“The air here in Palu smells like rotting corpses”: on an Indonesian city decimated by an earthquake

The remains of a road after an earthquake-tsunami hit Palu, Indonesia, in September 2018. Image: Getty.

I’ve been visiting the city of Palu in Central Sulawesi, a province in Indonesia, for the past 38 years as part of my anthropological fieldwork. So it was particularly harrowing for me to read about the 7.7 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that decimated the city on 28 September.

The full scope of the devastation hasn’t come into focus, but thousands have been displaced, died or gone missing.

What we do know is that it will take years for Palu, the region’s capital city, to recover and rebuild. But while the devastation might be most visible in Palu, the province’s rural areas could ultimately end up suffering the most.

The hub of Sulawesi

Indonesia, a country made up of 13,000 islands populated by 263m people, has over 300 different ethnic groups in 34 provinces.

Sulawesi Island, once known as the Celebes, has 18m residents spread over six provinces in an area that’s roughly the size of Florida.

Sulawesi has six provinces, one of which is Central Sulawesi, where Palu is located. Image: Wikimedia Commons/creative commons.

Because of its unique shape – it looks like a lopsided spider with thin tendrils shooting off in various directions – travel to various parts of the island can be difficult, and many regions are isolated.

When I first arrived in Palu in 1980, it was a quaint city of only 30,000 people. White picket fences surrounded residents’ homes, and colonial-era architecture lined the main thoroughfares. Situated on the shimmering, emerald-colored waters of Palu Bay, the city was flanked by a U-shaped curve of steep mountains. It was stunning.

As I searched for a field site, it became quickly apparent that Palu was one of the few cities in the region with paved roads, running water and electricity. Much of this development had occurred since the federal government designated Palu the administrative center for a newly created province of Central Sulawesi in 1978. Using a World Bank loan, the federal government was able to fund the construction of roads and government buildings, while expanding the city’s electrical and communication grids.

I eventually decided to focus my anthropological research on the Lauje, one of Central Sulawesi’s 32 ethnic groups. The Lauje live in woven bamboo houses deep in the mountains above Tinombo, a region seven hours from Palu by car. For the next two years, I lived in one of these houses studying the Lauje language and conducting fieldwork.

During that period, I only made three or four forays into “modern” Palu. But even back then, it was clear that the city played a vital role in the day-to-day life of the region’s remote villages.

The Palu administrators decided where clinics and schools would be built and how they would be funded and staffed. They helped build and maintain the vital roads and bridges that coastal elites used to access the lucrative ebony, bamboo, cloves, coffee and chocolate farmed by upland peasants.

Steady – but fragile – growth

Over the years, I’ve watched Palu grow. What was once a sleepy little administrative capital where it seemed like everyone knew one another had become, by 2016, a bustling city of 375,000 residents with palatial mansions, gridlocked traffic, rock concerts and shopping malls.

As Central Sulawesi’s capital city, Palu serves not only its residents, but those throughout the province.

It’s where middle-class people living in more rural areas send their kids to university, where they travel to buy computers or automobiles and where they go for serious medical procedures. It’s where administrators from far-flung counties go to attend training workshops, file government reports or request funding for local projects.

While Palu became more prosperous during the 31-year rule of former President Suharto, most of the Lauje and the province’s other ethnic communities continued to live in poverty, surviving off subsistence farming.


Change came when President Suharto left office in 1998 and a new democratic government took power. For decades, Suharto’s family had unfairly controlled the prices of lucrative crops such as coffee, cloves and chocolate, pocketing government-imposed costs and fees for themselves.

Now, with fairer costs and prices in place, farmers can profit more from their labor – and can then pay for the books and uniforms required to send their children to middle and high schools.

Meanwhile, more equitable distribution of federal resources funded new schools and health clinics in rural regions. The Palu government also built motorcycle trails that bypassed the rivers, allowing farmers to more easily transport their produce to markets.

In 2017, Central Sulawesi’s economy grew at a rate of 7.14 per cent. Much of that has taken place in Palu, but the province’s other regions have slowly been inching out of poverty, too.

Life on pause

This fragile economic growth has now been completely upended; the region’s infrastructure is in ruins.

“The air here in Palu smells like rotting corpses,” a friend recently told me over Facebook. “It’s unhealthy and aftershocks still rumble and looters are everywhere.”

With Palu’s bureaucrats, business people and teachers fleeing, no one knows how county governments will be able to function. Life isn’t just on hold for city dwellers; everything in the province, it seems, has come to a standstill.

My friends in several Central Sulawesi communities have told me over Facebook that, even though bottled water is scarce, they’re afraid to boil river water still cloudy with debris from the earthquake.

Many rural families receive scholarships to private schools in Palu that train their children to be midwives, pharmacists or medical technicians. What will happen to those already enrolled, whose schools are now shuttered or destroyed?

What will happen to the pregnant women in remote areas who can’t access doctors or midwives because they have all been sent to Palu?

What will happen to the flow of goods that once entered the Port of Palu and were then transported via truck across Central Sulawesi’s mountains?

The rural poor often end up suffering the most after natural disasters.

In Central Sulawesi, I fear this will be the case as well.

The Conversation

Jennifer Nourse, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Richmond.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Home-working and uncertainty: How will coronavirus affect jobs around the country?

A quiet commute: the M8 motorway in Scotland. Image: Getty.

This week’s unprecedented announcement by the Prime Minister on how we need to live our lives over the coming weeks and months will have profound impacts up and down the country. The geography of this will vary depending on the structure of different local economies. This blog looks at three areas where this will play out – self-employment, the ability to work from home, and the rise of remote working.

Self-employed people in the North and Midlands are more likely to be in insecure, lower-paid roles at high risk from economic shocks

The economic impact of Coronavirus on self-employed people has received a lot of attention in recent weeks. And while the Chancellor stepped in to extend Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) to this group and people working on zero-hour contracts, they still stand to lose almost two-thirds of their current earnings.

Britain’s self-employed population is disproportionately located in London; of the almost 5 million self-employed people across the country, almost a million live in the capital. London accounts for just over 15 per cent of all workers in the UK, but for approximately 20 per cent of all self-employed people. Along with Worthing and Brighton, almost one in five people in work are self-employed in the capital. 

In contrast, self-employment is way less popular in other parts of the country: in Gloucester and Hull, for example, less than 7 per cent of people are self-employed.

But while cities in the North and Midlands might have lower rates of self-employment, those who are self-employed in these places are more likely to be in precarious situations. Of all the self-employed people in Burnley and Blackburn, only two in ten also have access to additional income as employees.

By contrast, four in ten do in Cambridge. In addition to that, they are also more likely to be in lower-skilled, lower-paid occupations, such as in the hospitality, personal care and transport sectors, meaning they are more vulnerable to economic shocks.

Share of self employed people that are self employed only. Image: Centre for Cities.

Cities in the Greater South East are more likely to be able to shift to working from home

The Prime Minister asked those who can work from home to do so. But how likely is this across the country?

The jobs that could be more easily done from home – such as consultants or finance – are concentrated in cities in the Greater South East (see the figure below). Assuming some sectors could completely shift to home working if necessary, up to one in two workers in London could shift to working from home. Meanwhile in Reading, Aldershot and Edinburgh over 40 per cent of workers could too.

On the other hand, less than 20 per cent of all workers in Barnsley, Burnley and Stoke could work from home, suggesting the economies of many northern cities are likely to be hardest hit by a complete lockdown. Manchester, Leeds, Warrington and Newcastle are the exceptions as they have a higher share of jobs that could shift to home-working, reflecting the slightly different structure of their economies compared to other northern cities.

Estimate of workers that could work from home 2018. Image: Centre for Cities.

Once Coronavirus has peaked, face-to-face interaction will continue to be more important than ever

The arrival of Coronavirus has sparked debate in the comment sections of newspapers about the benefits of home working.


This is nothing new. In the late nineties the death of distance was declared by many because of internet-driven improvements in communications. And yet, despite their further advancement since, jobs (particularly high-skilled ones) have continued to cluster in cities.

This is because of the benefits that cities offer – such as face-to-face interaction. While this might seem intangible, no doubt many readers who have been grappling with trying to communicate with colleagues working from home in recent days will now be all too aware of the benefits of being in the same room as their team. So, while technology no doubt makes this strange period a little easier than it would otherwise have been, by the end of it we are likely to be reminded of the value of face-to-face meetings to help us get things done.

Elena Magrini is a senior analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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