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, July 31, 2007

The world according to the Mi Al Huda primary school in Malang, East Java

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The last cowboy left in Sawojajar © Duncan Graham 2007

When he first started herding cattle in the open fields east of Malang, Samian could count up to 400 head grazing across the broad commons. Now there are only three.

All his fellow farmers have left, forced off the lands they roamed for generations by housing estates sliced into squares by rivers of endless traffic. Where grass, bushes and trees once painted the landscape a hundred hues of green, there’s now only terracotta red and asphalt black.

“Maybe two or three years more, and then I’ll have to stop,” Samian said. “More homes are being built all the time. People complain about my cows and the mess they make, but I think they should put up with them. I was here first.

“I used to have 15, now just two cows and a calf. But there’s no point in being angry; in the end I know I’ll have to move elsewhere.”

Town planners call it urban sprawl and it’s the curse of Indonesian agriculture, particularly Java, the world’s most fertile and overcrowded island. According to riceland preservation activists an estimated 60,000 hectares of prime paddy is lost to housing and industry every year. For every square meter of rich black volcanic soil smothered by concrete, that’s one less plot to keep the nation self-sufficient in food.

Malang is typical of the trend. The cool East Java hill town, once famous for its plantations of tobacco, tea, fruits and vegetables, has become a major education center. There are more than 30 universities and colleges pulling in students from across the archipelago.

Demand for housing has been spectacular; about 25 years ago the deep-gullied Amprong River, its steep banks cluttered with ancient cemeteries, was properly bridged. This opened the flatlands, dusted daily by ash from the nearby Semeru volcano. And so the suburb of Sawojajar was born.

Free-ranging bovines and fussy cityfolk don’t make a good mix. If you’ve invested in a chintzy mansion with a Doric pillar entrance statement, hopscotching cowpats down the driveway is not the ideal way to maintain the image.

Having your precious darlings confront 300 kilos of beef straddling the path to school isn’t conducive to best parenting practice. For the superstitious, finding a lawn studded with cloven hoofprints can be a devilish experience.

Samian’s long-time survival in this hostile environment along with Inem, 3, and her calf, and Sariem, 11, has much to do with the farmer and his four-legged family’s placid personalities. The local kids like watching the animals’ antics although they’re often spoil sports, evacuating their tank-size bladders and bowels on the improvised soccer pitches and getting their legs entangled with the kite-fliers’ strings.

Samian, 47, is a cheerful chap, sharing jokes with the idlers and curious. When the happy herdsman isn’t thinking about life and its unstoppable changes, he sings in Javanese, anything that comes into his head. If he had a Western repertoire it would surely include Don’t Fence Me In and a bracket from Oklahoma!

Because his frisky little heifer has an Australian dad, courtesy of a government artificial insemination program using semen from Aussie bulls, he’s fascinated by tales of cattle raising Down Under.

The idea of wild steers ranging unfenced arid lands, mechanized dairies where three or four workers can handle hundreds of milkers twice daily, and microchiping cows’ ears to identify their provenance fascinates.

Inem (named after a sinetron (soap opera) sexy maid character) is a cream colored and patient mum. Her russet mate Sariem is expecting. Again, for this is the only way Samian earns money, selling one offspring a year.

Sariem has horns that would make bullfighters blanche but she uses them only to deftly lift the fragile fences smallholders have erected to protect their crops of corn. The sharp points also help maintain passing motorbikes at handlebars’ length.

The cows’ big, brown swimming-pool eyes quickly spot when the boss gets involved in a chatathon with other road users. Then, like naughty truants they seize the chance for misadventure, squeezing their hard heads through loose railings to get a massive munch of some garden-proud newcomer’s pampered palm.

Keeping the trio in line is Samian’s job from 1 pm to nightfall every day. They know the way out to the shrinking herbage and back across a busy road. As the mosques burst into magrib (evening prayers) they wait unfazed at the kerb for the signal to cross.

While other stockmen hold their animals in byres and scour the roadside verges for greenstuff to cut and carry, Samian takes his cows strolling through the suburbs, seeking the undeveloped blocks where weeds are rank.

Unfortunately these vacant lots are also used to dump building site rubbish and household waste, so the cows have to pick their way through sharp-edged concrete rubble and shattered tiles in search of tasty turf.

“Sometimes they eat the plastic bags,” said Samian. “It doesn’t seem to bother them. But I’ve had one poisoned by a jealous neighbor who baited the grass with phosphorous.

“I also had a cow hit by a car. The police got involved. So of course I lost the case and had to pay.”

The other hazard is thieves. Come nightfall the cattle trot home down a one-cow wide lane and are locked into a low-roof stable next to the family’s little house deep in a kampong. Every night they’re given a swill of fermented soybeans. Bells hanging on the bamboo gate are a burglar alert.

“My father was a farmer, but I don’t want my three children to follow me,” Samian said. “I like the outdoor life but there’s no future. I think my sons will have to join the army.

“We have to rely on my wife Suliati selling vegetables for our daily income. Once a year I can sell a yearling for about Rp 10 million (US $1,100) – that’s all the money we get.”

Someday soon the pernickety new arrivals will finally reckon that sharing their space with dung-splashed cows is incompatible with an upmarket lifestyle.

Then the Sawojajar cowboy will be in search of pastures new – should any remain. If this story was a cigarette commercial he’d be astride a roan stallion clip-clopping into a shimmering sunset of a thousand empty acres, as great as all outdoors.

But because this is a slice of real Indonesian life the singing cowboy will shuffle into the smoke of a thousand exhausts in his flip flops, fenced out by builders’ scaffolding, farewelled by the fist-waving urbanites’ security guards.

So closes another chapter in the story of Indonesian rural development.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 July 07)

Monday, July 23, 2007



By 2010 there'll be an annual national shortfall of six million cattle and the unmet demand will cause domestic meat prices to rise, according to research conducted by Budi Santosa.

"Every year the consumption of beef almost doubles," he said. "This is happening as the tastes of the Indonesian middle class change, and as they become more affluent."

The president director of the East Java agricultural machinery manufacturer PT Agrindo is moving slowly out of daily control of the business that has dominated his life, leaving administration to family members.

To fill the vacuum he's shifting his significant energies from making farm equipment – particularly lightweight tractors, land-tilling gear, pumps and rice mills – into imported cattle raised in feedlots. A shipment of more than 200 steers and young bulls from Australia is due in early July.

Yards are currently being constructed at the rear of Agrindo's Gresik plant southwest of Surabaya to take a further 2,000 cattle. Feedlots are reported to be expanding in Indonesia to meet the anticipated beef boom.

"I've always liked animals," Budi said. No empty words: Timor deer roam the factory compound. Crocodiles paddling in a pool against the boundary lie ready to snap foolhardy intruders. Nearby is a pen of the rare Javanese warty pigs.

"The cattle enterprise started as a hobby when I was on a Surabaya city committee investigating waste disposal," he said. "I thought it more useful to convert green feed to meat, so bought some local cattle and fed them rejected cornhusks and leaves collected from the markets.

"I started researching animal nutrition and marketing on the Internet and in government departments. The more I learned the more I discovered about changing patters of meat consumption and the developing taste for beef.

"But I could never buy an even line of cattle in sufficient numbers locally. Trading was complicated and the prices jumped when sellers knew I was in the market. So I've started buying from overseas."

The new company is called AgriRanch and the idea is to import cattle around 200-kilograms liveweight and re-sell for slaughter when they're around 320 kilograms. Returns rise significantly when white young bulls are sold at Idul Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice ahead of the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The venture is being funded from profits generated by Agrindo.

It sounds easy money, but many challenges are being encountered. In their homeland the Australian Brahman-cross cattle roam free in large paddocks, graze pastures and seldom see humans. They're wild and often aggressive and need much patient handling to adjust to life behind bars in the tropics.

Australian sellers prefer to ship heavier cattle that can withstand the rigors of sea travel. These cost about AUD $ 1,500 (Rp 11 million). But this gives less time to fatten the beasts in Indonesia and so reduces profit.

The Indonesian government, under pressure from cattle buyers, has been pushing exporters to send smaller and cheaper beasts. The feedlots want to hold animals for about 100 days before resale.

Depending on weather conditions a ship can carry around 3,500 cattle. AgriRanch is expanding because the unit price is cheaper buying a full load. But that needs extensive infrastructure – strong holding yards, ample feed, experienced stock workers and trucks.

When he's taken his pick from a shipment Budi plans to sell surplus animals direct to local buyers in small lots.

AgriRanch workers are building handling facilities with recycled material. Pipes from a small shipyard also run by the company are being cut and bent into shape for use as cattle rails.

A former family planning clinic discarded by the government has been converted into an office. Equipment from a bankrupt restaurant forms the basis of an autopsy room where the carcasses of dead stock can be examined for signs of disease. AgriRanch already employs a vet.

Imported cattle are now quarantined for ten days in West Java but AgriRanch plans to set up an approved facility in East Java. Local abattoirs are still not up to international health and hygiene standards so the meat market remains local.

Budi is determined that the whole enterprise will follow modern environmental standards, with yard washdown being used to fertilize and irrigate crops that will feed the cattle. Dung will be channeled into a biomass plant to generate electricity from methane.

Dry feed supplements using waste from noodle factories, rice straw and shredded coconut are being analyzed in an on-site laboratory to determine nutrient values when used as supplementary feed. AgriRanch is trying to encourage villagers to use dry feed to boost milk yields in dairy cows and speed growth in beef cattle.

Budi is an eclectic and inventive businessman keen to experiment and find engineering solutions for problems that bedevil others. Not all are money makers: He's collected and restored six cars used by first president Soekarno that appear in antique motor shows and are sometimes lent out for weddings.

To get around the 13-hectare factory and the 15-hectare farm he uses a fuel-frugal Japanese hybrid golf cart powered by electricity supplemented by a small petrol engine.

"Our concept is that anything that can be recycled should be used," he said. "Why buy new when there are adequate materials available from elsewhere? I'm not into status – I don't wear expensive clothes, rings and a Rolex – I'm happy with a cheap and lightweight watch.

"I'm testing an electric fly-catching machine from Taiwan that can be used around the yards. If it's effective the flies will then be fed to catfish. Everything has its uses."


PT Agrindo's roots go back to 1942 when the Tan brothers built a small workshop in Malang (central East Java) with two workmen making bed frames and bicycle parts. The factory has expanded and moved into other production but still operates at the original site.

The company is now one of six enterprises in the Rutan Group with more than 2,000 direct and sub-contract workers. It has introduced quality management systems and has international certification.

Although Agrindo has diversified, built a foundry and makes pumps for export, its core business remains the fabrication of small-scale machines for use in Asian agriculture – particularly in growing and harvesting rice.

It claims to have the largest rubber roller manufacturing plant in Indonesia, making parts for rice milling machines throughout Indonesia, and exporting to 17 countries. The output is 200,000 units a month.

Agrindo will soon be building Mitsubishi engines under licence for use in farm equipment.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 July 07)


Monday, July 16, 2007



Indonesian Idioms and Expressions
By Christopher Torchia
Published by Tuttle (Periplus)
282 pages

Before the nation's second president was tumbled from power in 1998 he told the people that he was indeed old, toothless, wrinkled and senile.

Skeptics who understood Javanese double-meanings thought this self-deprecation a bit rich, probably designed to release a public outpouring of denial and demands that Suharto stay in office.

Their cynicism was reinforced when the words he used – tua, ompong, peot and pikun became an acronym revealing his true position – on TOPP. No wonder the smiling general didn't step down easily.

For this and many other nuggets we thank New York journalist and former Associated Press' Jakarta news editor Christopher Torchia who worked here a decade ago during Krismon (krisis moneter) the Asian money meltdown.

Make space on your bookshelf because his new book, Indonesian Idioms and Expressions should be rubbing covers with John Echols' and Hassan Shadily's enduring Indonesian- English Dictionary.

Hanging off the broken spine of this heavily used and absolutely essential work are all the words you'll need to understand correct and polite Indonesian. But not the hundreds of slang terms, proverbs, idioms and acronyms that are constantly being invented and discarded – and that Torchia has garnered.

Writing this review offers the opportunity for an exposé.

Deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy, clattering away on long-platen Remingtons, are the officers of CONFUSE.

Thanks to democracy and free speech we can now reveal the existence of this little known and most secretive department. Its full name is the Committee to Nonplus and Frustrate Users of Simple Expressions.

It was formed in the early days of nationhood when an excess of public servants was hired. This policy helped disguise unemployment by getting ten people to do the job of one.

It's the ambition of these Indonesian Idles in CONFUSE to reach the creative imagination of the nation's first president Soekarno, famous for now obsolete slogans like Nekad that bundled exhortations to struggle, defend and grow.

His successor Suharto's most brilliantly sinister addition to the language was Gestapu, referring to the Gerakan September Tiga Puluh or 30 September movement (the 1965 coup). You don't need to be a linguist to grab the association with a former European demonic force.

No-one has quite reached that apogee of evil, but they'd doing their best: the soft syllables of Petrus (Penembak misterius, or mysterius shootings) seemed to legitimize the alleged government-approved killing of criminals in Jakarta in 1983.

Torchia's verbosity-detector has quarried granite from the grand old days of total obfuscation: Ipoleksobudmilag (the unity of ideology, politics, economics, society, culture, the military and religion.) Like the ideas, the word is too hard to fracture.

SARA sounds sweet but never trust Miss Communication, the darling of government propaganda everywhere; she's censorious. The word refers to suku, agama, ras and antar-golongan (ethnicity, religion, race and social relations) the four issues that the media and public could not stir.

Now we allegedly have freedom of speech we can all become word warpers. Reversing acronyms and giving everyday terms a new meaning is a popular pastime for amateur lexicographers:

MBA (not a degree, but married by accident, or married but available); MLM (once a selling scheme, now mulut lewat mulut (mouth to mouth), meaning gossip on the grapevine. Absent from the book but often heard at airports when flights are delayed is GARUDA – good and reliable under Dutch administration.

Then there are the proverbs. These don't just express some time-toughened and inherited village wisdom, they also give insights into the culture and the things that matter in daily life.

Pepesan kosong (a discarded banana leaf food-wrap) equals empty promises; nyamuk mati, gatal tak lepas (the mosquito dies but the itch remains) means some things are never forgotten. Seperti katak di bawah tempurung (like a frog under a coconut husk) suggests an insular person.

Seperti kacang lupa akan kulitnya (like a peanut that's forgotten its shell), subtly slandering someone who's rejected his or her origins provides an unforgettable image. Equally digestible is nasi sudah menjadi bubur (the rice has turned to porridge), commonly heard in East Java and probably elsewhere.

Torchia translates this as an inability to turn back the clock. It's similar to the English proverbs of being unable to unscramble the egg or crying over spilt milk. One culture's cuisine based on fruits, nuts and grains – the other on dairy and poultry foods.

The book is a bit of a magpie's nest (or a bower bird's if you're an Aussie) with useful pickings so the browser is constantly rewarded. Most terms come from Java, and the Betawi (the original people of Jakarta) in particular.

Torchia tries to provide the provenance of most expressions though surprisingly offers no explanation for burung (penis, but also bird), a term that foxes many non-Indonesians and often leads to embarrassing moments.

Maybe like the English euphemisms for anything associated with reproduction and defecation the origin has been lost long ago.

One other complaint – and this time serious: No index. The book has been arranged in four sections, Life Forms, Power and Conflict, Tradition and Modern Life. These are further broken down into chapters with open-ended titles like Protest Fever and Family Affairs.

These are arbitrary categories with many overlaps. Cataloguing and indexing are tricky arts that constantly test decision-making abilities; they'd be particularly challenging with such a loosely structured book. But most readers will want to use Indonesian Idioms and Expressions as a reference, and without an index that's difficult.

Or, as some would say: NUTS (not up to scratch).

(First published in The SundayPost 1 July 07)