Mon, 22 May 2000

Rich Kutai poor in infrastructure, facilities

By Anton Sudarisman

KUTAI, East Kalimantan (JP): Radiman stared in distress at his truck, trapped in a muddy road for four hours. He tried to tow it, but it would not even start.

What Radiman worried most about was the vegetables on the truck. If they rotted before they could be delivered to market he would lose a week's pay.

Radiman is one of the many drivers in East Kutai, East Kalimantan, who is frustrated by the muddy and potholed roads connecting small towns in the regency. Some of the muddy holes are wide enough to trap vehicles. The hole where Radiman's truck became stuck is about 1.5 meters deep and 100 meters long.

Bengalon, Kaliorang and Sangkulirang are three of the smaller towns in the regency badly affected by the poor road conditions in the area. Tens of thousands of residents are left with poor and expensive access to other towns. As transportation is infrequent, prices of basic needs have soared.

Local farmers feel it hardest of all.

"We grew good rice and vegetables this year, but we cannot sell them," says Pailing, who lives in Sangkulirang.

"I grew pumpkins, but they were left to rot since I couldn't get a truck to transport them to the market," says Jumiun, another farmer in the village.

Meanwhile, Ruslan, a farmer in Kaliorang, has left his corn in sacks for three months while he waits for buyers. "Corn prices have dropped to only Rp 500 per kg, but still nobody can carry it to the market," he says.

Poor public roads and other facilities have been a paradox for people in Kutai Timur, East Kalimantan. The regency is blessed with a multitude of natural resources, particularly coal, gold and timber. In 1999, the regency generated US$31 million in government revenue from a coal contract operating in the area alone. The company also contributed some Rp 300 billion in value- added tax.

East Kutai is also rich in timber, with thousands of cubic meters sent to various destinations in Indonesia, legally or otherwise, every day. The forest also supports material for a plywood factory operating in Bengalon.

Despite the abundant wealth, public facilities are poor in this region. Of hundreds of kilometers of the Eastern Trans- Kalimantan road connecting small towns in the regency, only a fraction of the 30 kms are paved. The quality of asphalt is poor and easily damaged by the rain.

Ironically, electricity is a problem. While the area exports 12 million tons of high-quality coal to power generators across Asia and Europe, people dwelling in the area live with no or very limited electricity. Only those living in Sangatta, the capital of East Kutai, receive electricity round-the-clock. People in Bengalon and Sangkulirang only have electricity at night, while most inhabitants live with no electricity at all.

"With that handsome fortune, the government should have built more decent facilities such as a road to help farmers sell their products," said local NGO activist Eddy Halid. He added that clean water and schools also were badly needed.

Halid asserted the government was slow in addressing public interests. Many of the big muddy potholes along the roads, for instance, have been left untouched for months. "The local government has been ignorant while it's too busy talking about politics," he said.

Three months ago farmers in Sangkulirang staged a protest to bring their plight to the attention of East Kalimantan Governor AF Suwarna. He visited the area for a harvest ritual.

"We don't ask for a hot-mixed road. We simply ask for a hardened and well-maintained road so that we can take our agricultural products to nearby towns," Abdullah, a farmer who took part in the protest, said.

Suwarna promised he would pay immediate attention to the situation.

"However, we haven't seen any action taken. The holes are still there after months. We don't see the government is serious about helping us," says Abdullah.

The acting regent of Kutai Timur, Awang Ishak Faroek, explained the road project in his area was not yet his responsibility.

He said it should be taken care of by Kutai Induk, the parent regency. "We don't have any money at the moment," he explained. Awang said he asked Kutai Induk to monitor contractors who were responsible for the road maintenance work.

While officials debate who is responsible for the development of their area, road drivers and thousands of people living in the area are frustrated by the poor roads.

"We don't know how to express our disappointment," Daliyo, a farmer in Bengalon, told The Jakarta Post. "If you happen to meet Gus Dur, please ask him to listen to our plight. Please see the East Kalimantan people not as a land with rich natural resources, but think of its people who are left with such poor public facilities."