Motorcycles laden with grease-covered jerry cans negotiate narrow, potholed roads as they carry oil through the jungle to market. The smell of oil hangs heavy in the air. Scattered among the hills are plots of land cleared of trees and blackened by crude oil. This is Wonocolo, the pockmarked capital of DIY drilling in Indonesia’s southeastern province of Cepu.
Felled trees, wire cables, arrays of pulleys, and truck engines are jerry-rigged to create makeshift oil derricks. Crude oil flows down the hills through shallow ditches into pools where it is collected by oil-drenched men and distilled into diesel fuel, which is then driven into town and sold on the black market.
Complex local land ownership has stalled formal oil production here. Some 3,000 landowners hold some 4,000 plots of land below which the petroleum resides, making it nearly impossible for oil conglomerates to ramp up large-scale production (though they do operate oil wells in the vicinity too). In the meantime, entrepreneurs in Cepu have taken on a more artisanal reality—a rugged and unique approach in the modern era.
Disassembled diesel trucks are secured to the ground a short distance from each derrick. Bailers, dropped down the 400-meter wells, are attached by wire cable to the drivetrains of the trucks, and when the operator stomps the gas pedal, the bailer rockets up through the earth, bringing with it a gush of “black gold”. Oil drums full of crude are set upon fires lit in holes dug into the hillside, distilling the emulsion into diesel fuel. Every few hours, motorcycles return, pick up the stained jerry cans, and sell the hand-refined oil for a few dollars in nearby markets.