The Sacred Bridge

by Jonthon Coulson, Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs

In a recent Newsletter (JVC-3), I shared the perspectives of Acehnese Muslims in an attempt to complicate singular notions of Islam. The Story of the Stick tuned in to the (dis)harmonies of Islamic belief and practice, and set the stage for a consideration of the role that religiosity and gender play in Banda Aceh’s political theater (JVC-4). [1]

One astute reader, a friend who has also spent significant time in Indonesia and Aceh, wrote to remind me to “emphasize just how different Islam is practiced [in Aceh] from other parts of Indonesia.” She also pointed out that “there is no uniformity in religion for the entire geography of Indonesia.” Her critique pushed me to reflect on how I had inadvertently reactivated the same media framing of Indonesia as a religious place that I had criticized in my opening paragraphs.

She’s right to note that Aceh is different – exceptional, even. Indonesians from elsewhere often define themselves against what they see as extremism in the province, presenting it as an exception to the rule of tolerance in the rest of the archipelago. Initial responses to any mention of my work there are almost always condemnations of the rules of syariah, often by Muslims who have never visited. I have taken to playfully dismantling this straw man (straw place?) fallacy, noting that depicting all Acehnese as religious fundamentalists fits incongruously with the other stereotype of the Acehnese as heavy consumers of coffee and cannabis.[2]

Only two months after the argument about a stick in Masjid Baiturrahman, police found and destroyed nine hectares of marijuana less than an hour’s drive from that sacred place.[3] That’s a newsworthy amount of ganja, but no international media outlet covered it. Why is it so difficult to view Indonesia outside of the prism of religion? I’m complicit here – I introduced you to Aceh by repeatedly referencing its grand masjid, which had an effect altogether different than had I ushered you into this rich culture with a cup of  “coffee buffoonery.”2 How do our impressions of this syariah law-observant place change upon acknowledging that all this coexists?

The duality proves my friend’s point: it is problematic to think about beliefs and practices in terms of geography, even at the city level. Subcultures and deviants in all corners of Indonesia tend not to own spaces or dominate discourses, but they give the lie to normative ideologies, religious or otherwise. All too often, they escape reportage, and this matters: the act of looking creates the seen, but also the unseen. And seeing is an act of privilege and power.

In this Newsletter, I argue that the insistence on viewing Indonesia primarily as a religious place has actually marginalized moderatism and silenced secular voices. By detailing an event hosted recently by the Sacred Bridge Foundation,[4] a collective of freethinkers and misfits bound together less by geography and place than by ideals and space, I engage you in a consideration of how place and space structure religiosity, radicalism, and revolution.

Poster Equality in Diversity
The Sacred Bridge Foundation rented an old shelter in a small park to host a discussion on “radicalization.”

Place and Space

Since the publication of Henri Lefebvre’s “La production de l’espace” in 1974, social theorists have increasingly differentiated between space, or a location where events occur, and place, which is a social construction that results from our assignment of value to any particular space. In other words, space + meaning = place.

Place is a product of human imagination, and can involve geography, material objects, social institutions, the built environment, imaginary sites, and ideological positions.[5] The difference between space and place lies in the difference between, for example, a city and New York City, with its World Trade Center, Apollo Theater, and Wall Street Bull (and now, fearless girl!). All of these component parts would qualify as places as well.

This distinction between space and place may seem merely academic, but consider the way that space, when socially organized, becomes place: Christians congregate in a building to pray, and the resultant cathedral creates place – it allows for the dissemination of beliefs and the transmission of social and financial capital.

Just as we embed meaning in spaces to organize the world around us, we perceive meaning in the disorganization of space: the toppling of 154 headstones in a cemetery [6] in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri caused feelings of victimization and fear even for people who had never been there, or who are not Jewish.

Spatial theory has proven useful in religious studies, where spaces have been divided into the sacred and the profane and places have been defined as being created through ritual. This division serves well to differentiate between the masjids and coffeeshops of Aceh: though many people frequent both, their rituals in these spaces differ. And despite the fact that cannabis consumption has a sacral history tracing its lineage back to India, these days most would deem coffeeshops making marijuana mixtures to be profane. This profanity spills into our willingness to see: the likelihood of censure and counsel would likely have been much higher had I written an entire Newsletter about Aceh’s ganja guzzlers.

Normative thinking cements itself in place, and religious edifices are testaments of adherence to doctrine. As such, establishing place is also an act of power and privilege, just as is seeing. In Indonesia, learning about the lived experience of the disempowered is hindered by the ban on atheists creating place. Even irreligious space is condemned: Alexander Aan spent nineteen months in jail for proclaiming his (dis)belief on the “Indonesian Atheists” facebook group wall.[7]

Atheists aren’t the only non-dominant group denied place in Indonesia. A Protestant group just east of Jakarta has been trying to construct a church since 2008, but local Muslim authorities have unjustly denied them the requisite permits. A 2010 court ruling ordered local leaders to accede to HKBP Filadelfia’s request, but the ruling was abrogated without consequence. In 2012, when the group tried to establish place by conducting Christmas devotional activities in the empty space where their church should be, they were assailed with rotten eggs, urine, and frogs.[8] Their assailants were not apprehended or charged.

Denying place preserves power; destroying place consolidates it. Just as in St. Louis, Jewish places in Indonesia have been desecrated in an attempt to erase history. The Beith Shalom synagogue, which the Dutch constructed in Surabaya in 1939 and which local residents had recommended for heritage status, was demolished by “unidentified persons” in 2013.[9] No investigation was conducted. The Jewish community cannot push the issue, as theirs is not a recognized religion.

But state recognition does not safeguard place for minority groups either. The Al Kautsar masjid in Kendal, Central Java was vandalized in 2004, 2006, and 2011; last May, its roof and walls were torn down.[10] My use of passive voice denotes the refusal on the part of local authorities to assign culpability. Why did the wardens of power turn a cold shoulder on their fellow Muslims? Because they are Ahmadi.[11]

Assaults against Ahmadi places have been on the uptick since the issuance of a decree in 2008 requiring Ahmadiyah to “stop spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principle teachings of Islam” [my emphasis denotes the normatization of Sunni ideology in Indonesia]. The most notable conflagration occurred in 2011, when cars and a masjid were burned and three young boys brutally murdered in Cikeusik, West Java. Video of these attacks posted online garnered international attention.[12] A chilling legal precedent was set for Indonesian minority groups when an Ahmadi man received a longer sentence than the ten men and two boys charged with attacking his community.[13]

*                          *                          *

The examples above demonstrate that the denial and destruction of place decreases diversity and undermines equality. Such incidents erode interpersonal trust and increase feelings of fear, especially for members of minority groups. Opportunities for intergroup harmony dwindle as we seek refuge among people who share aspects of our identity. This is a global phenomenon. Humanity is increasingly dividing along lines of race, class, nationality, gender, ability and more.

Robert Putnam documented this trend toward social atomization in his book, “Bowling Alone.” He argued that as Americans stopped attending their bowling leagues and Optimist International meetings, they forfeited “bridging” social capital, the kind that helps us connect despite our differences.

I contend that Indonesia is experiencing the inverse of this. The standardization of religious practice has helped congregants amass “bonding” social capital, the kind we form with people who share our beliefs and ideals. This trend toward dividing social capital along religious lines might best be referred to as “Praying Apart.”[14] As syncretic strains of faith have diminished, the chances to engage in interfaith dialogue have decreased and the opportunities to form bridging social capital have become fewer and farther between.

Fear and mistrust lead people to seclude themselves in spaces populated by like minds. As we retreat into our respective corners; Others seem extreme, and even the middle appears marginal. The hallowed ground we once shared gives way as more people vacate it. To turn this around – to reenter diverse spaces, to reestablish places that encourage differences of thinking and being, to recommit ourselves to mutual respect and equality – will require the amassment of quite a bit of bridging social capital. I found a space in Indonesia where this is happening. Appropriately enough, the space is called “the Sacred Bridge.”

“A revolution that does not create a new space has not realized its full potential.”
~Henri Lefebvre

Crossing Over

In a place where everyone is expected to adhere to one of six recognized religions, promoting equality and diversity is nothing less than an act of revolution. Connecting across lines of tribe and faith in Indonesia happens all the time, but it happens less and less as time passes.[15] The democratic implications are considerable.

Enter the Sacred Bridge Foundation (SBF). Proclaiming itself to be “dedicated to culture,” defined as “the human context in all aspects of life,” and to “bringing about an era of ethics,” the group brings people of all walks of life (back) together to produce paintings, make music, and discuss difference. SBF approaches these goals via Vox de Cultura,[16] the inter-local radio station that bridges musical traditions to bring localities to global audiences, and Listen to the World (LttW),[17] a website that uses issues surrounding music to tackle cultural matters.

Last month, the group took on the topic of radicalization. LttW’s managing editor, Garry Poluan, had invited me to share my perspective, but I had misgivings: as an outsider, my presence often changes spaces. And since the discussion was to be held in Bahasa Indonesia, I felt more inclined to listen than to share. I wasn’t sure how much I would hear though- open discussions of religious fundamentalism often don’t dig deep, and names aren’t named among conflict-averse Indonesians.

Garry assuaged my concerns and challenged an assumption I’d inadvertently made – the same one that had structured my Newsletter: “It’s not limited to the realm of religion…Radicalization for me is that process of forcing others to believe in that same extreme mindset one has. Whether one is a radical surrealist, anarchist, or race supremacist, s/he can take part in radicalization. A hardcore Surrealist, for instance, who believes that surrealism is the best form of art…is no less radical [than] someone who thinks s/he has the right to force his/her religious belief on others because s/he considers that religion as the only way to ‘succeed’ in life.”

My curiosity sufficiently piqued, I headed over one balmy afternoon to a South Jakarta park. Green space is lacking in this city renowned for its traffic jams, so I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived to find verdant shrubs and a bubbling stream that was relatively clean. It seemed somehow fitting that the pavilion where the event was to be held, the largest of many dotting the park, is called the “Park Cultivation Building.” As we cultivated meaning here, we changed space into place.

Gedung Bina Taman, Langsat Park
The “Park Cultivation Building” served as place for the Sacred Bridge Foundation, a group based on equality and diversity. Fittingly, the building straddled a stream, and thus was itself a sort of bridge.
The inside of the building was decorated with painted canvas and occupied by guests intent on learning more about radicalization.

After some time spent socializing, guests and panelists took seats on the floor of the simply decorated space. In the back of the room lay a large canvas which we would soon be invited to paint on – whatever we wanted, whenever we wished. At the front of the room stood a screen and Garry, who commenced the meeting by introducing the topic and explaining that “radicalization” did not mean terrorism, but rather the extreme mindsets or viewpoints in any subject area that don’t seek to move to the center. After introducing the panelists, our host invited us to speak up at leisure, noting that this was to be a discussion, not a presentation.

I was not entirely surprised when the first speaker, a professor from Lhoksemauwe, East Aceh, started off the “discussion” by framing it squarely on Islamic terrorism. Al Chaidar had been granted the first slot upon declaring that he would be giving a powerpoint presentation, which should have been the first sign things were about to go awry. His presentation, which took over an hour, was titled “Mapping Radical, Fundamentalist, and Terrorist Muslim Groups in Indonesia.”

Listen to the world managing editor Garry Poluan commences the gathering
Professor Al Chaidar took his time with his presentation, titled “Mapping Radical, Fundamentalist, and Terrorist Muslim Groups in Indonesia

When I spoke with Garry after the event, he confided that he felt it was unfortunate that “the discussion got pushed in the direction of radicalism in religion. I had intended it to be more holistic.” From my perspective, though, the professor’s presentation was enlightening: he identified nine specific fundamentalist groups and five radical groups by name, then explained how their increasing integration (their sharing of bonding social capital, as I would put it) has put terrorism on the map in Indonesia. He literally mapped terrorist activity, pointing to specific incidents in the Malukus, Aceh, and elsewhere. Finally, he addressed the influx of Wahhabism and Salafism (a topic I intend to detail in my next Newsletter). In pinning down particular groups, Al Chaidar’s presentation was itself radical.

When I mentioned this to Baiquni, my friend in Aceh, I learned why no one had objected to Al Chaidar hijacking the “discussion” to present his latest findings on religious radicalization: his very presence added meaning to the space, as the professor has gone into hiding several times in the past after receiving death threats related to his publications. Bai recounted that as a child, he would hide Al Chaidar’s book [18] about the Aceh Freedom Movement whenever Indonesian troops came through his neighborhood. It included pictures of soldiers holding severed heads.

Garry gracefully transitioned from the presentation to the discussion he had originally intended. In the second hour, a University of Indonesia professor shared information about cognitive openings and positive psychology, a representative of the Asia Foundation advocated for global ethics and active tolerance, and a cultural geographer spoke specifically of the Parmalim, an ethnic group which pre-exists Indonesia and does not practice any of its recognized religions. The audience joined in, and toward the end, I asked about the role education plays in utilizing cognitive openings to foster active tolerance and inculcate a global ethics, and how that was going in Indonesia. Not well, [19] the panelists and participants agreed.

*                          *                          *

After a short break for maghrib and mingling, food was served and beer and liquor were sold. I would learn later that posters for some of SBF’s first meetings would assure guests that the food would be halal, and that the beer would be cold.

After dinner, the space was opened up to an exhibition of various arts. The choreography of the troupe that performed first danced upon the idea that a diverse three can unite as one. Garry’s stand-up comedy routine flirted with absurdity in witty ways, and the magician who followed added in some radical ribbing for some last laughs. And then we came to the paintings adorning the walls of the hall.

Bringing the night’s formal festivities to an end, an artist who had earlier introduced himself as a “radical kafir” [a loaded word meaning “unbeliever”] shared a meaningful message. With his fellow artists standing beside their paintings, Adikara Rachman [Ed.] identified the graphic designer’s as “illustrative,” the interior decorator’s as “expressive,” and so on and so forth. He then came to the mess on the floor – a hodgepodge of scribbles, drops, dots and lines without apparent intent.

A talented trio twisted and turned themselves into a unified whole.
Throughout dinner and the performances, guests picked up brushes and put paint to paper. Little did we know that we were depicting the rawness of a reality often rejected.

Capturing the theme of the evening and the movement, Adi explained that the piece on the floor is us, together. We are more comfortable viewing the works in isolation, assigned to genres. The neatness appeals, and it applies as well to how we would like to see society, divided into constituencies and framed with names. But the collaboration on the floor is all of the wall art, and more. It incorporates all our creativity by relinquishing control. We view the results as a mess, and struggle to recognize that mess as real, complete, and beautiful. But it is important that we try.

The night wound down to tunes of a group of musicians this event brought together. They decided to call the band “Ibumi” – a portmanteau of Ibu and Bumi. “Mother Earth” – a place we share, a mess we must learn to find beauty in again.

Ibumi rocks out as congregants at the Sacred Bridge Foundation event connect across differences in belief, country of origin, gender, beverage preference, and more. (Photograph taken by Suprapto and provided by the Sacred Bridge Foundation.)

Listen to the World

SBF was formed nearly twenty years ago when a motley crew of businesspeople, professors, artists, activists, and others who elude classification was amalgamated as a pro bono project by a man who humbly ducks limelights, shares credit, and eschews recognition. The second time I meet him, he says that SBF is an attempt to bring together great minds, then immediately qualifies that by adding that Ph.D.s intimidate. To him, the greatest minds are those most passionate for change.

“And change can only happen on the ground,” he tells me. Underscoring the importance of establishing place in creating change, the founding member of the Sacred Bridge Foundation asserts that “if you’re only on the web, you’re not going to win. You have to be on the ground, doing real things.”

The websites of Vox de Cultura and Listen to the World receive over a thousand hits a month, mostly from America (both sites publish in English [20]), and my humble thought partner proudly states that “Listen to the World has a voice.” But he stresses a point that could just as well have come right from the Institute of Current World Affairs’ handbook: perspective-changing publication results from transformative fieldwork, because it is in the field that we learn to see.

“The way we look at things is important. A single perspective can be dangerous. The more perspectives we encounter, the more we know, and the more proportional our decisions will be.”

For all my studies, it seems I am just beginning to see…

 

“And you’re shinin’

like the brightest star

A transmission

on the midnight

radio,
And you’re spinnin’

like a forty-five
Ballerina
dancing to your rock and roll”
~Hedwig and the Angry Inch


[1] Illiza ended up losing the mayoral race in a landslide. Her opponent, Aminullah Usman, nearly doubled her vote total, 18,232 to 9,401. http://mediaindonesia.com/news/read/92346/calon-wali-kota-petahana-banda-aceh-kalah-telak/2017-02-15

[2] http://www.smh.com.au/world/coffee-and-ganja-provide-a-healthy-income-in-aceh-20150111-12ltev.html

[3] http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/08/29/aceh-police-destroy-9-hectares-of-marijuana.html

[4] http://www.sacredbridge.org/

[5] https://sites.utexas.edu/religion-theory/bibliographical-resources/spatial-theory/overview/

[6] http://www.npr.org/2017/02/21/516488403/headstones-vandalized-at-jewish-cemetery-in-missouri

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/world/asia/indonesian-who-embraced-atheism-landed-in-prison.html?_r=0

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/may/03/indonesia-atheists-religious-freedom-aan

[8] http://www.voaindonesia.com/a/jemaat-gereja-hkbp-bekasi-diserang-massa-saat-akan-gelar-kebaktian-natal/1571170.html

[9] http://www.timesofisrael.com/indonesias-last-synagogue-an-intended-heritage-site-destroyed/

[10] http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/05/23/ahmadiyah-mosque-in-c-java-attacked.html

[11] Ahmadi Muslims are considered apostates by most Sunni Muslims because Ahmadis believe the messiah returned to Earth in 1889. Though 90% of Indonesians are Sunni, the nation has not strictly banned Ahmadi practices. This uncomfortable tension over the meaning of “messiah” among Muslims has resulted in a spree of assaults against Ahmadis throughout the archipelago.

[12] Trigger warning: this video depicts graphic violence; viewing it is not for the faint of heart. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfr5pyIIMBM

[13] https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/07/28/indonesia-verdicts-setback-religious-freedom

[14] The prohibition on non-Muslims entering masjids further delimits the space available for interfaith dialogue, which is a significant limiting factor in a country that is 87% Muslim.

[15] http://www.smh.com.au/world/pluralism-in-peril-is-indonesias-religious-tolerance-under-threat-20161222-gth09i.html

[16] http://www.voxdecultura.net/

[17] http://www.listentotheworld.net/

[18] https://www.bukalapak.com/p/hobi-koleksi/buku/sejarah/3p8ld7-jual-gerakan-aceh-merdeka-al-chaidar

[19] http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/02/06/teachers-struggle-to-promote-tolerance.html

http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/02/10/indonesia-aims-to-root-out-bigotry-in-schools-mosques.html

[20] Sacred Bridge Foundation events are facilitated in Bahasa Indonesia. All quotes in this Newsletter are my translations.

The ‘floating people’ of Myanmar: how Rohingya refugees reclaim their identity through art and song

Farzana Kazi Fahmida, University Utara Malaysia

The Moghs [the Rakhine people of Myanmar] refer to us as ‘floating people’ as we do not have citizenship in our country. My grandfather, father, and I were all born and lived there… yet, I am considered a ‘temporary resident’. The Conversation

These words were spoken to me by Kalaya Ahmed, a 62-year-old man, whom I met in a refugee camp in Bangladesh in 2009. Ahmed is a Rohingya. This ethnic religious minority group has been persecuted by the Buddhist majority in Myanmar, assailed by special forces and monk militias.

The United Nations has recently reported appalling atrocities against Rohingyas, including the killings of infants and children in Rakhine State, which Rohingyas call Arakan, its former name.

Rohingyas claim Myanmar citizenship as their natural right and entitlement. However, the Myanmar state political authority continues to deny them any rights, claiming that the Rohingya are “Bengali”, “illegal immigrants” and “outsiders”. Ahmed says:

The Burmese border security force calls us ‘Bengalis’ due to linguistic affinity and skin colour, even though we never came to Bangladesh before. And now I am living here in the camp.

Ahmed is one of those thousands of Rohingya refugees who crossed the border into Bangladesh and is now living as a refugee.

The huge displacement of Rohingyas over the past decade has led more than 400,000 people to flee to Bangladesh alone, and half a million to other countries.

Central to their uncertainty is the question of the group’s political identity. Yet, despite all odds and efforts from the Myanmar authorities to deny Rohingyas any claim of belonging, Ahmed still identifies himself as a citizen of Myanmar and as a Rohingya; a term that the Myanmar government rejects.

The Bangladesh government also rejects Rohingyas. It has recently released a proposal to relocate them to a flood-prone island.

Such denial of rights from both sides has only prolonged the crisis.

Rohingyas at a camp only accessible by boat, in Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar, in 2013.
Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Politics of identity and belonging

How do the Rohingyas identify themselves in the midst of such persecution?

Empirical research among Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh suggests that they understand identity politics very well. They construct their own identity through collective memory of their former life in Rakhine state and their new life in camps. These are expressed through narratives and cultural life using drawings and songs (taranas).

They are highly significant in illustrating their sense of identity and belonging, and in expressing a different form of resistance, without direct confrontation or protest, against the discrimination and violence they have experienced.

The use of drawings is quite common among the Rohingyas. They use drawings to tell stories to their children and to explain why they are in exile, and to send messages to outsiders interested in their case. Whether it is verbal expression or visual expression, a concept that repeatedly appears is persecution or violence.

Anser Ullah, 37 years old, is an undocumented refugee from Maungdaw village, northern Rakhine state of Myanmar. He depicted religious violence and killing in his drawing below.

He told me why he left:

We could not tolerate the persecution anymore. The military and Buddhist monks’ persecution on us has increased so much in recent time. Our ID cards were taken away by the military. We have been evicted from our land and village. Our relatives were killed and many are still missing. Military announced that if we want to stay in Maungdaw, we have to be like them. We have to follow their practice that requires females to uncover their heads when going out, and men to shave their beards and so on. Our mosques, madrasas and cemeteries are being destroyed, and pagodas established in their place.

Reports show that incidents and destruction of cultural and worship spaces have been a regular practice.

Songs are even more widespread in the Rohingya community. They are mainly country songs, religious songs and songs that describe everyday life in camp. Among these, country songs are the most popular.

The song below was shared by a group of refugees in Nayapara camp to express their love and longing for their home.

We migrated to Bangladesh leaving behind our beautiful homes
On our rooftop we had dried food
In our field we had fresh chillies
We migrated to Bangladesh leaving everything behind thinking that we are of the same brotherhood
Now when we look back to the East,
We remember many things of the past
O, where are my beloved parents?
You sent us to Bangladesh
We had to leave our beloved country, Burma

A Rohingya Song from Nayapara camp, Bangladesh, recorded by F.Kazi Fahmida.

The word “home” has a dual meaning in the Rohingya language: it refers to former houses in the village as well as home in the sense of the motherland, Rakhine. Memories of dried food on rooftops and fresh green chilli gardens are symbolic of that concept of life, that stability or peacefulness, which the Rohingyas have lost.

When the refugees look to the east from Bangladesh towards Arakan and the mountain range of Arakan Yoma, they “remember many things of the past”. Many families were split up. Parents sent their young children away from Arakan to save their lives while they themselves chose to stay and die in their homeland. As one refugee told me in 2009:

Our memory should remain alive in our songs and poems. Our children should know why we are here. And if any outsider like you wants to listen us, they would listen to our songs and might understand our situation … We are not able to protest against anyone, so songs and poems are the only way to tell our sorrows and sufferings.

As opposed to the official claim that the Rohingya are foreigners and settlers, Rohingya narratives and cultural expressions suggest that they are indigenous to Rakhine State.

Arkan Deshor Musolman (Muslims of the Land of Arakan), film by F Kazi Fahmida.

These narratives express a form of resistance, not only against their socioeconomic and political conditions, but also the identity that has been imposed on them by officials and society. Their songs are “weapons of the weak”.

Rohingyas do not demand a separate state, but rather a separate identity and explicit recognition by the state. Through cultural expression, they remind themselves, and the world, of who they are.

This is the second of a two-part series on the plight of Rohingyas in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Farzana Kazi Fahmida, Senior Lecturer, University Utara Malaysia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Your future food will be grown with waste water

Serena Caucci, United Nations University and Kristin Meyer, United Nations University

In an increasingly water-scarce world, there is no doubt that recycling water we’ve already used has to become normal. Part of that will inevitably mean using waste water to help grow the food we need. But will we ever feel comfortable using waste water for food production? The Conversation

The reality is that this is already happening but more needs to be done to keep communities safe from the dangers of using untreated waste water.

The use of waste water for food production is mainly a question of managing water shortage and socioeconomic costs. Exponential population growth and climate change have seriously compromised water availability in many regions, from the Middle East to Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Local communities urgently need to find solutions to the problem of increasing water scarcity.

If used properly, waste water can provide important nutrients for plant growth and act as a replacement for mineral fertilisers. But it should be used for agricultural purposes only after being treated. Unfortunately, in many regions of the world, the reality is far from that.

Agricultural and water policies have not sufficiently addressed the inherent threats posed by the use of untreated waste water for irrigation. Often, hazardous materials in the form of heavy metals, organic contaminants, pathogens or antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be found in waste water. These accumulate in soils, crops and groundwater and so pass into the food chain.

If evidence of the threats to human health and the environment are readily available, why are so many farmers still using untreated waste water for irrigation purposes?

In developing countries, the use of untreated waste water has one big advantage: it is cost-free. This means farmers use it for irrigation of crops without taking the necessary precautions to avoid public health risks.

Today, waste water irrigates between 1.5% and 6.6% of farmland worldwide; about 10% of world’s food is produced using the practice. But the true extent of untreated waste water being used illegally for agriculture is unknown.

The Mezquital Valley in Mexico perfectly illustrates the issues involved. Rapid urbanisation and inadequate treatment facilities have led farmers in the valley to use untreated waste water from Mexico City for irrigation purposes. For more than a century, this practice has helped grow marketable crops at low production costs.

But these benefits come at the cost of the health of the population. The use of contaminated water for crops growth has resulted in severe gastrointestinal disease and cancer in the local community. Infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people whose immune systems are compromised because of HIV/AIDS are especially vulnerable.

It is not a coincidence that the Mezquital Valley has the highest incidence of kidney cancer in the region as well as occurrence of helminth or Giardia infections in children.

Farmers in the Mezquital Valley have been using waste water for a century. Alextorrej, CC BY-SA

Only by developing eco-friendly sanitation strategies has the reduction of water pollution loads while conserving the benefits of nutrients been possible. Since 1999, local waste-water plants have been built, and new wetlands have been constructed with satisfying results for water quality. But the people of the valley are still sceptical about the benefits of treated waste water.

The experience of industrialised countries shows that even advanced waste-water treatment technologies struggle to address all risks. The presence of emerging pollutants and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in waste water are known to escape conventional waste-water treatment.

Needless to say, these contaminants are, even at low concentrations, a serious threat to human health. We need technologies and structured monitoring to ensure swift responses in order to keep communities safe.

There is no escaping the fact that our future food will be grown using waste water. Local communities like those in the Mezquital Valley can only do so much to protect themselves; regulations and government policies must be evaluated alongside the scientific evidence for the danger waste water can pose to human health. Only then can safe use of waste water in agriculture stimulate sustainable development in our water-scarce world.

Serena Caucci, Researcher, United Nations University and Kristin Meyer, Researcher, United Nations University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Shade of Northern Lights: A Current Reflection

How many people do you know would collect orange seeds, put them in a pocket, and throw them on land where they can fruitfully grow? We know one, Semsar Siahaan (1952-2005) [Ed.]**.

A sensitive character in a desensitized world, Semsar concerns himself with issues of humanity and disparity. Born in Medan, North Sumatra, 11 June 1952, Semsar spent his later life contemplating and working in British Columbia, Canada. There, came the idea for one of his most iconic works, G-8 Pizza. It showcases not only his stellar technical ability in painting, but also his concerns in life.

Semsar indeed is a man who feels. He considers his soul stolen by the agenda of global organizations.

Pizza, a global favorite, is a metaphor for the world. Right in the center are characters symbolizing strong economies controlling the human race standing behind them, i.e. on the periphery of the pizza/world. Eight slices are portions of the world divided among these G-8 countries.

Semsar’s other paintings present similar elements and messages. One created in Canada presents a view of how Native Americans are treated. Nature, a spiritual symbol of ancestry for the Native Americans, carelessly destroyed.

It wasn’t just Canada that shaped him though. In Jakarta, his works were carried by protesters against the new order regime prior to the fall of Suharto. Indeed, his concerns on humanity and disparity had been present during his university days in Bandung, Indonesia, long before his move to Canada.

The following article was written in 2004 as a companion to Semsar’s exhibition event at Indonesia’s National Gallery. It was written by our advisor, Serrano Sianturi, who was then the Managing Director of our parent organization, Sacred Bridge Foundation.

What truly intrigues us is the relevance of Semsar’s concerns 13 years after this article was written. Are we not still living in the same world Semsar grew up in? Disparity is far from over, especially when differences are involved. Even within the borders of developed countries today, disparity amongst different races and/or religions is still blatant.

Globalization is also a struggle. US President Trump’s immigration ban is a direct attack on the free flow of people. Continuing presence of protectionism very well affects free flow of capital. Meanwhile, the use of politically correct culture solely to avoid public outcry means free flow of information still struggles to transform us into a knowledge society. I think we can all agree how easy it is today, still, to find ignorance.

We hope the following article can be a way to reflect how far we have come and where we should go.


Throughout history, humans realized one decisive revolution, the industrial revolution. Within 150 years after its commencement, world’s gross domestic product has grown twice as large as total production of the last 6000 years. The industrial output of the 150 years is equivalent to two-thirds of the output of those 6000 years. It is an amazing achievement, no doubt about it. However, with the enormous growth, along came huge costs, such as the sky rocketing population level, relentless exploitation of natural resources, and environmental degradation, among others.

Now that we are entering the third millennium, the abovementioned problems are far from being solved. Yet, humans are already anticipating the formation of another revolution, with its own major problems. This time it is technology (comprising acceleration, convergence, and digitalization) and economy (including deregulation, privatization, and globalization) that are driving change.

It is safe to say, within the context of technology and science, that we are now living in an age of miracles. Humans have successfully climbed the steps to heaven when we explored outer space, drew the genetic code of humans, unfolded the mystery of the human brain, and created information advancements. They have brought us well being, but also left us one open question: are they accompanied by an equally sound progress in our ethics?

We have left, it seems, the age of ignorance. With information technology, we can now tap a gigantic pool of information within minutes, if not seconds. Misery in Africa, war in the Middle East, natural disaster in South Asia, forest fire in Sumatra, we can now get hold of such knowledge almost instantly thanks to our technological progress. The question is thus whether we have become more sensitive than our ancestors to human problems? Are we now in a better position to help our suffering brothers and sisters? If we have to answer with a reluctant “no”, then we have to ask further, what was the point of reaching those technological advancements in the first place?

Within the realm of economy, problems lie not only at the ethical level, but also in implementation. After the collapse of Soviet Union, capitalism has become the only globally dominant economic system. However, within the decades of “lonely” capitalism, we have seen more contradictions and problems than before – although there have also been plenty of proofs for increased welfare and justice. Capitalism becomes confused when it plays the role of the sole world economic system. It can no longer uphold one of its dogmas, competition, after its competitor abandoned the race.

There are other problems. The main principles of capitalism, “let the market rule” and “free competition”, actually contradict another important principle, democracy. The rule “one man one vote”, coined to protect equality and analogized with free competition where everyone has a chance, is really contrasting economic inequality, where only a handful dominates because of the same free competition principle.

Deregulation and privatization have also been conducted in the name of free competition, with the aim of reducing government intervention in the economy. Efficiency, an objective of market economy, is sought to be attained. Unfortunately, this ‘positive’ intention results in the government’s weakened problem-solving capability in handling economic issues. Simply remind ourselves of diminishing budgets and facilities for, among others, education, health, small and medium enterprises, and the arts, to look for proof. Also keep in mind that these problems occur in both developed and developing countries.

Globalization, basically the free flow of trade, capital, information, and human resources, has brought more benefits to economically advanced countries. For developing countries, this discourse has been hampered by the establishment of economic blocs. Every bloc is busy creating regulations to protect itself against competition from other blocs. This is ironically the reverse of free trade, a principle of free competition.

Free flow of capital, hoped to provide developing countries’ access to foreign investment, has not been sufficiently regulated. As a result, an investment can move between countries at anytime. Not only has economic stability become difficult to maintain, availability of employment becomes unpredictable. Furthermore, the under-regulated money market has made the concept of trade-of-balance irrelevant in the calculation of foreign exchange rates. A sound foreign exchange rate has become very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain.

Free flow of information through the Internet, news, and entertainment media has also not shown substantial progress. We are still a long way from a knowledge society. We also realize now the negative implications of global news and entertainment on local cultures.

Free flow of human resources is actually nothing new. Migrations have happened since the early days of humans. Today however, it is almost completely confined within the economic realm. Previously, migration occurred because of slavery, cheaper land, and ideological differences, among others. Now, it is almost always driven by higher wages. “Brain drain” is one the inevitable consequences.

Globalization is not absolutely “bad”. There have been positive developments. One of them concerns war. Because globalization has efficiently reformed the base of welfare and power to become non-territorial, war is no longer part of the major countries’ conflict resolution. Furthermore, the emergence of transnational activist networks, where people share a commitment towards human rights, the environment, economic wellbeing, as well as inter-civilization dialogue, is an effect of the free flow of information. Whether acknowledged or not, the anti-globalization movement has itself benefitted from the positive side of globalization. Sense of freedom is more palpable in the era of globalization. Democratization sounds louder in many parts of the world today.

This Janus-faced globalization, with all of its contradictions and dilemmas, has puzzled many. It has made people anxious. Bounded as communities, it gave people the right to become suspicious. The confrontations between those who favor and those who hinder have not refined the meaning of globalization. On the contrary, they have caused it to move without direction: two steps to the left, then forwards three steps, to the right one step, only to move four steps backward. For the neoliberals who prefer globalization, the future is bright. For those who oppose it, globalization is nothing more that the internationalization of capitalism, which will only bring more oppression, exploitation, and injustice.

However, injustice is the one issue that can be agreed upon by the two camps. It is also impossible to speak about injustice without mentioning the issue of human rights. They too face serious problems in this era of globalization. The first concern is in conjunction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is too oftenly cited in human rights campaigns all over the world. The use of the word “declaration” has not only limited the authority of this rule, but also made it unbinding. It is thus unsurprising that even oppressive government heads could easily adopt the declaration, because they knew it would not affect their leadership style.

This declaration is doomed to fail from the start, because it ignores the views of indigenous people and Islam. Indigenous people, represented by the Informal Working Group of Indigenous Populations, have claimed the right to self-determination, and asked for the acknowledgement of their societies as different and separated from the general public, but equal contituents of the human race. However, as of today, their demands are locked away at the UN. As for Muslims, the fact that they have not been involved in the formulation of the declaration is one of the decisive factors of the West’s questionable purchase of Islam.

Second, the issue of human rights has become a foreign politics tool for advanced countries in the northern hemisphere, to be used at will against developing countries in the southern hemisphere. Human rights become important when related to their foreign political interests, irrelevant when it comes to their own land. The development of human rights, like other things, should start at home, where infractions are real and painful.

Third, the upholding of human rights frequently confronts problematic conditions. In the case of reconciliation, for instance, which is a way towards peace, rule of law as a pillar of justice too often has to be disobeyed. If, on the other hand, justice has to be maintained, peace may not occur. More often than not, this condition occurs when one regime takes over another, or when two countries engage in war. Another example is the case of humanitarian intervention vis-à-vis sovereignty. We know that sovereignty is but one implementation of human rights. Up to this day, we still reject foreign intervention. However, interventions are often necessary to free people from repression and misery. This “noble” act is, in fact, a violation of the principle of sovereignty.

Another problematic condition rises from the issue of inter-generational economic rights. Poverty alleviation is both urgent and a worldwide phenomenon. Yet, because of its size and earnestness, it often justifies the consumption of natural resources in gigantic proportions, thus taking away the economic rights of our children and grandchildren.

It is this labyrinthine complexity, with all its awkwardness and difficulties, that was depicted by Semsar Siahaan during his domicile in Victoria, British Colombia, Canada. We sense such enormous emotions within his works of art and can feel his sincere intentions to change this sad fact of humanity. We have also found a glimpse of despair in his newest paintings and art installation. Therefore, we believe that this art exhibition is best presented as an aesthetical experience, so that all of us can start to do something to uphold human rights within our own homes. It is all important to summon the citizenry, popular sectors, and vulnerable constituencies of societies to develop a political language and effective means to collect and distribute relevant information. With such an active participation and consultation, there is hope for a culture of human rights and humane relations between state, society, and individual.

Our deepest gratitude to Semsar for entrusting us to organize this single person art installation and painting exhibition titled “The Shade of Northern Lights”. It is a great honor to participate in this outstanding event. We also salute Semsar for his persistence in defending human rights from abuse and ignorance wherever he stands. A word of appreciation is also extended to the State Minister for Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia, TIFA Foundation, Todung Mulya Lubis, UNESCO Regional Office Jakarta. We thank them for their generous support. Not to forget, we would like to apologize for all things short of what has been expected from us in the organizing of this exhibition.

Serrano Sianturi
Managing Director

[Ed.]*

G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man by Semsar Siahaan
G-8 Pizza and The Study of The Falling Man by Semsar Siahaan, 2003 Canada
G-8 Pizza by Semsar Siahaan
G-8 Pizza, charcoal on used corrugated cardboard

Featured image at the top of page is a painting by Semsar Siahaan titled “I wish I’m a Seagull“.

*Original article was slightly edited to better match our format.

**Slight edit. We added information about Semsar. He was born in 1952 and passed away in 2005, around five months after this exhibition.