A Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in a Ted Talk forum shared about risks from a “single perspective” in some stories. Either a single perspective about a person, group of people, places, events, and others. Chimamanda said that a single perspective can disobey a reality and make some stereotypes and prejudices. On another side, the problem with stereotypes is not that they are not true. But because it is not complete. Stereotypes make some stories the only stories and make judgments.
It is often attached to certain groups of people who in our social position are often considered as “lower class” or “peripheral society”. One of them happened with pemulung (scavenger). As explained by Rusydan Fathy in his article entitled “Sampah Perkotaan dan Cara Pemulung Memperkuat Komunitasnya” (2019), negative stereotypes are still perpetuated against the pemulung community because their activities are considered illegal and disturbing. This is different from the janitor who is recruited by each local government where they earn a monthly salary. It’s interesting because society has different impressions and responses to the two parties who both “dedicate” their time and energy to cleaning up other people’s trash.
Here is the issue from a “single perspective” about pemulung. They didn’t have room to speak up and show the strategies about what they are doing and living. In fact, within a certain distance, other realities may emerge that have never been discussed by stereotypical narratives.
It happens when we hear the story of Wiwik Istiyanti. In 2007 she chose to move to live around Piyungan Integrated Waste Management Site, Yogyakarta after previously living in Pleret, Bantul, Yogyakarta. This happened when in that year there was an expansion of the waste disposal area at Piyungan Integrated Waste Management Site. “For us, it is a job opportunity,” she explained. When she moved, she did not immediately become a pemulung. Until 2010, Wiwik had earned his livelihood from the thirst and hunger of the pemulung at the Piyungan Integrated Waste Management Site by becoming a victualler. “But it was so exhausting. For me, it was better to become pemulung,” he said.
It also happened for Asmawi. For this 49-year-old father of three, becoming pemulung is a more promising option than his previous job as a construction worker.
Because History Doesn’t Belong to Pemulung
It is difficult to trace since when the negative stereotype of pemulung emerged. And maybe because they are already categorized as a marginal group, they don’t deserve a place in history. But there was a time when rulers wrote about them. Not in historical research records but in administrative records of governments concerned about the particular potentials of marginalized groups. Older records are even found in ancient literature.
Ong Hok Ham in his essay in Tempo, July 17, 1982, entitled “Gelandangan dari Masa ke Masa” (Vagrants from the Time Period) noted that for the first time in Java there were reports of groups of vagrants at the end of the 18th century. The report, which came from the governor to the resident, stated that between Yogyakarta and Semarang there were around 35,000 manual laborers known as batur. These batur wore tight loincloth, no clothes and a permanent home and mostly worked as coolies (kuli) (a term that only emerged in the 19th century). Subsequent reports suggest that these batur tend to spend their extra money on gambling. Also, they are considered as savages, ready to join any rebellion that promises prosperity of fate. Ong Hok Ham later wrote that in the twentieth century a group in a town similar to a batur might have been rickshaw drivers and other rough coolies. A group that is considered wild.
This definition has existed in the narrative of city or government security since the late 18th century. The definition of marginalized groups, including pemulung (scavengers), as illegal communities does come from the authorities. This is because of the potential involvement of these groups in insurgency movements that can disrupt the political stability of the authorities. Regardless of whether they really easily joined the rebellion or not, the Dutch colonials saw this group as a potential power base for the rebellion; one of them is the batur group of Diponegoro. In the development of the 21st century, perhaps this wild group is more diverse, not only pedicab drivers and coolies but also scavengers.
Denys Lombard in “Nusa Jawa: Silang Budaya” (The Javanese Crossroads: Towards a Global History), 3rd edition (2005) writes that official royal sources have stated that this marginal group has semi-nomadic characteristics, which existed long before the kingdom, as a lowly group. Meanwhile, there are not a few stories of great figures who find the way of life and wisdom from the area where the despicable group is located.
In the Pararaton or “Kitab Raja-Raja” (Book of the Kings), a kind of prose chronicle written in the 16th century, the life of Ken Arok, the future founder of the Singasari Kingdom (1222) has been narrated. The text, which was written 3 centuries after the incident, told the story of Ken Arok who departed from the suburbs, until finally he was able to control the kingdom of Tunggul Ametung. In his life as a fringe person, he met and studied a lot with religious experts, astronomers, great gamblers, and blacksmiths. A peripheral setting that actually holds a lot of knowledge and tactics to survive; a quiet place and far from “civilization”, but a jungle of knowledge for anxious souls.
Then what is no less surprising, is a story about the escape of Jayengresmi (Amongraga) who finds his wisdom through a long (spiritual) adventure, not in the center of government, but in the outskirts where the “despicable people” are often inhabited. The story is told in Serat Centini, a literary work created in Solo in the early 19th century, which is thought to contain a summary of the special and occult knowledge possessed by wise men in the mountains and in the jungle. This famous literary work is the last echo of the world on the outskirts of Java, which until now has functioned as an important part of cultural heritage. Even their large role in the Physical Revolution in Yogyakarta, when many beggars joined the guerrilla, does not seem to be counted as another story about marginal groups.
Pemulung: In Between of Modernization
The position of pemulung today can be seen as an iceberg phenomenon. Venti Wijayanti in her article entitled “Polemik Sampah DIY: Dari Depo Dayu Hingga TPST Piyungan” published in Mata Jendela Magazine, Volume XIV, Number 2, 2020, wrote that the complex problems of the waste world occur because of people’s mode of consumption in the context of global capitalism.
Modern society has only relied upon production and consumption. In Yogyakarta, as reported by local newspaper Kedaulatan Rakyat, during the lockdown and restriction policy by the government, there has been an increase in orders for plastic packaging for food from consumers. The use of plastic as a food packaging itself is believed to protect food and drink from contamination. From this point of view, instead of environmental awareness, the use of plastic is more based on safety and consumers’ enjoyment.
This is a complex situation. When we talk about waste by considering the position of pemulung as a social group that supports our waste management by 60%, then we need to dig deeper: today’s issue of garbage is also related to the culture of the city’s people which has been chaotic for a long time. Urbanism, production-consumer culture, and tourism seem to be separate topics from the discussion of waste.
Ironically, something that becomes a livelihood for pemulung is often considered a threat, especially for the environment. Moreover, this situation raises awareness to reduce waste production and encourage an adequate waste management model. Not only at the government level, but waste management efforts are also even carried out at the individual and community level.
For the sake of the environment, these efforts may be imagined as an ideal way to manage waste. But it seems too soon to be called wise. Imagine, when we can process waste properly on a massive scale. Without disrespect for the environmentalist, it can become a potential issue. Because, indirectly, the economic sustainability of pemulung is very dependent on the pile of garbage.
It happened in Piyungan Integrated Waste Management Site. Restrictions on community activities, which are practically followed by a decrease in waste production, are crushing them. According to the data released by Special Regional of Yogyakarta’s Agency for Regional Development, during 2021 running, the average volume of waste that is processed “only” reaches 720 tons/day. This figure is smaller than the average volume of waste processed in 2020, which is 772.72 tons/day.
As a result, it also hit the income for pemulung. Asmawi, for example, said that the selling price of waste at middlemen fell by an average of 50% during the pandemic. The same thing is also said by Wiwik. She said that during the pandemic the value of waste was valued at only Rp. 500/kg by middlemen, who used to sell their waste products. The price is far from the usual which can reach Rp. 2,000/kg. They compactly said that the price decline occurred because the middlemen also had difficulty selling to factories, which usually buy waste to be recycled into certain materials according to the commodities they sell.
A Classic Question: Where is the State?
Another problem that the scavengers are concerned about is related to the modernization of waste processing at the Piyungan Integrated Waste Processing Site (TPST Piyungan). So far, management using the “pile up and flatten” model has never actually processed the waste, causing excess capacity and causing the need for land in Piyungan to increase. To overcome this, as reported by Kompas, the Provincial Government of the Special Region of Yogyakarta is said to be preparing a scheme to present waste processing technology at the Piyungan Integrated Waste Processing Site. The government is taking a Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme. With this scheme, the government offers investors who are interested in processing waste at the Piyungan Integrated Waste Processing Site. The plan is a scourge for scavengers because it has the potential to erase their livelihood from waste. Especially if there is no clear mechanism and guarantee about the extent to which the scavenger group was involved when the waste management company in Piyungan Integrated Waste Processing Site was established.
We need to re-examine this government choice. Will the use of advanced technology solve the waste problem? Once again, the problem of waste is not only a matter of landfills and land area, but also concerns the culture of the community itself. If we look closely, in addition to the factors of production-consumption patterns of industrial society, policies regarding waste so far have also contributed to people’s bad habits in treating waste.
Before the Indonesian Presidential Decree Number 97 of 2017 concerning National Policies and Strategies for the Management of Household Waste and Types of Household Waste (Jakstranas) and the Indonesian Presidential Decree Number 83 of 2018 concerning Marine Waste Management were enacted, the central and regional governments used SNI 3242: 2008 regarding Waste Management in the Settlement as a benchmark. This is a waste management policy that aims to maximize the 3R concept (reduce, reuse, recycle) by involving the local community. The goal is that the need for land and equipment in the landfill can be reduced. Meanwhile, the 2018 Presidential Regulation is more oriented towards regulating the flow of waste management coordination, both from the community and its stakeholders.
Perhaps the government’s good intentions did not reach the people’s hearts because of the affirmation model carried out in the form of providing incentives with a competition of cleanness mechanism and increasing the procurement of waste facilities. Obviously, it’s not all a holistic step. What was the result? When the government “delegates” the responsibility for waste management to the community, the community actually only “relies on” mobile waste officers as waste managers. So, does advanced technology answer this question?
It could be that the solution to positioning the scavenger group correctly has not yielded proportional results because of the stuttering perspective that has been used so far: structural functionalism in the style of modern development. Abdul Ghofur (2009) in his research entitled “Manusia Gerobak: Kajian mengenai Taktik-Taktik Pemulung Jatinegara di Tengah Kemiskinan Kota” (Manusia Gerobak: A Study of the Tactics of Jatinegara Scavengers in the Middle of Urban Poverty), mentions that the structural paradigm of functionalism places them as the poor who are static, lazy, and powerless. This is also increasingly raised when many people consider something that has become trash no longer valuable. In fact, as mentioned by Wiwik, Asmawi and perhaps other scavengers, a mountain of garbage is a place where sustenance is collected. Are they less active when the practice of earning their livelihood contributes greatly to the waste problem in our place?
This article is a part of Nerpati Palagan’s documentary project on waste pickers amid the pandemic, supported by the Staying Resilient Amid the Pandemic in Southeast Asia initiative of SEA Junction in partnership with CMB and WIEGO.
Fathy, R. (2019, April 8). Sampah Perkotaan dan Cara Pemulung Memperkuat Komunitasnya. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/sampah-perkotaan-dan-cara-pemulung-memperkuat-komunitasnya-114997.
Firdaus, Haris & Nino Citra Anugrahanto. (2020, December 23). Atasi Masalah di TPST Piyungan, Pemprov DIY Cari Investor untuk Olah Sampah. Kompas. https://www.kompas.id/baca/nusantara/2020/12/23/atasi-masalah-di-tpst-piyungan-pemda-diy-cari-investor-untuk-olah-sampah.
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Wijayanti, Venti. (2020, August 19). Polemik Sampah DIY: Dari Depo Dayu Hingga TPST Piyungan. Mata Jendela, 14(2), 12-17.