December 28, 2008
The SPI, as I mentioned below, has succeeded through struggle and unity in taking 1 million hectares of land from companies and government entities, much of it in fact reclaimed after it was stolen from peasant farmers during the years of the Suharto regime.
Now, like the Movimento dos Sem Terra in Brazil, they are working to convince peasant farmers to go organic. In July, I went from Jakarta to the coastal city of Padang, on the island of Sumatra, and from there to Nagari, where the SPI have an organic farming school. I did not have my trusty interpreter Adi with me on this trip, relying instead on Rustam, an SPI leader from nearby West Pasamant. A tall rangy fellow, with a square jaw and jokey manner, Rustam had participated in a lengthy and violent struggle there to reclaim land taken by a palm-oil company, one that resulted in the death of one Union member and the imprisonment of many others. His command of English, while eccentric and rather endearingly — if confusingly, at times – informal, was my path to communication with his Mingabau-speaking comrades.
Before talking about the school, however, I must say something about the amazing architecture of this part of Indonesia, immense wooden houses with curving roofs like the horns of a buffalo, or the prow of an old-fashioned ship, called rumah gadang, which translates simply as big house. What’s more, this island, or what I saw of it, is particularly lush with jungle vegetation, riven with streams and waterfalls, much of my bus trip from Padang to Payan Kumbuh along the route of a now-abandoned train track built by the Dutch.
The organic school in Nagari was run by a taciturn man named Adek, who had taken a six-month course in Medan, North Sumatra, back in 2002. Adek was chosen to take the course, said Rustam, “because he is interested, and clever – more clever than most.” Beyond the small house where Adek lived with his family, dozens of different species of vegetables grew in furrowed strips, often surrounded by flowering plants useful for fertilizing or pest control. At the bottom of a slope, a stilted pen had been built for the school’s collection of five goats, whose manure was added to the piles of biologically rich compost, which contained everything from leaves to burnt rice husks. They were also making a liquid organic pesticide, said Rustam, “but we don’t use it much. We focus on how to manage different species of insects in this area. Some are bad, some are friends. You always have to figure out the needs of the plant.”
Since its inauguration in 2006, about 100 people had come there for courses, staying in simple constructions made of wood and bilik, also used for classrooms. Most of them were SPI cadre, coming one day a week for a year, but local peasant farmers had also begun turning up to ask for advice. “When we built the school, everyone laughed,’ said Rustam, “but then they started coming, one by one.” Even the government was sending a group of 60 students for an intensive six-day course in August. Meanwhile, its broad choice of organic vegetables and fruit were being packaged at the school and distributed for sale in various towns and villages nearby.
At some distance away were the rice paddies, set in a much larger area of terraced green fields, and offering a stunning view of mountain ranges, purple and misty, extending toward the horizon. Water veined the entire landscape, running through swards of rice in various stages of development, from the brilliant, almost luminescent green of bunched young plants to waving fields of ripe, pale-gold grain. The yield from using organic was almost vertiginous: people were harvesting seven tons of rice per hectare, compared to just four or five using traditional fertilizers and pesticides. If, as Rustam said, the SPI began discussing organic farming “to see about how to lose our dependence on commercial fertilizers and the big companies that sell them,” their endeavours had been enormously successful.
The next day in Sibaladuang, I went to a meeting of organic farmers, who had transformed a 66-hectare piece of land that had been theirs since ancestral times, taken over by a cattle ranch, then won back by them trough occupation and pressure in 1998. I asked them why they had decided to adopt organic practices and, in spite of the higher yields they were getting, no-one mentioned that as motivation. “I do it first of all so as not to be dependent on fertilizers and pesticides from factories,” said a man named Jastil, “because the factory gives the peasant very little information about what it really contains and what the effects are.” Another simply expressed confidence in this latest SPI campaign. “As an organization, it has the power to kick out the ranchers, and bring us many solutions and alternatives,” said Beni, secretary of the Sibaladuang base, “to improve agriculture and our livelihoods.”
But the most faithful adherent, perhaps, of organic techniques was Sukardi Bendang, 39, from nearby Tanjuang Pati, where he farmed one hectare of his grandmother’s land and raised a few cattle. “I first got information about organic farming from reading about it in newspapers and seeing things on television,” he said. “Shortly after, in 2002, I joined SPI. I discussed this with them and decided to take a one-week intensive course in Medan from the same teacher Adek had. After growing the first plot of organic rice, I felt really good. I got a very good crop, about 200 kilos more than by doing conventional farming.”
Sukardi had moved back to where he had grown up from the similarly named village of Tanjuang Pauh, where his wife’s clan had farmed. But “in 1996,” he said, “the government moved us because they were building a dam there and gave us two hectares for planting and another half hectare for a house in another place. But this land was very steep and no good for farming.” An NGO had initially organized the peasants against the dam-building project, he said, but once their funds dried up, they left. This NGO, said Sukardi, “only took on one project, the dam, but the SPI struggles for long-term issues that can last a whole lifetime.”
In Tanjuang Pati, Sukardi began to organize the peasants there “step by step. I have invited members to start growing organic. And I still campaign,” he said, “so that the landless can get land and for agrarian reform. Government politicians campaign and say that ‘yes, organic is very good for the peasant,’ but these are just empty words. They give no support for it. They only support the peasants who are in favour of them; they’re the one who get loans, for example. If we want these loans, we have to really pressure for them.”
Sukardi had been so successful with his organic production, that not only had he recently been invited to work with the local Farming Board – a sign of official backing he took with caution – but allowed him to purchase two more hectares of land. Nevertheless his primary reason, he said, for promoting organic farming so strenuously was because “it is healthy for families who eat our products.”
So far about a fifth of SPI members are farming organically, but that number is growing. In Batang, Central Java, the local SPI had also set up an organic showpiece, hoping to convince members and non-members alike to go organic by giving them visible evidence of its success. As in Brazil, the switch from traditional methods isn’t an easy one, but at least it is beginning.
On a final note, I was told back in Jakarta that Padang is famous for its cuisine, with many restaurants all over the country attracting diners by announcing that their cooks are from there. I’m ashamed to say that (except for the excellent slap-up meal we ate sitting on the ground in Sibaladuang) I never had time to eat a good Padang meal while here. The only place where I stopped to eat on my final day – and this is really embarrassing, I admit – was Kentucky Fried Chicken.
But I can’t close without mentioning the amazing little hotel where I stayed: a lovely large old house, huge, beautifully furnished room and the friendliest staff imaginable, all for about $27 a night. It’s called the Hotel Mayang, and is located just off of Jalan Veteran Dalam.