Science - June 15, 2006

In the news/ Angry spirit in Indonesia

The area around Yogyakarta, in the centre of the Indonesian island Java, is experiencing a terrifying month. In mid-May the Mount Merapi volcano had a small eruption, and two weeks later an earthquake hit the area. What’s happening?

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Yustina Murdiningrum is doing a master’s in International development and Tri-Wira Yuwati a master’s in Forest and Nature Conservation. Both are from the Yogyakarta area. They’ve only experienced minor earthquakes themselves. ‘Like there was somebody knocking on the door,’ explains Tri-Wira. But this time, she tells, her mother couldn’t even get up because the earth was shaking so hard. ‘When I finally got in touch with her, she screamed while we were talking as there was another aftershock.’ There have been more than five hundred minor shocks since the earthquake. ‘My mother sleeps near the door, which she leaves unlocked, so she can get out quickly if necessary.’ Happily their families are unharmed, and their homes still intact. But they find it very difficult to concentrate on their studies and feel helpless, as they can do little here. Tri-Wira: ‘Now I understand what other students experienced when the tsunami happened. Happily many friends came to my room to support me and brought me food and drinks that first day.’

Yustina is still worried about Mount Merapi. The last big eruption was in 1994. ‘I worry most about the gas clouds; the lava can be channelled into canals. But I can understand that people living on the slopes don’t want to leave their homes. They can’t leave their livestock, which is their livelihood. And the earth is very fertile. Also there’s the mystical belief that they will be protected anyway.’ The sultans of Yogyakarta were traditionally believed to have supernatural powers and warned when eruptions were likely. The current sultan continues the tradition, but with more modern overtones. However, as there has still not been a warning, the real outburst is yet to come.

Although the students know that the earthquake and the volcano eruption are not linked scientifically, they can understand that many people think they are. The spirit of the soil is angry. Tri-Wira: ‘There’s an imaginary line running from Mount Merapi, via the Tugu monument of the victory over the Dutch, the sultan’s palace and the Indian Ocean. This gives strength and guards the kingdom. Now people say that the earthquake was caused by the Queen of the South Seas, who felt neglected because lots of people now live on the slopes of Mount Merapi. The eruption is a way for the spirit to provide more fertile soil. Usually the spirit of Merapi gives a warning before an eruption, but as the Queen of the South Seas was responsible there was no warning.’ When you grow up in Yogya mystical things are common practice, says Tri-Wira: ‘There’s also the belief that it is bad luck to wear green clothes to the beach. One of my classmates drowned there and was never found. And he indeed was wearing green.’

Yustina can live with another explanation for the eruption. ‘The Merapi is angry because people are exploiting the area. There’s also a conflict between the people who live there and the government because the area has been made a national park. The spirit got angry because they were quarrelling about him. It’s a message from nature.’ The communication problems among stakeholders and how they regard each other is also the subject of the fieldwork that she hopes to conduct in September. ‘I don’t know what will happen. I can’t even imagine that so many buildings have collapsed in Yogyakarta,’ she concludes.

Yvonne de Hilster

The Indonesian student union will hold a fundraising event for the area on Tuesday 20 June, with entertainment and food. See www.ppi-wageningen.org.

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