Ciliwung Merdeka: Reclaiming the human dignity of the poor

Under the guardianship of Sandyawan Sumardi, a social activist, a poor community living on the riverbank of Ciliwung River in the most crowded area of Jakarta has been struggling to regain its human rights. Ciliwung is the name of the river that run through Jakarta and brings floods during the rainy season, as the mountainous areas above Jakarta turn from forest and water reservoir into beautiful villas for the rich. Amidst economic hardship and dire environmental conditions, this poor and vulnerable community is has set up "Ciliwung Merdeka," or Free Ciliwung, a mobilizing platform to voice their social and political aspirations as members of the city and as Indonesian citizens.

Free Ciliwung is a voluntary self-help neighborhood forum addressing various social activities including how to cope with frequent flooding, how to respond to forced eviction from the city authorities, and organized learnings on HIV-AIDS prevention and drug issues that are rampant among the urban youth. This forum was launched in 2000 by several social activists following the collapse of the Suharto regime, under the belief that a concrete project was necessary to help the urban poor in their struggle to improve their livelihood.

In the words of Sandyawan Sumardi, the man behind this people's forum, the ultimate goal of Free Ciliwung is simply "to empower community members to become healthy, happy, independent, and openly communicative despite challenges of poverty". Sumardi explains that “we try to get into the total conversation with their situation of uncertainty and alienation resulted from the dominant urban development discourse that structurally causes inequalities and how social, economic and political marginalization limits their life skills and capacity". A kind of "participatory action research" methodology is employed to emphatically understand not only the daily problems confronted by the poor, but also to locate these issues in the wider contexts of systemic domination that are creating and marginalizing the urban poor.

The slum communities in the Bukit Duri and Kampung Pulo Villages are described by Sumardi as "leftover spaces": densely populated riverbanks, railways, and underpasses where homes and places of work overlap. Residents are "survivors" who live with irregular pay, insecure land tenure, and no access to bank credit. They take on a negative stigma and thus become the scapegoats of irregularities and problems of the city. They are despised in the city planning management system. They are the people for whom access to basic needs is always uncertain, for whom eviction and flooding are always imminent, compounded with exclusion from access to social, economic, political, and cultural systems.

The commitment and dedicated work done by Sumardi and his volunteer network in advocating for the poor through the Ciliwung Merdeka platform has been recognized by the current governor and vice governors of Jakarta, Jokowi and Ahok. These governors have adopted Sumardi and his team's ideas regarding the housing model to be used along the poor river bank areas like Bukit Duri and Kampung Pulo. Jokowi and Ahok visited the community during their campaign, and came back shortly after being inaugurated as new governor and vice governor of Jakarta.

It has been a fascinating social experiment to witness how a grassroots volunteer movement has eventually linked up with the city's highest authority and has become the source of inspiration and the model of spatial renovation of poor urban settlements in the river bank of Ciliwung River in Jakarta.

Photo credit: DMahendra

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