‘Serikat Petani Indonesia’ encourages peasant communities to take full control of their food systems through peasant cooperatives

“For people’s stomach to be filled, people’s sovereignty must be upheld. People go hungry not due to insufficient harvest or lack of natural resources, but because the people have lost direct control and are therefore rendered helpless, “- Bung Hatta (one of Indonesia’s founding fathers).

Indonesia is an agrarian country with more than half of its population living as peasants. In an economy that is predominantly dependent on agriculture and allied activities, public policies for the welfare of peasants play an essential and strategic role. However, welfare policies in Indonesia barely address the concerns of its peasant communities.

According to Henry Saragih, the Chairman of Serikat Petani Indonesia (SPI), introduction of neoliberalism in the agricultural sector has devastated peasant communities in the country. Production costs have gone up. Dependency on company seeds and chemical pesticides, fertilsers are significantly high. Lack of credit, limited information and crash in prices of produce are among the list of problems plaguing the economy. The market is being controlled by multinational agribusiness corporations, their middlemen, speculators and local elites.

Rebuilding Indonesia’s broken agrarian economy is not as easy as turning the palm. Yet, there are some obvious steps to be taken. The Constitution of Indonesia stipulates in Article 33 that “the economy is constituted as a collective effort based on the principle of kinship”. In many ways, a people’s cooperative is an institution that well embodies this spirit of the Constitution. It is because a cooperative works on the principles of social justice and democracy. It encourages openness, participation and when managed by peasant communities is more kinship-oriented and is not capital-oriented. A genuine agrarian reform, which is the call of the peasant movements in Indonesia today, must therefore also include a vision to also integrate this potential of peasant cooperatives to further kinship and promote local economies.

Agrarian Cooperatives in Indonesia

Before we go into exploring what kind of cooperatives we want, it is important to recognize the fault lines in the cooperative we already had. In the ‘old order’ agrarian cooperatives were actually still being controlled by the local elites ( bourgeoisie) and were in reality promoting capitalism. In the ‘new order’, conditions got even worse. Village Unit Cooperatives killed the intrinsic values of the cooperatives through a top down approach, detached from the interests and concerns of the peasant communities. They in fact ended up as State funded projects with less involvement from people. Village elites continued to wrest control of it and used it to meet their vested interests.

The result has been a loss of credibility for this idea in the eyes of ordinary people. In reality a cooperative, when ran well, is immensely capable of taking on the capitalistic economic system actually. It has adaptive strength and flexibility to withstand economic shocks. Not surprisingly, Dawam Raharjo in his book “Pembangunan Pascamodernisme (Post-modernisme Development) (2012)” has mentioned the cooperative as a futuristic economic system.

KPI: The  Peasant Cooperative movement of  SPI

If our ultimate aim is the overall welfare of peasant communities, then the means to get to that aim cannot include export-oriented agriculture or foreign capital. Instead, it must include the wisdom, knowledge and power of the peasant communities themselves.

While speaking at the 19th anniversary of SPI and at the declaration of building 1,000 Indonesia Peasants Cooperatives (KPI) held on July 8, 2017, Henry Saragih insisted that peasants must take charge of the production and distribution of their produce in their villages.

Peasants have to be in independent charge of the logistics involved in the local economic activities, he said. He emphasized that the struggle for agrarian reform can only succeed when peasant communities cultivate and manage their crops collectively. It is important for cooperatives to take back the control of the agriculture chain back from the big corporations and farm estates. KPI (Indonesian Peasant Cooperative), which is the cooperative that is run and managed by the members of Indonesia’s peasant union (SPI), becomes relevant in this context.

Henry shared the encouraging fight-back in North Sumatra, West Sumatera, Jambi, Bengkulu, Riau, South Sumatra, Lampung, Aceh, Banten, West Java, East Java, Jogjakarta, Central Java, NTB (West Nusa Tenggara) and NTT (East Nusa Tenggara). He recounted the importance of peasants taking control of their own seeds, producing their own fertilisers and pesticides and in encouraging local production and maintenance of agricultural tools – or in other words, taking control of the means of production process fully.

In many ways, KPI – the cooperative that the union is building – aims to develop food sovereignty in its communities – which is to say that communities will decide on the food they want to eat and produce them locally, using local means of production and by being in charge of its distribution in their local communities. This, apart from giving control to people also improves the health of the local food economy.

Therefore KPI is not about teaching peasants how to find a market for their produce or how to become a merchant and rake in profits. Instead it is a political act to enable peasants to take direct control of their lives, their food systems.

This article is based on a paper originally prepared by Tri Hariyono in Bahasa, that looks at Indonesia’s agrarian economy and the importance of strengthening peasant-led cooperatives for harmonized production. Tri Hariyono is Chief Executive Board of Yogyakarta Province. To read the original paper, click here