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

Tuesday, October 03, 2006



The researchers have done their job and found that some of our behaviors are harmful. So the government passes laws to alert the public to the dangers of smoking, or riding motorbikes without helmets, or using drugs.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’ll take note, however compelling the statistics.

Getting complex scientific ideas across to the public isn’t easy in any culture. More so when education levels are low and suspicion of experts high.

Finding the right way to change behavior is a complex business particularly on the land, as entomologist Dr Agra Gothama is discovering. He works for the Research Institute for Tobacco and Fibre Crops in Malang, East Java.

“It’s a difficult job convincing farmer to do things differently,” he said. “So far everything we’ve tried has been unsuccessful. It’s extremely frustrating.”

Originally from Bali, Agra was sent overseas by the national government to get the best possible education so Indonesia could be in the front ranks of agricultural research. Although insects proliferate, the number of people studying their behaviour is microscopic – and most are with chemical companies.

For a country where close to 70 per cent of the population is involved in food production, keeping farming efficient and productive is a critical issue.

So Agra was despatched to the United States where he completed first a master’s degree, then a doctorate at the Mississippi State University. He returned to his homeland and set about the task of persuading farmers to use modern technology and ideas.

Unfortunately for Agra this seemingly worthy ambition coincided with the collapse of the authoritarian regime of Suharto, and with it all the administrative machinery that ensured the president’s dictates were followed.

One of those instructions was to grow high-yielding hybrid varieties to boost production. The farmers didn’t like this interference in their industry, but there was little they could do –particularly when the bureaucracy backed by the military enforced the rules.

These included the heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers. If it wiggled or bored stems or chewed leaves it had to be nuked. Collateral damage to innocent insects? This was War on Termites; sacrifices were regrettable, but inevitable.

Leaves that looked limp had to be boosted with white powders. Like kids on narcotics the roots turned idle; they gave up digging deep for nutrients and building robust plants.

Now science knows that excessive use of chemicals pollutes. It’s also creating smart new breeds of bugs that Say No To Drugs. So Agra and his colleagues are trying to persuade growers to forget the Suharto solutions, to use less and be choosy.

In particular they want farmers to count the number of pests in a few square metres of their crop and calculate whether they need to spray.

“Unfortunately this never works,” he said. “We show them how to do it and it’s really very simple. We’ve provided pegboards – we’ve made and distributed thousands – so they can easily determine the number of insects or worms without having to write anything down.

“It takes only 30 minutes at daybreak to do this once every five days. When we run workshops they’ll do it. But once we’ve gone they go back to their old ways and spray or dose everything at high level. I don’t like saying this but I think some people who work on the land are a bit lazy.

“It’s ironical, because the farmers are poor and the chemicals expensive. They can’t afford to use heavy amounts of fertilisers and insecticides, but they do and the downstream impact on the environment is severe.”

One technique used by Agra and his colleagues was to choose one local farmer from a collective who would be the pest assessor for the group and determine whether to spray or not.

“But this didn’t work because the farmers didn’t trust the people we selected,” he said. “Spraying is needed only when pest numbers get to a certain level. But the growers want to see everything dead so they soak their crops.

“It’s also very hard to persuade them to use protective clothing, like masks and boots, or to stop smoking when they’re spraying. They don’t understand the long term damage to their health which could be occurring.”

The problem isn’t exclusive to Indonesia. Western nations with their supposedly educated public also face huge obstacles in social engineering – particularly with tobacco use.

No one lights up and falls dead. Hardened puffers can always point to a fit nonagenarian nicotine addict. So the cause and effect factor requires an acceptance that scientific data is more reliable than personal observation. It also needs a consistent message; sudden policy changes damage credibility.

Indonesian farmers also fear the city men with clipboards and magnifying lenses could have another agenda or be in the pay of someone other than their real employer. Trust, said Agra, was in short supply everywhere in Indonesia.

Faced with this obduracy the scientists are going back to their test tubes and looking for other solutions. These include the use of enzymatic fertilisers which stimulate the growth of essential bacteria, and the cultivation of viruses to kill harmful insects but leave the benign beasties unharmed. The current buzz term is Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

“Even this is difficult because Indonesia spends so little on research and development,” Agra said. “We have the people with the qualifications, but not the money to do the research. We write proposals, but don’t get the funding.

“For example, South Korea spends 2.0 per cent of its national budget on research and development. We spend 0.003 per cent.

“In the past everyone has blamed farmers for the problems, but it’s time for science to take a more multidisciplinary approach.

“Fortunately the government is no longer accepting individual applications for research money. Instead there has to be an integrated approach that includes economists and sociologists. We can no longer work separately.”

And getting through to farmers with the latest scientific information?

“We just have to keep trying,” he said.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 October 2006)


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