The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, August 02, 2006



Indonesia was once self-sufficient in rice. Now the government is again considering importing this staple food. What’s happened? Is it loss of land, insufficient water, poor water quality, lack of environmental care or something else? Contributor Duncan Graham reports from Trawas, a hill village 90 minutes drive south of Surabaya:

Back in the 1980s almost all stories about the Green Revolution were positive.

Heavily promoted new varieties of rice promised higher yields. Insecticides kept pests at bay. Fertilisers boosted crops. Only now are the downsides becoming obvious. Many are social.

“In the past decisions on planting and harvesting were made by the community,” said conservationist Siegfried Tedja. “For example when the rice was ripe the women would be the first to go into the fields and select the best heads for reseeding.

“Now farmers can buy seed and make individual decisions about managing their crops based on research. Farming is becoming modernised and mechanised. Ceremonies to encourage fertility are disappearing. There’s less working together and the social connections are fractured.

“The younger generation is attracted to the cities. The environment is being damaged and given less care. There’s less cooperation with neighbours and more competition.

“Why are we now planning rice imports? I’m not getting involved in the politics, but know this question bothers many. This is the age of rationalism where we know a lot but understand little.

“There’s a need to rediscover the old community wisdoms which balanced nature – and before those ways of thinking are lost. We should know how farmers feel about their lives, whether they still respect their crops, the water and the land.”

To this end Siegfried’s environment centre Pring Woelong has been helping run a four-day workshop in Trawas for 40 farmers from the mountain regions south of Surabaya.

Most study will be done on farms and in Javanese, the traditional language of the villagers.

The workshop was described by Siegfried as a “listening, not lecturing” exercise and involves the Merdeka University in Malang. It’s supported by money from the Environmental Services Program that’s seeking to improve water management and quality in East Java. (See sidebar)

Dr Gunawan Wibisono who directs environmental research at Merdeka said he encouraged his students to learn more of the ancestral wisdom used by farmers. Science undergraduates needed to understand the links between sustainable agriculture and culture.

“Local people manage their resources with knowledge handed down through the generations,” he said. “It’s a different approach to that used by academics.

“The Majapahit era ended about 500 years ago after Islam arrived in Java and things started to be done differently.

“Traditional beliefs were related to nature and spirits and this has continued in Bali. But the radicals will not tolerate this kind of thing. (The workshop opening ceremony included a procession of food and a ritual involving breaking pots of water over tree roots.)

“Pure Islam is very respectful of the environment. The goodness of this activity is that it’s a matter of performance and results – not religious beliefs.”

Commented Siegfried: “All faiths care for the land and water. The issue is not religion but the way some people interpret it.”

Among the workshop participants was Try Wibowo, 41, who farms two hectares in a village near Mojokerto, about two hours drive southwest from the East Java capital.

His land is so rich he can usually harvest three crops of rice a year. He also grows beans and corn and some herbs. The farm has been in the family for generations and supports Try, his wife, four children and father.

“Money is still a problem, but it’s enough,” he said. “Since forest felling there’s been less water available though the quality is still good. But I want the forests back.

“More and more factories are being built and usually on the best land for growing rice. I don’t want to see the next generation in these factories. Who would work for someone else when they can be independent and on their own land?

“Farming is hard work, and it’s dirty. Even though it looks terrible to you as an outsider it’s 100 per cent more healthy than working in an office or factory.

“I’ve come to this workshop because I want to share my knowledge and ideas. I want to learn from others.”

(sidebar 1)


The USAID-funded Environmental Services Program in East Java is supporting the Trawas workshops. The US$ 45 million (Rp 425 billion) five-year project is operating in five provinces and has several aims.

The program is not a dam builder or fund source for big engineering projects.

With a hulu ke hilir (headwaters to downstream) approach programs include raising health through better management of water resources, the delivery of clean water, reduction of pollution and improved waste disposal.

A critical target is diarrhoea, the second major killer of children under five. Every year about 100,000 little kids die from this easily preventable disease caused by poor sanitation – particularly through using hands, water and utensils contaminated by faeces.

Westerners unused to Indonesia find the lack of toilet paper a worry and the prohibition against using the left hand for serving food a bit quaint. But these traditional practices are well founded. Using water is more hygienic than paper provided nails are scrubbed and the wastewater not reused.

“Indonesians are very fussy about personal cleanliness,” said Dr Jim Davie the Australian advisor to the ESP in East Java, and who has been associated with this country for the past 30 years.

“However many don’t have access to the basic needs for hygiene. Following a simple regimen of always washing hands with soap after going to the toilet and then drying them properly could cut diarrhoea cases by half.”

Polio can also be transmitted the same way. Last year a new virus was identified in West Java. Within six months almost 300 cases were detected in ten provinces.

The national government is now trying to immunise 24 million under-fives across the archipelago in a bid to make Indonesia polio-free by the end of this year. The disease is infectious. It can paralyse and kill.

The ESP project, which is being delivered by a company called Development Alternatives, is tackling this problem with the help of Muslim organisations.

A hand-washing campaign was started last October before the Ramadan fasting month. This was in partnership with the East Java chapter of the Indonesian Ulama Institute.

Community leaders in Malang and the suburb of Wonokromo, Surabaya were trained to set the values of the district by encouraging everyone to use soap and dry their hands. The exercise, which was both spiritual and practical, may be extended to other areas after assessment.

The question now is how to supply soap to those families who are so poor that this item is considered a luxury?


Many Westerners judge a country’s hygiene, development and world ranking by one simple test: Is the tap water fit to drink?

The answer is ‘yes’ in Singapore (which imports and cleans water from Indonesia), and most other developed countries – but ‘no’ in Indonesia.

(There’s a counterpoint: Why waste huge sums making tap water potable when most of it is used to wash cars and clean yards?)

Another test is to ask if a town has a deep sewage system. Homes in East Java’s cities don’t have access to a mains sewerage system. They rely on septic tanks that can leak and pollute the ground water.

Supplies from municipal waterworks known as PDAM vary enormously. Householders in Surabaya clean their bathroom water tanks of sediment weekly even when using filters. Pressure in many areas is so low pumps have to be installed.

However in Malang the water is clean and bright. But everywhere tap water has to be boiled and most families prefer to buy bottled water if they can afford it.

Many can’t – and it’s the urban poor who are the focus of the ESP project.

Money is being made available to PDAMs through the program to find new sources, upgrade equipment and recover money from consumers.

However no element in the project can stand alone. If the raw water is heavily polluted the PDAMs have to spend more on cleaning. If the sources are distant the recovery costs are higher.

Upland clearing has put silt in the waterways so reforesting catchment areas and keeping these clean is another part of the jigsaw.

There’s anecdotal evidence of thousands of dead wells across East Java. The situation in Sidoarjo (a burgeoning satellite town near Surabaya) is reported to be serious and a new supply has to be found.

Although it rained hard last wet season some parts of the province suffer drought because the use is greater than the recharge. (One study found the storage capacity of the Brantas water basin halved between 1976 and 2002).

If the source is in another district, administrative problems arise when authorities want to keep the water for their own people. This problem underscores the need for a plan that cuts across political boundaries in the national interest.

It’s the same with waste disposal. The so-called sanitary landfill is the standard system. New tip locations need to be found away from beaches and rivers. Ideal sites may be in other regencies. The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome so common in the West also flourishes in Indonesia.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 August 06))