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Surabaya’s malodorous mud

There’s a volcano that spews mud in Indonesia and it remains in the news despite the fact that the eruption occurred seven years ago.

That’s because, after so long, it’s still mired in disputes around displaced people, allegations against one of Indonesia’s most powerful families, and ecological disaster.

HELEN BROWN: I’d heard about the Lapindo mud flow for so long, it was going to be good to finally see it.

But first there was a dyke to climb, one that’s been built around what is essentially a lake of mud – 640 hectares of mud to be exact.

We’ve pulled up at one of the little stations that are along the road, where some enterprising locals have built wooden steps that lead up and over the dyke so that you can see the mud.

So we’ve got to walk up those yet, but the first impression is that it really smells. I can’t describe the smell. It’s like a bad gas, but it’s not pleasant at all.

Almost 40,000 people were displaced and 12 villages submerged when hot mud came coursing out of ground here in May 2006.

A company linked to the powerful Bakrie family has been blamed for drilling activity that led to an underground blow-out.

A court case didn’t find them at fault, and the oil and gas company says an earthquake hundreds of kilometres away triggered the eruption.

The company’s has paid out millions in compensation though to those in the immediate affected area.

But the final payment has been delayed, and that’s creating anger, not just against the company but also anyone perceived as being the enemy.

So much so that even our local government official doesn’t want to climb the dyke and possibly be a catalyst for trouble.

PRODUCER: Pak, just told me that he’s a bit afraid to go up there. I don’t know why, but he said that the BPLS (Badan Penanggulangan Lumpur Sidoarjo), the agency set up by the government to take care of Lapindo mud, is here and is ready to take us around, but he said he doesn’t want to go up.

HELEN BROWN: Protesting villagers have essentially taken over the mud lake and the wall around it.

They’re preventing dredging and dyke repair work.

And they earn income by charging people to climb the steps and take a look, and jump on a motorbike to see where the mud continues to bubble up from.

We’ve got to cross over the railway tracks to get to the top of the dyke, up those rickety steps. The locals who manage – who take the money, basically, for us to walk up, are waiting for us, wondering what’s going on.

The central government’s set up an agency specifically to monitor and control the mud and help with social issues.

Our guide from this agency is one of the few officials who feels confident enough to mingle with those who’ve lost their homes and livelihood, and are demanding something better.

OK, so we’re on our way, and we’re going up the rickety wooden steps.

The wall is around the mud is about five metres high, and the mud reaches almost to the top. So there’s a lot of mud that is building up.

So the bikes have taken us as far as they can, but we’re now told that to see where the mud is still bubbling out, we have to walk across dried mud for about 10 minutes in the baking heat.

And we’re just trying to decide if it’s worth the risk or not, just how safe it is. Would be good to get the pictures, but we’re relying on local information.

There are no warning signs or explanations.

CHICCO: Yeah, the risk is there, the risk is there but they said that you know….

HELEN BROWN: After the producer Chicco had spoken a little more to our guide, we decide to venture out onto the cool, dried mud which seems stable.

Our apprehension probably looks a little silly to a group of men and women in modest Muslim dress who turn up and simply start walking out without a care.

We end up filming in the blazing sun for about 20 minutes, about 100 metres in front of billowing white smoke and watching as the mud bubbles up now and then above the horizon.

The experts say this may go on for 30 years – or less, as the heat and rate of flow have eased more than expected. Some of the mud is being channelled out to sea, and that’s created a new island off the coast.

It’s clearly an ecological and social disaster, and one that’s hard to fathom until you’re standing on the edge of a sea of mud.

Correspondent: Helen Brown reports

Speaker: Chicco, producer

© ABC Radio Australia | 6 May 2013

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