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Is Life Cheaper than a Stronger Seedling?

If David Blaine would have been with me that afternoon, I swear that he would have shit himself or worse; he might have reluctantly found his body floating in the air without even concentrating. Really, what I saw on Jl. Rasuna Said one day recently was an outrageously dangerous act performed by either a very brave local worker or an absolute moron. The act was probably not as sensational as what David performed by staying inside an ice dome for a week after which he exited alive, though slightly blue. If something went wrong with the action I saw on Rasuna Said, surely the effect would have been greater than a touch of frostbite or pneumonia.

After the massive storm that swept the metropolitan city of Jakarta a few weeks back, the governor of this wonderful city was thoughtful enough to organise some workers to excessively prune all the big trees along Rasuna Said. The huge trees, growing on the main street’s median were top heavy; their branches were not strong and couldn’t stand up against the wind. Thus plenty of fallen trees and broken branches had damaged vehicles passing by during the storm.

So picture this, that afternoon I saw a guy clinging to a tree stump about three metres tall, which stood in the green median on Jl. Rasuna Said. The canopy of the tree was already cut off. This guy was about one meter off the ground with both of his legs clutching around the base of the stump while his right hand was hugging the top of the stump very tightly. The guy was not secured by any ropes whatsoever to anything, nor was he wearing a helmet, a pair of gloves or a protection jacket.

So you can imagine that this guy’s chest was flat against the stump. You might wonder - what about his left hand? What was he doing with it? This is the best part; listen to this. His left hand was holding a huge chain saw. The length of the chain saw was approximately one meter; it was almost as tall as the guy holding it. And yes, I almost forgot, the chain saw was running – I could hear the engine roaring, and I could see it from the poor guy’s trembling arms and his chattering teeth. Hey, perhaps he would still be vibrating once he was safely on the ground.

The guy was cutting a section of the stump, about a half-meter down from the top of the stump. And he was cutting the stump with the chain saw – turned inward. The blade of the saw was humming noisily toward the guy’s own chest. I just could not believe my eyes. Struggling with the heavy machine, he switched off the chain saw when the tip of the sharp edges was about five centimetres away from his chest. He then handed the chain saw down to his mate on the ground, blade first. With his bare hands, he continued trying to break off the section of the stump he had cut.

About five people, including a supervisor I believe, were just watching him from the ground. I can imagine how the poor guy’s supervisor ordered his minions to cut all trees on the main street’s medians into half metre long sections. But instead of cutting down the tree from the base, pruning the branches, then cutting the trunk into sections, the worker I saw did all of the work while the tree was still standing. Maybe he thought his method would avoid disturbances to the traffic which might be caused by a fallen tree. He certainly wasn’t capable or simply didn’t care to consider his own safety. His supervisor obviously couldn’t care less either.

Watching the show, I did not know whether I should laugh or cry. Is life so cheap in this country?

Being a forester myself, I know for sure that in the real world, cutting down a tree growing on a public street’s median requires a specific harvesting method. Usually before the tree is cut, the canopy of the tree is secured by a set of ropes to avoid unnecessary damage to the traffic caused by the falling canopy, branches or any debris.

But planting fast growing species on the street green belts is already a brainless move. If we look at all the trees planted on roadsides in this city, I guarantee that most of them are of fast growing species. This type of tree grows a thick canopy for a lot of shade, but their trunks and branches are very weak and cannot be considered as windbreakers. Though I have to admit, the price of their seedlings is very cheap! One who sows those seeds will reap broken windshields. One who sows those seeds should have his men equipped with safe tree pruning systems. If not, hey, why not plant blueberry bushes instead?

It seems that workers’ safety issues and social welfare are not the main priority in this country. A window cleaner working on high rise buildings in Jakarta, who is not equipped with adequate safety gear, earns three percent of what a high rise building’s window cleaner, heavily equipped with safety precautions would earns in Sydney.

I remember on a vacation to one of Indonesia’s crystal clear beaches a couple of year’s back I met this drop-dead gorgeous guy. His blond hair was adorned with expensive highlights; he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of Banana Republic sandals, sipping his G&T in the hotel lobby. After we talked for a while, he told me that he worked as a window cleaner on skyscrapers in Australia. He explained that he only needed to work as a window cleaner for three months, and then he’d spend his salary on exotic vacations around the world. How could he afford such travel by merely working as a window cleaner, I thought at the time. An Indonesian window cleaner could barely afford Ancol Theme Park’s entrance fee once every three months.

I once saw a man cleaning the window of a Jakarta hotel, nine floors above the ground. Obviously his supervisor had told him to anchor his body with a rope for safety. Do you know what he did? He tied the rope tightly around his waist with the end of the same rope secured to the roof. But in order to avoid constant adjustment the rope was actually only long enough to reach the ground and back up to him (and not back up to the roof).

Most days, people driving their cars on Jakarta’s toll roads can see a group of merry men, unprotected by any safety device, fixing gigantic signboards along the toll roads, gripping the metal pipes for their dear lives, twenty meters above the very busy streets.

Is life so cheap in this country? Is life cheaper than the seedling of a strong tree? Is life cheaper than a safety manual or an adequate length of strong rope?

Perhaps the decision makers in Jakarta are proud to provide those amusing acts performed free by the unprotected workers. Something that could be enjoyed and laughed at viewed from the windows of the speeding red busses on the newly launched busway perhaps? After all - the cost of the bus fare is still much cheaper than one of David Blaine’s show tickets.

First published in the Jakarta Post