Beyond Organic: Promoting Indonesia’s Indigenous Farming Cultures
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
The first time Helianti Hilman visited the indigenous farmers of the West Java town of Garut, she was asked to remove her shoes before entering their fields. Her surprise grew when the farmers quizzed her on her mood – they didn’t want her upsetting the plants.
“That’s when I realised that their approach to agriculture was much more than just growing organic,” says 44-year-old Hilman, an Indonesian entrepreneur and former lawyer. “It was a whole way of life. That’s when my perspective changed.”
That was eight years ago. Hilman’s efforts to protect and promote traditional agricultural practices in Indonesia since then saw her named an Asian social entrepreneur of the year by the Schwab Foundation at the World Economic Forum in March.
The social enterprise that Hilman helped to establish in 2009 works with around 50,000 smallholder farmers across Indonesia. Called Javara (which means champion in Sanskrit) the organisation oversees the marketing and distribution of more than 640 artisanal products, from organically grown vegetables and gluten-free flour to gourmet salt and coconut cooking oil.
According to Indonesia’s national indigenous people’s organisation, Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (AMAN), around one fifth of the country’s 250 million people classify as indigenous. With statutory efforts to establish collective rights to customary lands yet to be officially sanctioned, rural communities remain vulnerable to the frequent land grabs made by palm oil producers and other forest users.
Given that most Indonesian farmers live in abject poverty, there is a clear moral and developmental case for supporting them. But there are compelling sustainability reasons too, Hilman insists.