Yani Sagoroa

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 1998
Lembaga Olah Hidup
This description of Yani Sagoroa's work was prepared when Yani Sagoroa was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998 .


Yani Sagoroa works with the Sandro – traditional healers and herbalists – to preserve bio-diversity and increase environmental awareness on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. Together they are fighting the depletion of essential plant resources and the marginalization of traditional Sandro knowledge.

The New Idea

Yani Sangooroa is organizing the Sandro and cataloging their traditional pharmacology and healing practices. He strives not only to preserve the Sandro's traditions and compile a record of the plants they rely on, but to convince local communities of the Sandro's importance, as a way of launching a broad, grassroots environmental movement. Yani sees the Sandro and other elders throughout Indonesia as vital to the preservation of bio-diversity. When local communities appreciate the Sandro's knowledge and expertise, they will begin to value preserving local resources which are currently being destroyed by rapid economic development. Yani's strategy of harnessing the potential of traditional elders to protect bio-diversity can be applied elsewhere in Indonesia.

The Problem

Development programs and modern technology are having negative impacts on both the traditional culture and the environment on the island of Sumbawa, as elsewhere in Indonesia. Development projects – in the form of infrastructure works, land clearing by government agencies for settlements and agriculture, and private projects connected with mining, forestry, and tourism – are depleting many of Sumbawa's natural resources, especially in the forests and on the coast. The island is mountainous and has long dry seasons and poor soil. It borders the Wallace line, the point at which two major eco-systems meet, and therefore has special ecological importance.The Sandro, Sumbawan elders with special knowledge about agriculture and healing, have traditionally been consulted about times, methods, and places for planting and natural ways to deal with agricultural pests. As expert healers, they make famous oils from roots, bark, stems, and leaves of plants and trees that are indigenous to these areas. Some oils contain as many as 44 ingredients, many of which are becoming difficult to find. Because other residents of Sumbawa are losing interest in traditional medicines and other fields in which the Sandro are experts, they consult the traditional healers less and less frequently. Unless steps are taken to reverse the present trends, the bio-reserves which the Sandro depend on to make their oils will disappear and the Sandro's influence in their communities, especially their ability to encourage locals to preserve their environment, will cease.

The Strategy

Yani's first step was to systematically collect information about important plant species, the ways the Sandro use them, and the rituals associated with the preparation and application of their medicinal oils. He then uses this information to increase community awareness of the Sandro's practices. Most Sandro are men, although some women Sandro work as healers and birth attendants. All acquire their knowledge from community elders – often their parents – over many years. In five years Yani gained the trust of thirteen Sandro leaders in the Moyohilir district, a particularly challenging task as he is young and not a Sandro himself.Yani used the present threats to the Sandro's livelihood to convince them of the benefits of forming groups among themselves. Sharing information first about plant species and then about their different practices motivated them to analyze the human and environmental problems they faced and to discuss possible solutions. Although a few Sandro are still wary of relinquishing their secrets, most recognize that by organizing they will be able to systematize their knowledge, rebuild their self-esteem, and ensure their ongoing viability. When other local leaders and government officials formally recognize the groups, their communities begin to value the contributions of the Sandro. Yani's strategy is to collaborate with the Sandro on action campaigns for environmental conservation. They are organizing a local movement to preserve the plants on which the Sandro depend. Yani and the Sandro groups have begun to motivate people in the villages to plant and nurture some of the plant species in their own home gardens. Their next step is to devise ways of protecting the rarer species found in the mountains, especially certain trees. The Sandro also have expertise in traditional pesticides as well as healing oils. The present economic crisis in Indonesia and the high price of chemical fertilizers are causing farmers to turn back to traditional practices. The Sandro groups, therefore, are working on ways to disseminate this knowledge. Yani has collected 400 plant species and sent them to an institute in Jakarta to be classified. Because there are many fake "Sumbawa" oils on the market, he has encouraged the Sandro groups to begin patenting their oils and developing their own labels for the bottled oils. Efforts to conserve plant species have had some early success. For example, many community members have begun to grow plants the Sandro need for their oils at home. On a larger scale, Yani is actively working with Walhi, a national environment forum, to promote restrictions on the forestry industry's access to a mountain range in Sumbawa where several indigenous tree species still grow.Yani has recently completed a documentary film on the practices of the Sandro and the plants species they use to produce their oils. He shows the film to train the Sandro themselves to explain and understand their functions better, to make community members aware of the important role of the Sandro, and to increase cooperation with government officials and museums.Yani has made deliberate efforts to raise awareness about his ideas and intentions among local community leaders, who now better understand the role of the Sandro, the problems they face, and the potential solutions they offer. He is working to convince government officials from the health and forestry departments in his project that working together with the Sandro instead of ignoring them will benefit them. Local education authorities have plans to use the Sandro's traditional cultural and environmental knowledge – an often-neglected subject – in the local studies segment of the school curriculum. The pilot Sandro groups will expand the program among Sandro in other districts. Yani is developing connections with citizen sector organizations which work with indigenous people in other to share strategies and ideas and to get feedback from them.

The Person

When he was a child, Yani helped farm his parents's land and experienced the problems of deforestation due to the dryland farming practices, poverty, and moneylenders hold on farmers. In 1988, when he was about twenty years old, a fieldworker from the nonprofit Organization for Livelihood Support discussed rural problems with him and gave him development materials to read. Yani became involved with local farmers's groups. He analyzed the traditional ijon (crop mortgage), system used it as a model for his credit scheme which provided financing at times when the farmers most need it, and accepted repayment after the harvest. This was the first of a trail of innovations by Yani.His real apprenticeship began with the opportunity to attend a month-long training workshop in the neighboring island of Lombok, where he learned about research methodology, reviewed case studies of environmental destruction, took field trips to community-based projects, and wrote a report on his own small project. He was chosen to participate in a similar, more in-depth workshop a year later which helped him expand and refine his farmers's credit scheme to reach more farmers and to become self-supporting. He now has 17 groups, with 10 to 50 members each. Thirteen additional groups have expressed interest in joining the program. Yani has improved their access to markets and has created a system in which the groups repay all loans and build up their own funds for future use over a four year period, which frees resources to be invested in a revolving fund for other groups.During this time, support from the national nonprofit group Bina Desa, enabled him to make an extensive study tour of citizen sector organizations and community development programs throughout Java. While staying with the traditional Suku Naga people of West Java, he noted that the connection between specific cultural traditions and environmental management provided an entry point for conserving both. This reinforced an idea he had been pursuing in the Sumbawa context for a long time. On returning to Sumbawa in 1991, Yani went back to work for the Organization for Livelihood Support. He introduced carpentry and traditional weaving to local farmer groups, worked with Moyo island people displaced by a luxury hotel resort, and integrated the Sandro project into the organization. In February 1995, Yani became the director of the Organization for Livelihood Support. It now focuses on environmental programs, of which the Sandro project is an important part.Yani is now the Sumbawan representative of Walhi, a national environmental forum, a member of Jakad (an advocacy network), and the local coordinator of KKGJT (a forum for gender work groups in East Indonesia). He recently received recognition and substantial funding from Kehati (Foundation for Biodiversity) for collecting data and documenting Sandro knowledge. Yani and his wife have three small children.