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, October 09, 2019


Fifty shades of green                                                                  

There may be cleaner streets in hilltown Malang than this East Java nook, though they’d be hard to find.

But then so is the place itself - Kampong Glintung.  It’s well off a main drag, down a drab driveway, imprisoned by a high factory wall smeared by graffiti.  None of the images are artistic or original.

The clang of metal from the hidden workshop doesn’t better the ambience.  Maybe the GPS has given the wrong spot and it’s time to turn back.

Then bang!  A hit to the eyes, not to the ears.  Grim yields to charm right at the junction where ugliness ends and beauty begins.  

The house of retired driver Sukoco, 60, and his family mark the intersection.  Although their two-storey home leaves no space for a forecourt, it could still justify being named Verdant Villa.

With no room to spread out the couple have grown up, clothing their abode with a multicolored vertical garden.

“Malang is getting hotter every year,” said Sukoco’s wife Sri Winarti, 58.  “Pollution is a problem.  So is littering.  But plants make such a big difference.”

She’s not a lone voice.  Apart from the color there’s a feeling of calm though many of the residents are busy in the alleys.  The location is hard concrete urban, but the talk and activities are green.

An open drain runs alongside the asphalt.  Unlike the residents it’s in a rush so there’s no odor.  The occasional plastic bag shows not all obey the ‘Don’t Trash’ notices.  “The rubbish comes from upstream,” said Sukoco, gravity feeding culvert water onto street plants.

It’s not just individuals’ homes that are flowering.  Every flat spot on the sidewalk has a pot.

The locals call their project Glintung Go Green, or  ‘3G’, which is smart publicity as the term is widely known from wireless mobile technology. But here it signals bringing the country to the city.

The idea was first planted by agricultural advisor Bambang Trianto seven years ago when he was elected Rukun Warga (RW – community leader) for a nearby street.

When Indonesian Expat visited 3G, he was in Jakarta running seminars on how to get city dwellers to find the sweet spot in the spectrum between blue and yellow.

On the phone he said that as RW he tried to persuade residents to garden.  But his successor was not so keen and the project faltered. The family moved in 2017 and decided to lead in their new home by doing, not directing.

Going green can give warm fuzzies, what academics label ‘virtue signaling’. But sustaining moral comfort entails more than words and water.  

Laggards need encouragement.  Like marriage, nature requires regular refreshment. Some plants can survive a nuclear winter – others shrivel in a sunbeam.  Having a green thumb helps, but skills can be nurtured if there’s an abundance of enthusiasm.

“I don’t know the names of the plants but I know what they want,” said Sri Winarti.  “I’ve taught myself by watching them grow, and listening to people with more experience.”

Bambang’s wife Erni Irianto, 62, can identify some species.  Her favorites are members of the Sansevieria trifasciata family.  Also known as snakeplants they seem to withstand excesses of care or neglect, so good starters for amateurs.

“The kampong was quite dirty and polluted when we arrived,” she said. “There was also a lot of petty crime.  We wanted people to feel proud of their streets so started putting plants on top of walls.”

It was a technique also used by Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew whose government draped Vernonia elliptica over the facades of old buildings to disguise the grime. 

In Indonesia the curtain creeper now bears the late Prime Minister’s name. It’s become a trendy plant around hotel foyers, though not over-used in 3G.

That’s because the 150 households aren’t into monoculture.  If a shrub can be grown from a cutting those with abundance offer twigs to others.  Seeds and suckers get swapped.  Outsiders can buy. A bunch that plants together blooms together.

In one street is a State elementary school where the students play in a yard that was once a dustbowl.  Now the kids have shade from trees and should grow up more aware of the value of nurturing the environment.

Awards and a notice board of visitors’ compliments decorate one wall of Bambang Trianto’s house.  Among them a message from Michael Clifton, formerly of the Australian Trade and Investment Commission:

‘Privileged to witness an inspiring model of community pride in action.  Powerful proof of the power of passion and leadership to change lives.’

Bambang has a home business making tempe (soybean cake).  On the roof above the kitchen he and his wife are building a seminar room where the principles of conservation, composting, recycling and developing the green economy can be taught.

“We think this will be the only place in Indonesia where a community is educating others,” she said.  “We haven’t had any government support.

“The most effective way to explain the benefits of going green is by example.  That’s what we’re doing.”


First published in Indonesian Expat, 9 October 2019

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