‘Seeing is believing’: contagious ideas for smarter farms in Sulawesi

Visitors from all over Indonesia flock to small villages in Southeast Sulawesi that have found ways to increase their profits while reducing environmental impact. The villagers are keen to share their knowledge.

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The occupants of the car brace themselves as it suddenly swerves left, off the safe asphalt and onto a muddy stretch of pits and holes, a treacherous landslide and low-hanging branches that thrash the windscreen. In the makeshift motorcade behind them are government officials, members of the press, the AgFor team, and a delegation of farmers and a scientist from FORCLIME, a German-sponsored sustainable development project in Indonesia. Hailing all the way from Kapuas Hulu, a remote area of Indonesia’s Kalimantan island, they have come to learn from AgFor’s successes on farms in Southeast Sulawesi province.

The cars halt in Lawonua, a small village where the visitors are welcomed by Mr Mustakim, a cheerful rotund man in his forties. Mr Mustakim is the leader of the local farmer group that has agreed to be part of AgFor, and his cacao and pepper farm is one of the project’s demo plots. In fact, as visitors who enter through the gate overgrown with passion fruit will soon discover, Mr Mustakim’s cacao and pepper have the company of a number of other crops, including oranges, banana, coconut, papaya, and rubber. Near the gates, a dragon fruit cactus is slowly making its way up along a tree trunk.

AgFor Southeast Sulawesi’s regional coordinator Mr Mahrizal (l) shakes the hand of vice-bupati Parinringi

AgFor Southeast Sulawesi’s regional coordinator Mr Mahrizal (l) shakes the hand of vice-bupati Parinringi

‘Just starting the engine’

The attendants take place under a tarpaulin shelter on the farm’s surprisingly cool north side. Mr Parinringi, the district’s vice-bupati (vice-mayor) grabs the microphone to shower praise on the AgFor project. “I am extremely pleased with the positive impact in our district,” he said, adding that he deplored that the project’s five-year term was coming to an end: “Ideally, I’d like to see the project continue for several more years.”

Mr Akbar, who heads the local extension office, also highlighted that they established an information centre which houses a small library of books about agricultural techniques and processing methods.

Vice-bupati Parinringi congratulates Mr Mustakim in Lawonua village and is very open for more AgFor

Agroforestry techniques became common in Southeast Sulawesi about 20 years ago when land-use intensified with the immigration of farmers from South Sulawesi, Java and Bali. After the forest conversion, the fertile forest soil allowed for high yields. But limited knowledge and poor practices led to substantially lower yields, which forced farmers to clear ever more original forest for their crops.

“What we’re doing here is essentially just starting the engine,” explains Mr Mahrizal, who coordinates the Southeast Sulawesi leg of the AgFor project. “The hardest work is establishing the demo plots so that we have a tangible proof of concept. Once the news spreads and other farmers see the trials for themselves, agricultural practices Sulawesi will change swiftly.”

Hubertus Tengkirang from GIZ Forclime inspecting a cacao-pepper agroforest at Onembute village

Hubertus Tengkirang from GIZ Forclime inspecting a cacao-pepper agroforest at Onembute village

A cacao-sponsored master’s degree

And the new techniques did bring about change. Mr Abdul Kadir, who is part of the farmer group from Onembute village, beams as he announces that his family managed to send their child to university to obtain a master’s degree. “I would have never had the means if I hadn’t joined this group.” The visiting delegation from Kalimantan took notice.

“It’s one thing to learn about new techniques,” said FORCLIME facilitator Mr Petrus, “but many farmers aren’t keen to try on something so radically new. For them and for us, seeing is believing.” It is one of the reasons why the AgFor project arranges these so-called cross-visits. Mr Petrus is himself from a Kalimantan farmer family, but was lucky to study agriculture in Malaysia. Him and his colleagues now help to collect and spread information to the farmer groups back home.

Mr Agustang and Ms Ramlah in front of their colourful house and cacao-pepper farm

Mr Agustang and Ms Ramlah in front of their colourful house and cacao-pepper farm

The visitors curiously inspect the farm’s equipment: the extensive tree nursery that provides high-quality seedlings for the farmer group, the propagator where cuttings from plus-trees (superior specimens) of valuable species are rooting, and the compost heap that produces small quantities of organic fertilizer for the farm.

The villagers are as keen to share their knowledge and experience with the visitors. Questions are fired back and forth as Mr Mustakim demonstrates his grafting and pruning skills on an unsuspecting cacao tree. Mr Iswanto, who presides the local extension agency, discusses ways to preserve or process surpluses of durian in response to its plummeting price when mid-season supply exceeds demand, and to prevent pod borers from ruining the cacao harvest by not intercropping with rambutan.

Mr Petrus collecting valuable information for Kapuas Hulu farmers in Kalimantan

Mr Petrus collecting valuable information for Kapuas Hulu farmers in Kalimantan

More AgFor por favor

The delegation visits three more villages in other districts of Southeast Sulawesi. The villages are ever more remote, the roads ever more inaccessible. Despite the dry weather conditions, a small truck has driven into the ditch, requiring the visitors to find a different route into town.

Yet wherever they went, local government, ranging from village heads to district heads and including all involved agencies, unanimously agreed that AgFor has brought nothing but good. “I’m very proud of what we have achieved in my village,” says Mr Lukman, who is the leader of Aunupe village in South Konawe district. “With five more years of AgFor, I think we will be able to stand on our own feet even better than now,” he adds hopefully.

Ms Sumiasi spreading out drying cacao seeds

Ms Sumiasi spreading out drying cacao seeds

The villagers, too, are happy with the current results. Seated on the floor and snacking on some peanuts, Ms Sri Utami says the spirit in the village has improved considerably since the project’s start. She herself has taken part in a training to build and manage nurseries and propagators. “People from all over the region are coming to visit and see our work, and visits like today’s open the windows of our souls.”

On the way out, Mr Mahrizal enthusiastically taps on the window pane. “Look, another farmer group has copied the nursery idea!” Indeed, when good ideas take root, they grow vigorously.

A colourful goodbye

A colourful goodbye

The AgFor alliance

Agroforestry and Forestry (AgFor) in Sulawesi: Linking Knowledge to Action (AgFor) is funded 2012–2016 by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. After establishing itself in South and Southeast Sulawesi, operations in Gorontalo Province began in early 2014. In its implementation, AgFor works closely with the local government and is led by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), with support from its partners, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and local organisations in each province: Balang and Universitas Hasanuddin in South Sulawesi; Operasi Wallacea Terpadu (OWT), Komunitas Teras and Yascita in Southeast Sulawesi, Japesda and Forum Komunitas Hijau (FKH) in Gorontalo. The project seeks to make agroforestry a truly sustainable practice, by enhancing existing practices, inspiring innovation, disseminating information, encouraging enabling policy, and by ensuring that the reward is worth the investment risk.

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Sander Van de Moortel

Sander Van de Moortel

After obtaining his master's degree in linguistics and, later, journalism, Sander Van de Moortel chose to  leave his native Belgium for more adventurous lands. After a stint as a product manager for a German IT firm, he landed in China in 2011 after taking a wrong turn on a bike trip through Viet Nam. Comfortably trapped in Yunnan by his linguistic ambitions and his somewhat complicated relationship with China, Van de Moortel has been responsible for communications at the World Agroforestry Centre's East and Central Asia office, and is now assisting the communications unit in the Southeast Asia office. His research is almost exclusively focussed on exploring Southeast Asia's colourful patchwork by bicycle.

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