Back to the Farm

The city takes as easily as it gives. Like many "mega-cities" throughout the developing world, Jakarta has with one hand given unprecedented opportunity while with the other deprived migrants of the social support and familiarity of traditional rural life. So, when Saleema Srijomo was forced by circumstances to migrate to Jakarta for work, Saraswati, her widowed mother, looked forward to the extra income, but remained slightly apprehensive about losing her daughter to the city. The 5 acres of land owned by Saleema’s family had for generations provided enough food to survive, as well as a small surplus to sell in local markets. In the mid-1990s, however, this all changed when nearby large-scale resort developers began diverting water, leading to declining yields, and with it diminished earnings for Saleema’s family. With financial pressures mounting, Saraswati encouraged her 17 year-old daughter, Saleema, to drop out of school to support the family. As one of the thousands of young Indonesian rural migrants in urban centers, Saleema felt confident that Jakarta’s frenzied economic activity would provide her with ample opportunities to earn enough money both for her personal needs and to supplement the earnings of her family back in the village. With dreams of making it big and escaping the poverty and monotony of home, Saleema boarded an overnight bus in her village of Banjarjo in central Java and headed to Jakarta. Within two weeks of arriving, Saleema was already sewing shirts in a garment factory for an American multinational clothing company, and stood ready to realize the promise and opportunity offered by urban life.

Or so it seemed. Soon after Indonesia’s currency, the rupiah, lost 50% of its value in just 5 months, Jakarta’s booming economy ground to a halt, leaving many construction projects unfinished and abandoned. Saleema soon found herself out of work and without a social safety net to support her. A discouraged Saleema slipped back to Banjarjo only to find nothing but parched rice paddies on her family’s plot of land. Adding insult to injury, the ravages of El Niño compounded the nightmare of currency devaluation by causing massive drought throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Not only did Saraswati lose the steady income previously sent by Saleema from Jakarta, but she now had one more mouth to feed. Adding to this stress were the rising prices of oil and other basic commodities which meant that, like many Indonesians, Saraswati now had to make less money go even further than before. Meanwhile, there’s nothing for Saleema to do all day but to weave cotton shifts, which are sold along the sidewalks of the nearest town. Unfortunately, most people would rather spend their money on essentials like water. "It’s tough to make even 100 rupiah [1.6 U.S. cents] these days," says Saleema. "I want to take a bath, and there’s no water. I want to buy it, but I have no money." Staring blankly into the distance, Saleema ruefully comments: "I don’t belong in the village. I want to go back to Jakarta, but I’m afraid." Although the future may be uncertain for Saraswati and Saleema, they at least acknowledge that parched, barren land is better than no land at all - for the millions of landless Indonesian peasants, the future looks bleak indeed.