From a desk to a Vietnamese agroforest: biography of a scientist
The guiding principle of Indonesian scientist Rachmat Mulia is to never stop learning and to try to help others. This has driven him along a professional path to become a researcher with the World Agroforestry Centre working in Viet Nam
Born 37 years ago in Bogor, West Java, Indonesia, Rachmat Mulia acquired his doctoral degree on a scholarship he obtained through a project with which he was working while at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Another opportunity presented to him was the chance to work with ICRAF’s program in Viet Nam.
He started his career in research as a statistician with ICRAF’s Indonesia office in Bogor in 1999 and accepted the offer to move to Viet Nam in early 2015 to be close to the location of projects with which he is involved: Climate-smart, Tree-based, Co-investment in Adaptation and Mitigation in Asia; Agroforestry for Smallholders Livelihoods in Northwest Viet Nam; and Secured Landscapes.
Rachmat’s interest in statistics was harnessed during his studies at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, West Java, Indonesia, where he majored in the subject, culminating in a degree with honours, placing him among the cum laude students. Thanks to his two internationally published papers—‘Functional branch analysis as tool for fractal scaling above and below ground trees for their additive and non-additive properties’, which he co-authored with Dr Meine Van Noordwijk in 2002, and ‘Predictors of tree growth in a Dipterocarp-based agroforest: a critical assessment’, co-authored with Gregoire Vincent and Hubert De Foresta in the same year—he entered directly into a doctoral course at the University of Montpellier, France, without undergoing study for a master’s.
But three and half years of study in France were not easy for him. His struggle with the language was a huge hurdle in his first year with the Department of Integrated Biology at the university but did not dampen his resolution to continue studying. His perseverance was rewarded with a ‘very honourable’ doctorate at the relatively young age of 27, one of the proudest achievements of his life.
Rachmat is the third of four children and has a strong sense of social responsibility, which has inspired him to undertake more field research. As a scientist, he has spent much time working behind a desk but felt that visiting locations in the field, interacting directly with farmers, hearing firsthand of their difficulties and in what ways he could help, would allow him to improve his research methods. This sense of social responsibility made him question what is the best way to help people through his research. His soul searching led him to find the answer in the work of ICRAF by trying to make a positive impact on society through research that can be implemented in ‘real life’.
His involvement in the Agroforestry for Livelihoods of Smallholders in Northwest Viet Nam project, which is supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, has helped him better understand the benefits of introducing trees in agroforestry systems. These include repairing damage to the environment—such as erosion and loss of soil health—that has reduced harvests in Viet Nam and increasing farmers’ incomes through product diversification and better market access.
Establishing himself in Viet Nam hasn’t been too difficult. A convenient one-bedroom apartment in Hanoi and a black motorcycle were all that he needed to begin work. According to Rachmat, language does not present a significant impediment as almost all of his colleagues speak English. There are not too many people working with ICRAF Viet Nam, which makes the office feel like a small, tightly knit family. He does, however, feel compelled to learn Vietnamese to facilitate his work in the field.
Rachmat foresees a future where he will not only be able to lead research that would render him more useful to many more people but also where he can fulfil his dream to establish a foundation that will not only work to save the environment but also preserve local cultures.
Rachmat’s work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry