Indonesia: This volcano brought to you by Philip Morris, 04/11/10

As Mount Merapi continues to erupt, cigarette companies sponsor rescue efforts.

Mount Merapi’s wrath
Indonesia, Merapi, Philip Morris
Mount Merapi, one of Indonesia’s most volatile volcanoes, erupts. (Fauzan Ijazah/GlobalPost) Click to enlarge photo

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia — Nobody is allowed to smoke in the Sampoerna Rescue camp.

The cluster of leaky, ash-covered canvas tents that has been set up in a muddy field here, on the slopes of erupting Mount Merapi in Central Java, has been designated a smoke-free zone by volunteers and employees of Sampoerna, one of Indonesia’s largest tobacco companies.

The camp is one of the only places here in Java, where almost two-thirds of adult males are addicted to cigarettes, and where smoking is tolerated everywhere from airport lounges to children’s play parks, that you can’t smoke.

The company, which has been owned by Philip Morris since 2005, paid for the camp, the flashy four-wheel drive vehicles parked in front of it, and the cluster of eager staffers wearing natty red and black uniforms covered with company logos. The team is one of several emergency response efforts organized by large Indonesian corporations in response to the devastating series of eruptions that have so far killed more than 100 people and displaced more than 150,000 rural residents in the last week.

On Thursday, as the volcano unleashed its biggest explosion yet — only to be dwarfed by another explosion Friday that more than doubled the death toll — the mountainside crawled with expensive ambulances, water purification trucks and four-wheel-drive vehicles, all provided by the companies.

Businesses as diverse as Jakarta-based conglomerate Artha Graha, telecommunications giant Telkomsel and state oil company Pertamina provided the vehicles, which, like the uniforms of the squads of employees who operate them, are typically emblazoned with corporate logos.

Known here as “corporate social responsibility” efforts, the disaster relief teams aim to augment efforts by a stretched Indonesian government to house, clothe and feed evacuees from the volcano. Representatives of the companies working on the mountain said their efforts are entirely altruistic, and balked at any suggestion that the aid teams double as a marketing campaign for the companies.

But local residents and evacuees were not so sure.

“Why can’t they just do the good stuff, but without the advertising?” asked 18-year-old Anin, who like many Indonesians only uses one name and who was volunteering at an evacuation camp opposite the Sampoerna camp in her home village of Harjobinangung. “Why can’t they just use plain white vehicles or something?”

Earlier this week, police and military officers tore down hundreds of banners and advertisements for political parties that had quickly sprung up on main streets in the evacuation zone. The removal of the advertisements, which had rankled local residents and evacuees, came after a local official announced that they had been erected without permits.

Aprilianto, a 31-year-old evacuee from the slopes north of Harjobinagung, said the government should apply the same rules to private companies that have erected banners and tents displaying their corporate logos.

“The companies are taking advantage of the situation, so why should they be treated differently?” Aprilianto said.

Inside one of the Sampoerna tents, Herman Sudjarwo, a general practitioner who usually works in a private hospital in the city of Surabaya in East Java, attended to evacuees in a makeshift clinic. He said most of the 90 to 100 patients he sees a day are suffering from breathing difficulties attributable to the high levels of volcanic ash and dust that have rained down from the volcano’s crater.

Asked whether he sees any irony in a cigarette company providing free medical checkups, Sudjarwo giggled.

“This is to balance it out,” he said.

Arief Triastika, a national coordinator for Sampoerna’s community development efforts, who has been managing the camp on Merapi, said his company is only interested in providing assistance to people affected by the volcano and is not using the disaster as a promotional opportunity.

Sampoerna maintains three disaster management teams on the island of Java and has dispatched crews of volunteers to disasters all over Indonesia since 2002, Triastika said. The company has helped provide food, medical equipment and logistical aid to victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the 2006 tsunami in West Java, earthquakes in Padang and Yogyakarta and floods across Java in 2010, he said.

Asked if skeptical evacuees have criticized his efforts, Triastika shook his head vigorously.

“At the moment we don’t have that criticism. And we keep giving the best we can do for the community,” he said.

When employees and volunteers want to smoke at the Sampoerna Rescue camp, they have to leave the tents, even if it is pouring with rain, Triastika said. The camp is a de facto medical clinic, he said, and therefore must be kept sterile.

Locals eyeing the tents and the Sampoerna banners from an evacuation camp across the street had other ideas about the Sampoerna effort, however.

Asked if he had ever thought to approach the camp volunteers for free cigarettes (the company does not hand out cigarettes), Aprilianto’s eyes lit up.

“No,” he said as he stubbed out a rival brand’s clove cigarette. “Do they do that?”

Leave a Comment