Fellow Since 2009
This profile was prepared when Roem Topatimasang was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
For the last 30 years, Roem Topatimasang has educated and empowered impoverished and isolated communities across the 6,000 inhabited islands of Indonesia to understand their rights and take part in the centralized state s decision-making processes. Roem builds critical political mass by connecting different locally-built community institutions, citizen organizations, and local governments together into a national network and integrating this network into an international network to advocate for rural community members rights.
The New Idea
Through Roems organization, the Institute for Social Transformation (INSIST), he builds local institutions as centers of education for isolated, marginalized, and minority communities in rural areas. INSIST s School of Social Transformation (SST) is dedicated to civic and economic rural education to empower community members to create social change. He educates them about customary rights, helps them develop economic and agricultural self-sufficiency, and nurtures local leadership to ensure that communities can mobilize against regional, national, and multinational economic and political exploitation in the future. Roem was the first in Indonesia to use tools of village mapping (i.e. resources, problems, threats, and opportunities) and video for community members to participate in critical analysis, problem-solving, and resource management. At the SST centers, community members can learn by physically implementing new sustainable agriculture techniques at the school s facilities. The educational process motivates people to create positive social change for themselves because they participate in identifying community problems and finding solutions. Once they achieve autonomy, these local institutions join INSIST as member organizations, integrating into a larger national network of citizen organizations (COs) that work with communities on minority rights, natural resource protection, womens empowerment, and other issues. INSIST s approach is both universal and community-specific: They will build the local institution with the community, providing resources based on the context and particular challenges of each place and population, while empowering community members with the universal skills of organization, advocacy, and leadership.
During the three decades of President Suharto s New Order rule (1966 to 1998), Indonesia achieved rapid and sustained economic growth. The per capita income rose from US$100 to US$1,000 by the early 1990s. Despite this achievement, economic inequality grew. Large conglomerates were formed, many of which were owned and controlled by relatives and cronies of the president. The regime administered by a corrupt government used the military and beholden conglomerates to solidify its political and economy power. People at the grassroots level, including factory labor, peasants, fisherfolk, and indigenous peoples, suffered economic rights violations under the repressive government. In the name of development, indigenous people lost their forests to logging companies. Hundreds of thousands of people experienced forced eviction by the military when the government built gigantic dams, drowning their homes and livelihoods. If the government decided to set up a big sugar or tea plantation, it used military intimidation to take over peoplesland, offering low or no compensation at all. Peasants were among the most helpless victims of the government s agricultural policies, some linked to the Green Revolution. The government forced peasants to grow certain crops such as rice, corn, and garden vegetables. To achieve the countrys goal of self-sufficiency in food, the government urged the peasants to practice crop intensification using fertilizers and pesticides. Peasants now suffer from diminished land productivity from the overuse of fertilizers over long periods of time. They had to buy seed uniformly determined by the government, despite different local conditions, which in the end caused most farmers to spend more on production than what they gained. Peasants were totally dependent on outside inputs and had no rights to keep and manage their land. Worse was the fact that under the repressive government, civic participation was considered political subversion. Freedom of expression was banned and the people s right to organize was tightly controlled by the government. Social activists and COs which tended to criticize the government were often intimidated by the military. Activists were sometimes kidnapped, interrogated, even tortured, or jailed without trial. The majority of people were afraid to voice their opinions and were unaware of their rights. Now even in an era of reform, where democracy is taking root and there are opportunities for villagers to do what they can in a decentralized government; this change should not be missed.
The first step was to organize them, help them establish their identity as workers, and generate ownership among the women. The change in both personal and group identity gave women a new ability and legal standing to then approach government agencies collectively. Basic social security needs like ration cards, which are extremely difficult for the urban poor to acquire due to a of lack proper identification documents, was addressed first. This was a challenging process that drew on Nitin s understanding of the
Roems dedicated pursuit of economic and social rights over the last three decades has landed him in prison, gotten him kicked out of school, and inspired him to live the life of a nomadic teacher. He grew up on the island of Java, went to high school in Jogjakarta, and then to a teachers college in Bandung in 1976, where he majored in philosophy of education and minored in educational planning and administration. He was elected president of the student council during university, and became the leader of the first student movement to protest against Suharto. From 1976 to 1978, Roem and his student colleagues formed study clubs, and went around to worker and peasant groups to educate them about the political situation under Suharto and their political rights. Due to Roems interest in popular education as a student activist, workers, and peasants began to organize mass strikes to demand democracy and their rights to land. Roem s student movement also staged political protests demanding Suharto resign, going straight to the parliament to persuade legislators to impeach Suharto. Roem was arrested and imprisoned for two years. In response to rising student activism, the government declared all campuses to be politics-free zones: Student councils were banned, and Roem, as the president of his university s council, was banned from studying. Roem broke away from the oppressive system of formal education in Indonesia to experiment with new methods of popular education. From 1980 to 1984, he became a street teacher, educating laborers, peasants, and fisherfolk in West Java. Together, they read agrarian laws and interpreted them, and Roem introduced many to the idea of forming a union. He was forced to stop these underground meetings after the military took more control of Bandung, tightening control of mass organization. Roem spent the late 1980s and 1990s moving around, educating and organizing local communities in West Timor, East Timor, and then Papua. At the time, many indigenous communities were facing a common threat: The states acquisition and environmental destruction of their ancestral domain to accommodate commercial activity. As he moved around, Roem further realized that the social and economic issues that Papuan and other indigenous peoples faced were largely due to a lack of awareness about their rights. These experiences with rural disempowerment led Roem to establish INSIST in 1997 as a formal institution to facilitate social change. In 1998, he received an international award for Outstanding Performance in Community-based Resources Management and Conservation from the World Rainforest Alliance, New York, U.S. The current generation of civic leaders call him the Father of Indonesian civic movements, while young documentary filmmakers refer to him as the Father of community video.Now that the citizen sector is blooming and much easier to break into than during his days as a young student activist and teacher, Roem works vigorously to teach isolated indigenous communities about their rights and to help them achieve greater village autonomy, particularly to achieve food and energy sovereignty. He is also involved in youth development through Participatory Photo and Video, working with children and youth to identify the potential of their community and resources, build awareness of changes and problems around them, and contribute positively to their home villages.