Beyond Organic: Promoting Indonesia's indigenous farming cultures
A traditional approach to agriculture has helped Indonesian farming communities grow diverse crops and compete in global markets
The first time Helianti Hilman visited the indigenous farmers of the West Java town of Garut, she was asked to remove her shoes before entering their fields. Her surprise grew when the farmers quizzed her on her mood – they didn't want her upsetting the plants.
"That’s when I realised that their approach to agriculture was much more than just growing organic," says 44-year-old Hilman, an Indonesian entrepreneur and former lawyer. “It was a whole way of life. That’s when my perspective changed.”
That was eight years ago. Hilman's efforts to protect and promote traditional agricultural practices in Indonesia since then saw her named an Asian social entrepreneur of the year by the Schwab Foundation at the World Economic Forum in March.
The social enterprise that Hilman helped to establish in 2009 works with around 50,000 smallholder farmers across Indonesia. Called Javara (which means champion in Sanskrit) the organisation oversees the marketing and distribution of more than 640 artisanal products, from organically grown vegetables and gluten-free flour to gourmet salt and coconut cooking oil.
According to Indonesia’s national indigenous people’s organisation, Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (AMAN), around one fifth of the country’s 250 million people classify as indigenous. With statutory efforts to establish collective rights to customary lands yet to be officially sanctioned, rural communities remain vulnerable to the frequent land grabs made by palm oil producers and other forest users.
Given that most Indonesian farmers live in abject poverty, there is a clear moral and developmental case for supporting them. But there are compelling sustainability reasons too, Hilman insists.
During Indonesia's "Green Revolution" of the 1970s, farmers were encouraged by the government to adopt commercial agricultural practices. However, many indigenous people avoided this wave of modernity and still use traditional methods, and so-called heritage or heirloom seeds.
“Back in the 1960s in Indonesia, we used to have over 7,000 different rice varieties. People have forgotten this today. They are used to buying just red, white or black rice,” says Hilman. The heritage plants grown by Javara’s network of farmers offer a wide range of distinctive nutritional properties. And with their greater diversity comes greater resilience. Hilman cites rice varieties, for example, that can grow everywhere, from forest shade and swamps to inland lakes and saline coasts.
“This isn’t just for the foodies,” she argues. “These varieties are very relevant for climate change [but] we are losing them before our eyes without even knowing it.”
Her sense of urgency is echoed by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFR), an Austria-based nonprofit group. In a report released in May, the IUFR emphasised the role that indigenous communities can play, both in protecting forests and enhancing food security.
“Working with farmers to combine the best of traditional and formal scientific knowledge offers tremendous potential [and] this contribution needs to be acknowledged and incorporated into management practices and policy,” the report states.
Working with farmers to combine the best of traditional and formal scientific knowledge offers tremendous potential
In Indonesia, that is easier said than done. For a start, its indigenous communities often live in remote areas – the country comprises nearly 1,000 permanently settled islands. Years of marginalisation has also left them distrustful of outsiders and unfamiliar with how mainstream markets work.
Hilman's entry point came by way of the Integrated Pest Management Farmers’ Association, a nonprofit network representing more than 1 million indigenous and smallholder farmers in Indonesia. She was invited by a group of rice growers close to her parents’ home in central Java to help with marketing their produce.
She struck lucky in 2009 when she persuaded Ranch Market, a premium supermarket in Jakarta, to stock two-dozen varieties of the farmers’ rice. Orders from high-end hotels and restaurants quickly followed.
Over time, Javara has sought gradually to overcome the knowledge gaps of its affiliated producer groups through basic management training and production advice. For the large collectives in its network, it also provides assistance with organic certification and credit for the purchase of equipment.
Volume is the biggest sticking point. Indonesia's indigenous farmers traditionally have small plots and grow mixed crops. The notion of mono-crop production or intensive cultivation is anathema to them. One community even forbids the sale of its rice varieties, permitting only barter instead.
Hilman’s solution has been to take the farmers’ specialty crops and use them to create inventive, value-added products. "A buyer might ask us for a container of turmeric, and we simply don’t have that much," she explains. “But we have enough turmeric to blend it with heritage rice to create turmeric-infused rice.”
“And we’re not just selling the products,” she adds. “We’re selling the story and benefits behind the products.”
Take the tale of “bee whispering”, for instance. Practitioners of this ancient art herd bees towards particular flowers to influence the final taste of their honey. Clove, cotton and rambutan (a tropical fruit) are just some of the single blossom flavours in Javara’s honey portfolio.
Volume is also an issue on the demand side. Indonesia’s premium domestic market is limited, so four years ago Hilman shifted the organisation’s focus to exports. Javara’s international sales, which include Japan, Korea, the US and 11 European countries, now comprise around 85% of its total revenues.
“All of a sudden, we realised that indigenous products meet the trend in the world market,” says Hilman. “They are low-glycaemic, organic, gluten-free and sustainably produced.”
And they can be enjoyed whatever your mood – or footwear.
The above article by Oliver Balch first published on theguardian.com in June, 2015.