On the door of agronomist Jesada Nittayajam’s Malang office is a sign that reads: ‘Thank a farmer for your next meal.’
It’s there to remind his staff that the people who till the soil may have low status in Indonesia but they are the foundation of the country’s economy and without them the nation would topple.
“You can have plenty of money and a high position but without food you cannot survive,” he said. “We need to respect the people who grow the produce we consume and not look down on them.
“If you want to get to a farmer’s heart you must do, not talk. Listen to what they say, see what they do, learn from them.”
Not all countries put farmers at the bottom of the social order. In Australasia they are generally well off and politically powerful, with major capital assets in land and machinery.
In Indonesia the men you see staggering through the paddy steering a primitive plough behind a straining buffalo under a cloudless sky are mainly landless peasants labouring for an absent landowner.
Sociologists claim that the reason many Indonesian women use skin whitening cream is not to mimic Westerners. Traditional beliefs link pale skin to privilege and position. Only the lowly dark-skinned labor in the sun, so white is right.
Similar thinking has some men growing a long fingernail to show they don’t have to use their hands to make a living.
But such reasoning is lost on Jesada. Despite holding three senior positions including production logistics manager for his company’s Asia Pacific region, and a master’s degree in business administration, he pulls on his gum boots and wades into the paddy to get dirt under his fingernails and talk to farmers about crop yields.
Which is extra difficult because he doesn’t speak Javanese and correctly reckons his Indonesian is “very poor”.
Jesada, 54, looks Indonesian (which causes communication difficulties when he’s alone in public), but he’s a Thai who has just completed a three-year stint in East Java before heading for Manila. (His successor is an Indonesian.)
It hasn’t been Jesada’s first posting to the Republic. Early this century he spent two years working in North Sumatra.
So how does a manager without local language skills communicate? One way is to employ Indonesians who speak English, a language he now knows, and use the staff to interpret his instructions
“Body language is also important,” he said. “I once calmed down a man with a knife who got agitated because of a misunderstanding, just through using smiles and gestures.
“Farmers in Indonesia are much like those in Thailand. They know if you understand their job, appreciate what they’re doing and they see your intentions. They may be poor but they are not stupid. Many are more intelligent than me. They just haven’t had the opportunities.”
Or luck. In the early 1970s student Jesada demonstrated in the streets of Bangkok when Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn executed a coup against his own regime, scrapping parliamentary democracy.
“We thought we’d won so I went home,” he said. “But the situation reversed and the military opened fire. If I’d stayed maybe I would have been killed.”
About 75 demonstrators died in and around Thammasat University. The protestors, who were seeking new elections, were labelled communists. Along with others Jesada was earmarked for surveillance by military intelligence.
“I wanted to help the poor and do something for my country,” he said. “My original plan was to be a dentist but I thought I could do more with farmers. So I studied agronomy and after graduation worked for a Christian organization, though I’m not a Christian, for no pay, just for food, living with the people.
“But they spoke badly about the leaders behind their backs. I was told that was the way of the world, but I didn’t like it so left and worked on a pineapple plantation, then with cotton.”
Here he discovered the occupational perils. A backpack spray leaked and saturated his clothes and skin with insecticide. He still suffers the impact and is allergic to synthetics and pineapples.
His parents worried about his job-hopping so he joined a bank lending money to farmers. “My friends wanted to kill me because they thought I’d become a capitalist,” he said.
“I learned discipline and that you have to work with different people, even those you don’t like. I saw the other side of the economy. I quit over the bank’s policies. I would not allow them to cheat people.”
So did this behavior indicate an idealist? “Somewhere between that and a pragmatist,” he replied. “I was too young and didn’t have the patience. If I’d been a total idealist I would have gone to the jungle to keep fighting.”
Instead he was headhunted by a former professor to work for a US-based multinational developing hybrid seeds.
Still the rebel, Jesada offered to work unpaid for two weeks to see if he liked their policies. “I did this because I didn’t want to take advantage of them,” he said. “I thought they were good.”
The feeling must have been reciprocated because the bosses overlooked his red-tinged past and sent him to the Philippines. Here he found that English, a language he then didn’t understand, was the company’s communication tool.
This is the way things are run in the Malang office. When his colleagues slip back into Indonesian or Javanese he reverts to speaking in Thai “so they know how I feel.”
“Indonesia has enormous agricultural potential and in some ways the farmers do a better job than in Thailand where yields are lower,” he said.
“The difference is that Thailand has a surplus and exports rice so they can concentrate on quality. Farms here will get bigger and more efficient.
“With the right techniques, seed and training rice yields could triple. It will take time, but I’m optimistic.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post, Friday 22 March 2013)