Dozens of villages in South Sulawesi are rediscovering traditional farming methods that improve their diets as well as their families’ finances. Through coastal field schools offered by Blue Forests, villagers are learning to make organic fertilizer and cultivate organic vegetable gardens. Blue Forests also offers field schools for organic shrimp farming, as conventional shrimp farms are a huge detriment to coastal ecosystems including mangroves.
The shrimp farms that often displace mangroves grow prawns to feed the wealthy, usually in far-away lands, while local communities reap only short term economic benefits. When a conventional shrimp farm is exhausted—typically after only three to five years of intensive production—local stewards of the area are left with depleted and even toxic swamps. In the 1970s, South Sulawesi had over 200,000 hectares of mangroves. By the 1980s, about 90 percent of them had been destroyed, mostly converted to aquaculture for shrimp and fish farms.
“If villagers have a way to grow healthy food and make a living for their families, they have healthier diets and no need to destroy the mangroves,” said Ratna Fadilah, a director at Blue Forests. I spoke with Ratna over dinner at a large local warung (casual restaurant) specializing in ikan bakar (grilled fish). Her adorable two-year-old son dove two-handed into the fresh squid, emerging with both hands and face covered in black squid ink. His tiny, gooey little fingers then dug out his favorites, the fish eyeballs.
The organic fertilizer that farmers are learning to make through the field schools relies on age-old recipes including cow manure, banana leaves, rice husks, and organic kitchen wastes. All of these ingredients are found locally in abundance, and save the village farmers the cost of chemical fertilizers. The organic fertilizer nourishes organic vegetable cultivation on both family plots and community gardens. Surplus organic fertilizer is sold.
A woman named Nursiah in the village of Lawallu, about an hour and a half drive from Makassar stood in front of dozens of bags organic fertilizer that her community organization produces, uses, and sells. Nusri has become a trainer in the field schools after learning about organic vegetable farming, fertilizer production, and organic rice paddy cultivation. She said her family of four eats healthier now that her organic vegetables are flourishing, and she has no need to buy more expensive products from the market. Rather, she can sell both vegetables and fertilizer.
Sitti Rhama, a villager in Pittusunggu who has participated in both organic rice paddy and organic vegetable farmer field schools, feeds her family and sells additional organic produce to a supermarket in the capital city of Makassar as well as in traditional markets. She gets better prices from the supermarket, even after absorbing the costs of packaging and transport. She plans to expand her vegetable gardens, after receiving phone calls from another supermarket in Makassar requesting her organic produce.
Women in Laikang village are alumni of another field school that has taught them how to select, pick, cut, dry, blend and package the leaves of kali kali to market them as an herbal tea. Kali kali (Acanthus Ilicifolius, a.k.a. Holly Mangrove) is one of many types of shrubs, bushes, and trees that grow plentifully in the brackish waters of the mangroves. The women hope a market for the tea can be developed. As yet, ‘herbal tea’ is considered a sick person’s drink among most Indonesians, who think of herbs as medicine, a cure rather than preventive health maintenance.
The village women have proposed to the local governor in their region that kali kali tea be adopted as the official souvenir agricultural product from their region, marketed to tourists. In this part of the world, where a region’s signature souvenir foods are practically mandatory gifts for visitors to bring home, the regent’s approval of kali kali tea could mean a lot for the villagers’ marketing.
While men in the village catch fish or cultivate seaweed for sale, the kali kali tea enterprise is a new livelihood opportunity strictly for women. They have formed a collective organization called Innovative, Skilled, and Active Women (Wanita Aktif Trampil & Innovativ – WATI). There is a wide range of ages and education levels among the group, ranging from no formal schooling up through university. Work duties are similarly various, including administration, promotion, and marketing, thorn cutting, leaf selection, and packaging.
When I met the women of Laikang, an outspoken 45-year-old in a loose, knee-length blue dress emblazoned with tropical pink flowers said she felt good about having more productive activity, reaching beyond the housework that has been the sole province of women in her family for generations. Though not formally educated, she takes pride in her productive capacity.
Women involved with WATI say gender roles have shifted in some of their homes as the women become more economically active. Men are more likely to fetch their own drink of water, and some are even taking up cooking. The field schools seem to be having a variety of strong influences on what goes on in the kitchen, as villages here re-discover their own bountiful resources very close to home.
Author: Melinda Chickering