow some dirty work to accomplish his goal. He claims the right to evict communities in would-be green spaces on the grounds that these people lack legal right to land. They, however, claim squatters’ rights and argue that the government needs to recognize their physical and economic inertia and move toward providing them the sanitation and basic services to which all citizens are entitled. The slogan on Asep’s shirt references the framework of their position: “Water is a human right.”

To this end, Kebon Bayem has a few strategies to maintain a strong community. Furqon, the community leader, helped a friend paint address plaques for the new homes. Other leaders also organized free job training and classes in reading, writing, and reciting the Qur’an. Residents of all ages can learn herbal health remedies, acupuncture, and traditional dance. They can attend forums on how to get proper identification documents and keep the community census in order to encourage aid and recognition in the future.

Kebon Bayem organizes in good company. It learned its five-pronged approach of resistance—economic activity, education, health instruction, dance, and policy advocacy—from a local group called the Urban Poor Consortium (UPC). The UPC in turn shares strategies with its larger national network, UPlink, and its regional network, the Asian Coalition of Housing rights (ACHR). The Internet has made possible something that 20 years ago was unimaginable for the urban poor: an international network that provides strategy and publicity. ACHR is one of many such networks. The largest, called Slum/Shack Dwellers International, is active in 23 countries across the global south and has caught the attention and funding of traditional aid groups like UN-HABITAT. Dubbed “pro-poor development,” partnerships like this could help fix the poverty alleviation establishment that many perceive as broken.

This new infrastructure of activism still allows for diverse tactics on the ground; for example, not every community uses puppet shows to preserve the history of eviction like Kebon Bayem does. These specific strategies originated in the central UPC office, a short car ride from the kampung. Inside the office, giant maps on the walls outline different voting blocs and the history of land use in the city.

“We want each individual community to have self-reliance,” said Sampan, a UPC organizer who in past lives has driven a pedicab and run for Mayor of Jakarta. “The goal of the dances and plays is to develop a literature about the history of each community.” Maruli, another organizer, specializes in documenting human rights abuses in the kampungs. He has made videos for the UPC of nasty evictions in the neighboring city of Jogjakarta and of damage experienced by the urban poor during Jakarta’s annual flooding.

Between times of crisis, days are slow in Kebon Bayem. In the whitewashed plywood mosque, two religious figures puff cigarettes in the corner as one resident serves a steaming meal to men, women, and children sitting barefoot around the room’s edge. As a hot breeze drifts in after the meal, the men of the community conduct a ceremonial haircutting for a new child, who is blessed afterward.

Kampung residents take a break in the community mosque after a meal and a child's haircutting ceremony. (Osborn/TYG)

Later in the afternoon, several community leaders duck beneath the concrete wall that separates Kebon Bayem from its old home. On the now vacant land, some residents have dug irrigation ditches to support the small spinach fields that gave the community its name. But beyond that, a swampy wasteland stretches for acres. It is not used by the public. on the far side, new real estate developments teeter, seeming out of place.


Jakarta currently has 9.6 million people. It is rapidly growing and essentially unplanned, creating a landscape of consumerism and classism gone awry. The newest buildings downtown look like set pieces from Disneyland’s Epcot: the columns a little too large, the statues a little too flashy. Tour guide Lucy Iskander is frank about the results of the city’s “mall culture”: The rich don’t mix with the poor in Jakarta if they can help it. “Public spaces are for people who can’t afford cars or motorcycles,” she said. “People who can might spend time at the Audi Club or the Toyota Club.”

Jakarta’s love affair with individual motor transport is problematic. It is the largest city in the world without a subway system, and the recently installed Bus Rapid Transit lines are hardly a sufficient traffic fix. One frequent visitor said he and his family often abandon dinner reservations when their ride to a nearby restaurant passes the two-hour mark, instead opting to walk between deadlocked cars to buy food from vendors alongside the road. According to Lucy, these vendors try to mimic commercial fast food. They meet a strong demand that the formal market does not, just as informal settlements house a growing population that the formal market does not. Jakarta is glutted with instances such as these in which the informal sector steps in to cover a formal market failure.

Indonesia as a whole has had stellar growth in the past 10 years, prompting some economists to proclaim it the new Brazil, Russia, India, or China. But like the cars in Jakarta’s streets, corruption clogs the Indonesian national government, preventing the rising tide of wealth from affecting the poor—and especially the urban poor. “The trickle-down effect is abstract and utopian,” said humanitarian worker Renar Berandi. “It doesn’t happen here.”

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. World Bank economist Michael Cohen believes the dense economic networks within cities, those of street vendors and bankers alike, remain “an untapped policy lever” for governments planning national stimulus packages. Many believe Indonesia’s large informal sector helped the country weather the global financial crisis better than some neighbors: People who lost their jobs could dip down into informal employment until prospects improved. Imagine, says Cohen, if the government injected money directly into the informal sector as a strategy for boosting the health of the economy as a whole.

Asep and Furqon, second and third from the left, have encouraged Kebon Bayem residents to use the land from which they were evicted for small-scale spinach farming. Sampan, second from the right, provides organizational support from the UPC. (Osborn/TYG)

Unfortunately, Mayor Bowo and company do not agree with this line of thought. They prioritize improving the city’s efficiency before its equality. Proposals for plans to address Jakarta’s traffic abound; these include congestion pricing, monorails, and more parking lots at bus stations. If these or similar measures are not adopted quickly, Jakarta will achieve total traffic gridlock by 2014. There is no official estimate of the new number of informal sector workers who will be living in the city by then.


Marco Kusumawijaya, a career urban planner in Jakarta, has a very specific idea of how he would like to see the city run more smoothly. “Real dissemination of city plan documents to Jakarta’s residents will open a Pandora’s box: once they can see academic papers and read opinions about how space in the city should be used, they will be able to engage with the process,” he explained. His organization, the Citizens Coalition for Jakarta 2030, is trying to realize this goal using the city’s first Freedom of Information Act, passed in April 2010. Under this act, it gained access to the city’s 20-year spatial masterplan and then conducted a citywide survey in response. Their battle now is to get the city to accept their recommendations. “The city is supposed to update the plan every five years, but the status quo is that it never really changes,” he explained.

Kusumawijaya said it was important for the Citizens Coalition to leave space for detailed responses to survey questions because “modern city planning should not underestimate the complexity of the city.” The survey went to people with a range of incomes and careers and included feedback on everything from transportation to growth to disaster mitigation. “Cities like Singapore run smoothly because this planning process is very transparent,” he said.

So should Jakarta be more like Singapore?

“Don’t degrade us!” exclaimed Kusumawijaya. “Our cities in Indonesia are much more alive and more diverse. They contain paradoxical vitality within a chaotic space.” But Kusumawijaya’s imagined Jakarta and Lucy’s painfully real Jakarta of car and mall culture seem difficult to reconcile.

Nana Firman, the other leader of the Citizens Coalition, agrees that Jakarta needs to cultivate its unique personality. “Jakarta used to be known as a port town, a place of hope. Now the name of the city is not associated with that, just as the word ‘kampung’ has grown to refer largely to poor communities when it really means ‘place of origin.’” Firman, too, believes that reclaiming pride in Jakarta requires reclaiming a political voice: “The government can’t use the fact that people are apathetic now as an excuse not to ask them their dreams.” She wants to be able to point to a group of documents and say, “this is the thought of the Jakartans.”

Jakarta is a small town when it comes to activism surrounding urban planning: Both Kusumawijaya and Firman are well acquainted with Wardah Hafidz, the founder of the UPC. Kusumawijaya trusts the urban poor’s local knowledge and organizing capacity, which he says could be used to revolt against society or to revolutionize it. “No successful social movement starts with the middle class,” he declared.

In addition to international recognition for her human rights work, Hafidz has received several arrest threats from Jakarta’s city government—reminders that despite the UPC’s significant achievements, it remains at the bottom of the city hierarchy. Its members are battling a powerful history in Jakarta. For now, the story of space and power within the city depends entirely on which space you live in.

Catherine Osborn ’12 is a Latin American Studies major in Pierson College. Contact her at catherine.osborn@yale.edu. Research for this story was supported by the Pierson Summer 2010 Fellowship.