By Law Siak Hong
PANSUMNET GATHERING 2015
Conference and Workshop: Industrial Heritage at Stake
22nd– 24th October 2015, Sawahlunto, West Sumatra
A confession: before the invitation to speak at the conference, I had never heard of Sawahlunto. So, google I did. I learned quickly that it is in West Sumatra, not far from Padang, and it is already tentatively listed as UNESCO world heritage for its authentic historical urban landscape and the industrial heritage of coal mining. For universal significance, they fall in with Criteria (ii) and (iv). It also boasts a contented community: it has the second lowest poverty rate among cities in Indonesia. The people are steeped in cultural history, homegrown and yet well-adjusted to contemporary sensibilities.
Built not only along hairpin roads hugging the hillside, houses and other buildings also line the river banks. Bridges link the various parcels of land, which are shored up by concrete embankments, engineered to impede erosion. Workers quarters are provided by the mining company and they exist now as kampongs in the city. Most of the historical institutional and commercial buildings, relatively small in size, date from early 20th century. Then, there is the viaduct for rail and road, and the triple silos fed by a conveyor belt riding on a tall, skeletal steel structure. They are huge, yet they melt into the landscape confidently. Get up close and you will realize the power of these industrial structures.
Started in 1887, coal mining ceased in 2000. People left and the district went into decline. Along came Mayor Bapak Amran Nur (2003-2013), now Director of Indonesian Heritage Trust. Pondering on his hometown’s fate, he began to restructure its economy and effectively eradicated poverty and improved welfare through healthcare and education. To prevent land degradation, he donated rubber and cocoa seeds, even fertilizer, to the people for cultivation and long term income. Small and exotic museums were set up, indigenous performing arts were developed, and tourist spots were generated. In a few years, he turned this beautiful verdant Minangkabau valley into a tourist destination. Already, tourism contributes one-third of the city’s income. But what is the sustainable number of tourists for this constricted valley? If the UNESCO inscription happens, more hotels and eateries will be needed. How would its cultural identity and that all-important “sense of place” survive under the pressure of tourism development?
With the theme of Industrial Heritage at Stake, Sawahlunto is a choice host for this Pansumnet Gathering. The conference attracted over 70 participants from Pansumnet and speakers from the Netherlands, Malaysia, Bandung and Jakarta (Java), and, of course, Sumatra. Led by our president, Mohd Taib Mohamed, the delegation of seven from the Perak Heritage Society arrived in thick smog, which registered an API of 1000, way above the health hazard level of 150! Despite that, clearly, each of us took home memories and knowledge beyond our expectations.
Through this encounter with Sumatra, my understanding of its cultural and industrial heritage made a quantum leap. Deeply rooted in culture, Sumatrans are warm and friendly; smiles are everywhere. In Sawahlunto, even boys and young men cruising by on motorbike would greet me with a respectful “pak”.
Sawahlunto awaits a new designation as world heritage. Go visit soon.
Postscript: PANSUMNET is the acronym for Pan-Sumatra Network for Heritage Conservation. Our heartfelt thanks to: Sawahlunto Municipality, Pansumnet and Heritage Hands-On, joint organisers of Pansumnet Gathering 2015; the convener, Hasti Tarekat; the deputy mayor of Sawahlunto, and all the participants. A special mention: Pak Asdian of SEMEN PADANG, for his warm hospitality and the privilege of witnessing the SP Journalist Award at Basko Hotel in Padang.