JAKARTA • Indonesian President Joko Widodo has ordered the start-up of a dam which has been delayed for decades, forcing the remaining villagers to evacuate as the valley fills with water over the next seven months.
Initial filling of the Jatigede Dam in West Java started on Monday with Public Works and Housing Minister Basuki Hadimuljono sounding a siren. Still in the way of the irrigation and hydroelectric-power project: about a fifth of the 40,000 villagers living in the valley who have yet to receive compensation.
"Where are we going to go?" said Mr Casma Casmita, a rice farmer who was born in the village of Cipaku, near the dam. He says he received 29 million rupiah (S$2,900) in compensation, but has nowhere to move to.
"Where is my son going to go to school? We are not moving, we are being driven out."
Around him, villagers dismantled their homes while their children attended school. They have been told the water will reach them in 52 days, sooner if it rains.
Villagers have been given plenty of time to move out and they are being compensated, said Dr Hadimuljono. "We have been planning this for months. Up until last night, we were combing villages looking for holdouts."
It is the second time within days that the President, widely known as Jokowi, has pushed ahead with a power project over the objections of landowners and villagers. Last Friday, he attended a ceremony to start construction of a US$4 billion (S$5.6 billion) coal-fired power project in Batang, Central Java, even as some farmers hold out against selling their land.
The determination to force through infrastructure encapsulates Indonesia's struggle to forge a modern economy in its scattered archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. The country can generate only about 53 gigawatts of power, less than Australia, which has about one-tenth of the population.
To change that, Mr Joko has to overturn centuries of culture based on an agrarian society. Land, especially rice fields, is central to the social hierarchy and the loss of precious farms, fear of unemployment and pollution, and allegations of corruption have hardened resistance to change.
"It looks either desperate or exasperated," said Mr Paul Rowland, an independent Jakarta-based political consultant.
"He is staking personal prestige on these things. If it works, he is golden. If it doesn't, he risks losing public confidence on a key issue."
In Cipaku, one of the first villages that will be flooded for the dam, at least 1,000 people remain even though the director of dams at the public works ministry said on Monday it had been emptied. Villagers were piling up tiles and wooden beams and washing cupboards as they took apart their homes.
"There is a place to put rubbish, why is there no place to put me and my family?" said Mr Casmita.
Planning for the Jatigede Dam on the Cimanuk River stretches back to at least the 1960s. A World Bank report from 1979 said the Indonesian government had decided not to proceed because of the cost of construction and relocation of residents.
Construction of the dam finally began in 2007 and was largely completed last year by Beijing- based Sinohydro Corp under an engineering, procurement and construction contract.
The Jatigede Dam's US$150 million turbines are expected to start operating in 2019, according to Sinohydro's website. The dam would flood almost 50 sq km. It will be Indonesia's second-largest dam, according to the website of the public works ministry.