Down the Malay Barrier 1.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they simultaneously attacked the Americans in the Philippines, the British in Malaya, and the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (what is today Indonesia).  Japanese naval air forces also raided Darwin in northern Australia.  Early Japanese victories drove Allied forces back toward Burma in the north, the Dutch East Indies in the west, and northern Australia.  Desperate efforts were made to hold this “Malay Barrier.”

Today the region is home to growing economies, societies under stress, Islamic radicalism, and crime.  What would a traveler see moving from Bangladesh to Darwin?

The city of Jakarta, Indonesia proper has a population of something over 10 million people, but the larger metropolitan area has a population of 30 million people.  A lot of people produce a lot of trash.  Much of the trash from Jakarta—7,000 tons a day–ends up in nearby Bekasi.[1]  A daily stream of 1,000 trucks dump their daily loads onto a 150 acre one-time rice field.  They’ve been at this for thirty years, so the loads have accumulated into a plateau dotted with hills.  Those hills can temporarily rear up as high as 150 feet until bull-dozers working ‘round-the-clock level them down into another layer of the plateau.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and not just for the company that runs the dump.  Many villages surround the mountain of trash.  Most of the villagers are immigrants, farmers who lost their land elsewhere and came to Bekasi in search of work.  They’re here because they had no other choice.  The villagers earn their living by trash-picking for anything that might have resale value.  They scramble up and down the trash piles, dodging around the bull-dozers, and loading their finds into baskets strapped to their backs.  Any plastic, metal, wood, or electronic waste can be sold to someone.  Middle men buy different types of recovered material, paying by weight.  Recycling companies buy what the middlemen purchase from the trash pickers.  Pickers can earn anywhere from $2 to $10 a day.

One kind of economy creates other ones.  Little stands sell cigarettes, and snacks and soda to trash-pickers taking a break.  Drug dealers and prostitutes meet other needs.[2]

The trash stinks, so the hundreds of trash pickers stink and so do the surrounding villages.  Flies are everywhere.  The ground water is polluted.  Working—or, in the case of children too young to work, playing—on trash leads to cuts and scrapes.  Sores, infections, and breathing problems abound.  Poor Indonesians haven’t had much contact with modern medicine.  Folk belief holds that living in these conditions strengthens the body’s immunity to disease.

The Indonesian government doesn’t do much to help to poor.  Muslim charities elsewhere pay for Koran study classes or provide scholarships for the occasional exceptionally good students to continue their education through university.  Non-profits provide other kinds of help, like additional food.

Is this an example of human triumph over difficulty or of complacent rulers ignoring inequality and suffering at their own peril?

[1] Aleasha Bliss, “Bantar Gebang: Trials and Tribulations of Indonesia’s “Trash Heroes”,” Jakarta Globe, 8 February 2019; Adam Dean and Richard C. Paddock, “Picking Plastic, Metal, and Bones from a Trash Tower,” NYT, 28 April 2020.

[2] See: Richard Davies, Extreme Economies: What Life at the World’s Margins Can Teach Us About Our Own Future (2020).

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