Urban revitalization: From empowerment to sovereignty

Indonesia’s slum dwellers have a tough lot in life. But a community in central Java’s mystical city is proving there is a way forward.

Urban revitalization: From empowerment to sovereignty CEPHOTO/UWE ARANAS

The polluted banks of the Code River in Yogyakarta are home to slum dwellers from across central Java. In 2014, the population of this riverbank community was more than 105,000 people. The “kali Code” runs through the center of Yogyakarta, the historic Javanese city/province, with its dwellers playing important roles in the informal economic sector. The Code residents contribute greatly to the region’s annual gross domestic product of Rp 31 trillion ($2.2 billion) – literally in blood, sweat and tears.

The revitalization of the riverbank community required the validation and integration of its citizens into mainstream city life. Bottom-up community participation in the Code slum revitalization programs succeeded due to the engagement and active membership of local community members. The late YB Mangunwijaya, a notable Catholic religious leader and influential figure, initiated reforms and slum revitalization along the riverbank in the early 1980s. Through his lobbying of the local government and the private sector, the Code riverbank community acquired validation, social protection and employment opportunities in Yogyakarta’s informal sector. The social and economic resources that Mangunwijaya brought to the riverbank community motivated them to actively participate in self-help programs initiated by both the government and themselves.

These self-help programs are numerous, ranging from low-interest loans for business start-up activities and flood prevention programs through slum revitalization to health and human services and rehabilitation programs for petty criminals and former sex workers.

This essay highlights the social movements of Code’s riverbank community and discusses their importance in revitalizing Yogyakarta’s riverbank slum areas. The welfare state is portrayed as depriving the most disadvantaged of sufficient political, educational and employment opportunities, while leaving most of the economy in the hands of the wealthy. Moreover, the welfare state is often portrayed as creating a demoralized and disengaged underclass. Best practices in Yogyakarta’s slum revitalization programs indicate that citizens gain respect by having their own good publicly affirmed by institutions within and outside the community. As well, every person develops allegiance to society because they see how its rules, conventions and values encourage citizens to share each other’s fates and collaborate to enable the betterment of the commons.


Yogyakarta’s Code community is made up of landless immigrants from rural areas outside the city. Immigrants are predominantly from relatively poorer areas in the districts of Gunung Kidul, Bantul and Kulon Progo. These immigrants moved into areas along the Code River in the early 1970s. Prior to Mangunwijaya’s involvement, the riverbank community was involved in the city’s informal economy comprising the informal service sector, and the underground crime network of beggars, prostitutes, gamblers, pickpockets and robbers.

During the 1970s and into the early 1980s, the Code community was socially marginalized, economically deprived, culturally stigmatized and politically exploited. Poor and landless immigrants squatted along the riverbank by the hundreds in makeshift housing, creating an unhealthy and dangerous environment ravaged by waterborne and filarial disease. Natural and man-made disasters such as seasonal flooding and landslides were common, leading to a dangerous and unhealthy living environment. The deprived social, cultural and economic standing of the riverbank community prevented residents from acquiring protection, aid and land-use rights from the government. High unemployment rates, the underground counterculture and a lack of soundly governed institutions for human services and poverty alleviation within the community further led to their subjugation and deprivation.

The riverbank community was also marked by unpredictability, and a lifestyle of consumerism and gambling, due to the uncertainty of jobs and incomes. Hence, private savings were almost always absent and lenders – loan sharks offering loans with very high interest rates and unfair repayment schemes – further deprived the riverbank community of the chance to acquire capital and welfare through a fair and socially responsive community banking system such as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. The formal banking system was unattainable for Code’s community members, and the lack of community savings and loan schemes for local economic development led to dependence on
loan sharks for everyday living and for opening small businesses such as shops and food stalls for the local community.

Community members were in constant danger of eviction, and threats of violence from within and outside the riverbank community were a constant menace. Community members looked to elders and community leaders to liaise with government officials to secure their land. They also looked to local “gangsters” to protect them from officials and outside “gangsters” who could come to take their land and possessions.

Prior to Mangunwijaya’s involvement, mobilizing community members to participate in slum renewal programs was an arduous task, and outreach workers often faced hostility and threats from both

leaders and community members alike. With this in mind, Mangunwijaya and his team entered the Code riverbank community with three intertwining strategies: advocacy, diplomacy and empowerment. This threefold strategy provided the foundation to instill solidarity, commitment and motivation for his later work involving housing revitalization and slum renewal. The success of the Code slum revitalization programs hinged on the social, psychological and economic empowerment of community members through advocacy, diplomacy and integration.

Urbanization and land-use

The concept of a resilient city incorporates three indicators: the nature and magnitude of disruptions that can be accommodated by the system; the ability of the system to self-organize and deflect external factors; and the learning ability and adaptability of its inhabitants and the urban system. Urbanization and slum settlements along the Code River have had a substantial impact on land use, the ecosystem and environmental quality.

The land settled by the squatters belongs to the Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwono, who is also the hereditary provincial governor, and the provincial government, and is considered public property. Alterations and modifications to the land must be approved and endorsed by the provincial government. Informal slum settlements along the Code River intensified in the last 20 years, and high population density led to the rise of hazardous environmental conditions. Densely populated makeshift housing without proper drainage or wastewater disposal facilities and the absence of treatment facilities meant that wastewater was rarely, if ever, treated. Solid waste was often dumped into the river, leading to insect breeding sites and flooding. Slum dwellers transformed what had been bamboo forest into low-income settlement areas and changed the course of the river, making the area more prone to landslides and inundation.

During the rainy season, floods and inundation wiped out entire settlements, which were constructed on dangerous terrain directly above the river, obstructing and diverting the flow of the Code. The ecosystem of the river, which in the past had functioned as a catchment area, was altered within settlement areas by concrete, semi-permanent makeshift housing and dumpsites. Mangunwijaya initiated and organized the construction of semi-permanent housing along the riverbank, altered the land-use pattern within the site, installed drainage and wastewater treatment facilities, and mitigated floods and landslides by building dikes and embankments along the river.

Urban revitalization and its challenges

Prior to Mangunwijaya’s involvement in the late 1970s, outreach officers from the Yogyakarta provincial government had attempted to revitalize the Code slum settlements and convert them into parks and catchment areas. Residents were to be evicted to revitalize the Code and control Yogyakarta’s underground crime network that stemmed from the Code riverbank. These initiatives and attempts were met with both active and passive resistance.

Multiple attempts to evict squatters in the early 1970s failed and led to opposition, protests and violence that erupted in the mid to late 1970s. Government attempts to relocate squatters led to conflict. And attempts to reorganize Code’s slum settlements were also met harshly, leading to fears that civilian uprisings could result in political destabilization and conflicts with government officials and politicians. Politically, nongovernmental organizations took advantage of slum dwellers by radicalizing them against certain politicians through the issues of land use, landownership and evictions. In the case of Yogyakarta, when and how property rights evolve also depend on political factors. In the case of the Code riverbank community, the need to involve leaders from outside the community to mediate and connect with higher-level authorities to secure land use and tenure rights and to organize and mobilize citizens became pertinent for social transformation and slum revitalization.

Internal and external constraints only increased the difficulty of revitalizing the Code slums and transforming the community. Internal constraints were numerous, including cultural and psychological barriers such as apathy toward authority, outsiders and Yogyakarta’s mainstream identity; subversion of middle-class values; resistance to the professional culture; and delinquencies and deviancies in behavior. Social and economic factors included lack of leadership; lack of institutions and organizations within the community; ethnic and class rivalries; low purchasing power; lack of access to monetary resources and the banking system; and nested power relations and social and economic disparity within the community. Political factors included lack of opportunity and place to voice concerns; lack of access to authority and decision-making power; and lack of access to labor unions and political parties. External factors that impeded the revitalization of the Code slums included discrimination, stigma, fear and alienation by the outside community; the absence of social and legal protection of their land, housing, economic activities and basis for economic production; and economic and political exploitation by the outside community.

Beginning with advocacy and proceeding with attempts to empower and establish community sovereignty, there was the need to actively engage multiple stakeholders in revitalizing the Code community. In the early 1980s, under Mangunwijaya’s leadership, the government, the private sector and civil society groups all had important roles to play. The private sector, with its interest in profit acquisition and the commercialization of resources, provided the Code riverbank community with financial resources, vocational education, knowledge, skills, technology and access to economic bases such as cooperatives for savings and loans, and commercial banks for local economic development.

The government, with its goal of economic and infrastructure development, was in charge of local and regional policies and legislation, and imparted land use and strategic development plans, created laws and governed, educated and mobilized the community through programs and projects. The municipal and provincial governments established partnerships with the private sector due to the national government’s lack of resources, skills and experience in the commercial sector. Nongovernmental organizations, whose interests were making money, participating in regional development and improving the living standards of the riverbank community, provided community members with knowledge, skills, organizational networks, access to national and international networks, and access to political and economic resources. Nonetheless, nongovernmental organizations still needed to collaborate with the private sector to acquire commercialization rights, experience and expertise in undertaking community development programs.

Mobilization and integration

Concerted efforts to mobilize, empower and integrate the Code riverbank community began in the late 1970s. Mangunwijaya and his team entered Code’s Gondokusuman district in 1977 to provide advocacy and protection for the community. The first step by Mangunwijaya and his team was to install

a community leader whose leadership, communication and persuasion skills rivaled those of Mangunwijaya. Willy Prasetyo, former chief of Terban village in Yogyakarta’s Gondolayu district, motivated and mobilized community members to alter their perceptions and outlook on life. First,
through Prasetyo’s leadership and mentoring, residents of Gondokusuman developed a strong motivation to secure their settlements and improve the quality of their surrounding environment. Second, residents gained an increased awareness of environmental hazards and the negative impacts of environmental degradation. Third, and most important, residents developed strong internal ties and social capital to enable a resilient community whose sustained initiatives counteracted detrimental outside forces.

With the help of the Catholic Church Foundation, a local nongovernmental organization, Mangunwijaya created momentum for advocacy and change. Mangunwijaya lobbied the municipal and provincial governments of Yogyakarta to acknowledge, protect and validate the residents of Gondokusuman. Yogyakarta authorities also endowed them with land use and land tenure rights, provided that residents did not sell and/or lease their land to third parties. The municipal and provincial governments also endowed them with basic facilities such as latrines and sanitation facilities, electricity, solid waste disposal sites, communal wells, communal wastewater treatment facilities, embankments, basic drainage infrastructure and paved alleys and pathways. The makeshift houses were at the same time reorganized by Mangunwijaya into blocks with alleys, walkways and spaces for communal latrines, wells and embankments.

Mangunwijaya contributed a majority of his income as an architect, consultant and lecturer to the Gondokusuman revitalization project, while Catholic organizations in Central Java Province poured substantial funding into rebuilding houses and infrastructure in the area. With funding from multiple sources, community organizations were formed to provide nighttime security services, training services for residents, health and human services, and community savings and loans guaranteed by local banks and the local government. Legislation was introduced to provide legal rights, protection and land tenure for the riverbank community. The success in Gondokusuman was replicated in other districts along the Code including Gondomanan, Danurejan and Tegalrejo. These districts are in very close proximity to Yogyakarta’s central business district, and the city’s informal economy became easily accessible to residents along the Code River.

At the same time, programs for social rehabilitation were introduced in an attempt to curb the underground criminal network springing from Code’s slums. Beggars and street children from the riverbank were counseled and mentored, with semi-permanent housing constructed to temporarily house and rehabilitate beggars and street children from the area. Sex workers were given medical examinations, medical care and training. Gang leaders and pickpockets were apprehended, rehabilitated and given the opportunity to start businesses through links with the government and government-backed local banks. The popularity of loan shark lenders decreased due to their intimidation and extortion of community members, and the availability of alternatives for acquiring capital and loans from outside the community. These programs were replicated in other areas and other riverbank districts followed Gondokusuman’s initial success.

The success in replicating Mangunwijaya’s slum empowerment and revitalization programs hinged on a number of elements. At the macro level, the following were key: (i) the formation of informal pressure groups for integrated city planning capable of acknowledging, integrating and empowering the Code riverbank community; (ii) the formation of intradistrict federations to promote networking, increase intradistrict collaboration, and provide voice, advocacy and protection for the urban poor; (iii) the branding and promotion of the Code riverbank to both the community and the public as the “Beautiful Code Settlement of Yogyakarta” as opposed to the “Green Belt of Yogyakarta”; (iv) the formation of cooperatives that were government-backed, privately assisted and community-based.

These cooperatives provided education and technical skills, created employment opportunities and support systems, managed solid waste and wastewater, and mitigated man-made and natural disasters such as floods and tornadoes. In addition, success in slum revitalization depended on other key elements. First, the continuation of programs and activities at the district level were vital to sustain momentum and concerted efforts at mobilization. These programs and activities included community-operated savings and loans, a cooperative for housing improvement, an association of district residents and a youth-initiated community tutoring program. Second, the continuation of participatory action research at the district level by nongovernmental organizations, volunteer groups and universities triggered sustained participation by external parties that was vital for access and linkages to the outside world. Last, the use of the local media to voice the concerns of the urban poor and to shape public opinion about the Code riverbank community was vital in integrating the urban poor and providing them with identity and status. The sovereignty of the Code community depends on the strength of its networks within and outside the community, and its ability to govern and manage itself in the face of adversity and change.

All of Indonesia’s urban poor, including those in Yogyakarta’s Code riverbank community, are marginalized and lack access to the nation’s social, economic and political resources. They are socially rejected, culturally undermined, economically exploited and politically suppressed by the dominant majority of the country’s population. They are on the bottom of the social ladder. An initial step to empower, protect and integrate them is the acknowledgment of the social and political structure and respect for their role and participation in shaping the country’s landscape. There is the need to formally acknowledge and protect their place and identity in the country’s social and political realm.

Indonesian microcredit policies intended to provide financial access for the poor must be re-evaluated to construct a better affirmative action policy framework.

Code riverbank resident contribute to the country’s economy by shaping the dynamic labor force within the informal sector, contribute to the country’s political stability by conveying their votes and legitimizing current government and political administrations, and contribute to the country’s diversity by shaping subcultures that substantiate mainstream Malay-Javanese culture. Their active citizenship in the region’s day-to-day life cannot be undermined, and any discontent or uprising can reverberate and cause instability across cities and regions. Political empowerment mandates protection, incorporation into the country’s social hierarchy and access to solidarity groups, political parties and the People’s Representative Council. Slum dwellers are inclined to promote altruism and give back to the social-ecological landscape if they see the pertinence of their actions, and can benefit from the social and political rewards emanating from their efforts to protect the common environment.

Astrid Meilasari- Sugiana is a lecturer and researcher in the Political Science Department at Bakrie University in Jakarta.
Dianingtyas Putri is a lecturer in Bakrie University’s Communication Science Department.

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