Fellow Since 2001
Serikat Paguyuban Petani Qaryah Thayyibah
This profile was prepared when Bahruddin Bahruddin was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001.
By establishing the first locally-rooted union of farmers in Central Java, Bahruddin is meeting villagers' needs for information, training, technical assistance, credit, and other services and resources.
The New Idea
Bahruddin has seized this moment of greater political openness in Indonesia to launch a union of small farmers' associations in Central Java, one of Indonesia's richest agricultural regions. Unlike the associations that sprang up in the days of the restrictive New Order regime, Bahruddin's union sticks close to its constituents. It focuses its services and advocacy efforts at the district level, allowing local representation and delivery of services. To help small-scale farmers survive the devastated agricultural economy, the Union offers practical advice and much-needed services: advocacy in water and irrigation disputes, access to markets and cooperative buying, and information on organic production methods, to name a few. At the same time, it stresses the importance of longer-term strategic planning and the development of local citizen-led initiatives. Given the active discouragement of autonomy and civic participation in the nineties, the union helps bring about a dramatic cultural and political transformation, helping people to launch truly democratic citizen efforts that strengthen local governance.
Decisions about agriculture in Indonesia are far-reaching both in terms of the number of people they affect directly and the political relationships they reveal. More than one hundred thirty-six million Indonesians, or about 65 percent of the population, live in rural areas with chiefly agricultural economies. Despite their majority, these people have been excluded from the shaping of agricultural policy. Important decisions of the "green revolution" were implemented to suit the government's program of top-down social and economic control. In the 1970s, the goal of increasing rice production led to farmers' dependence on new and expensive materials, such as fertilizer and pesticide. Implementation was delegated to the provincial level, where blanket decisions were made about fertilizer and pesticide use, without considering variations linked to geography or soil quality. Farmers lost their right to choose their own crops, planting cycles, seed varieties, and communal rice storage practices. While production increased in the early eighties, by the mid-eighties it had leveled off and soon began to decrease due to degradation of the topsoil.The government's violent anti-Communist purges of the mid-1960s meant that union organizers and land rights advocates feared being branded as Communists. Thus, farmers' organizations were limited to those sanctioned by the state, of which some were vehicles of the Ministry of Agriculture and were used to spread official policies. To this day, the structure of these associations mirrors that of state institutions. In recent years, other organizations have begun to emerge, such as social safety net programs and citizen-led advocacy groups. But most lack the strong membership base they need to be effective and democratic in introducing long-term improvements. Organizations that voice the concerns and aspirations of rural people are urgently needed at this time of decentralization.
While a student at a religious university, Bahruddin established his first organization in 1989 to serve the rural community in which he had grown up. In this community outreach organization, he felt that the gap between the religious scholars and the farmers led to objectifying the people and their problems. Dissatisfied with this relationship, Bahruddin realized that he was part of the farmers' community and felt more comfortable working directly with his neighbors. Some of his neighbors gathered with him to discuss the problems they faced, such as loss of control of water to irrigate their rice fields. Scarcity of water had created serious conflicts among the farmers. Bahruddin helped the farmers to design a plan and present it to local government and public works officials. Based on a communal effort to solve problems and to learn more about productive farming techniques, Bahruddin formed a community association and a model for self-management at the village level. Formed in 1991, he called it Albarokah, meaning "blessings of nature." It was in Albarokah that he began to put to action some of his ideas for returning decision making to the farmers. Thus, when the cost of fertilizer and pesticides skyrocketed in the early nineties, the farmers of Albarokah decided that they would just stop buying the products. This was a dramatic decision and required a shift in the farming methods that had been promoted by the government. Through research, working on a communal plot, and trial and error, the farmers of Albarokah developed a form of integrated organic farming to replace previous methods at no cost to productivity. Bahruddin brought in biodigesters to alleviate the community's dependence on chemical products. In addition, Bahruddin set up a producer-consumer network for organic products and a women's cooperative to help supply microcredit for small businesses. Following the success of Albarokah, Bahruddin wanted to spread these ideas to neighboring villages, so in 1999 he invited other farmers to take part in a strategic planning meeting at which they decided to form a membership organization, a union of farmers' associations. Through a democratic vote, Bahruddin was invited to direct the operations of the Union, which began with thirteen associations taking part, each consisting of between three and ten groups, with each of those representing between twenty and thirty farmers. Currently twenty-eight associations have joined the Union, representing one hundred four farmers' groups. The Union offers a range of services such as capacity-building to help strengthen member associations, information system training and implementation, revolving funds, and training in organic farming methods. Staff who focus on advocacy gather information from constituent farmers, draft policies based on the data they gather, and start public dialogues or campaigns using radio and newsletters to reach a broad audience. They also hold public hearings to discuss issues with members of the regional parliament. Through these measures, they have secured funds from one regional government to pay for sixty biodigesters for farmers' groups. The Union has set up a cooperative that offers discounted supplies, marketing opportunities, and a savings and loan service. Bahruddin sees this cooperative as a potential means for the Union to support its operations in the future. Bahruddin stresses the importance of basing farmers' organizations at the district level in order to monitor local governments effectively and meet the needs of farmers. All other currently existing farmers' unions are at the provincial level. According to Bahruddin, this is ineffective because the real authority over resources, implementation of regulations, and budget distribution is now at the district level. His vision for the future is to help develop many more district level organizations and then make a network at the provincial level, with the provincial level network focusing on big issues and the district level on farmers' concerns. Bahruddin has spread his ideas to farmers through traditional media, such as shadow puppet plays, and at village ceremonies, as well as through documentary films and civil society networks. Farmers who belong to the Union regularly host visitors from elsewhere in Indonesia and from other countries in region, who come to learn what has worked for Bahruddin and his group.
Bahruddin grew up in the rural community of Kalibening, a village in Central Java, a richly fertile region nestled high between two volcanoes. His father was a religious leader and the director of a traditional Islamic boarding school. Educated in this tradition, Bahruddin later criticized what he came to see as too much emphasis on rules and regulations, and not enough focus on the needs of the people. During his university years, he participated in a discussion forum in Salatiga and was influenced by the intellectuals, activists, and leaders from a variety of religious backgrounds. In 1990, he was recruited to take part in a workshop on the methodology of political transformation organized by a citizen group in Jakarta. He was surprised when he was paid at the end of the workshop; he used the money to return to Salatiga and organize a similar workshop for the farmers there. In the early nineties, he set up a farmers' group in the form of a model village called Albarokah in which he introduced technical and cultural innovations to his neighbors and helped promote group problem-solving and income-generating schemes. Bahruddin has also been instrumental in setting a positive, collaborative tone between farmers and government officials, which aids both groups in designing policy that works and reflects the will of the people.