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nani's forest school
Teaching the women farmers of a remote Javanese village

Nani Saptariani is a UC Berkeley Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program alumna who works with women farmers in Indonesia to improve agricultural methods and business practices. She has campaigned to preserve farmers' rights against government contracts to extract natural resources from the area.

Friday prayers have just finished resonating from the loudspeakers in the remote Indonesian village of Malasari. Veiled women file lethargically out of the Mosque and down the dirt road toward their homes for the day of rest.

But before they arrive, the speakers summon them to convene for a different sort of enlightenment.

Updated maps of the region are crucial to the rights of locals, but to obtain them, non-governmental organizations must play bureaucratic ping-pong.

"Attention, women. Quickly come to the main road. Ms. Nani is here and her Forest School is starting."

Soon, Nani and about three dozen women hike up a hill and settle on the grass. Nani introduces the day's lesson: "How to increase your farming income."

Nani Saptariani is a feisty and inexorable conservationist who often sounds more like a social worker. Since 1997, she has made weekly Friday treks to the Halimun Ecosystem area, the largest tract of true rainforest remaining on Java, the world's most populous island. Her mission is to teach best farming practices and empower the people of this stunning, biodiverse mountain region, where the residents' livelihoods are endangered by gold mining, tea plantations, logging, threatened water catchments, and worse yet, a bullying and corrupt government known for stripping local farmers of the land access they require.

To develop the skills she needs to tackle this monumental challenge, Nani spent the summer of 2004 at the College of Natural Resources' Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program, a unique source in sustainable environmental management for mid-career professionals from around the world. The course, she says, revolutionized her leadership skills from "a plain, black-and-white approach into a strong confidence that empowers people."

During office days, Nani lobbies the government on behalf of the villagers, most of whom cannot read or write. On her field visits to Halimun -a three-hour journey requiring crammed minibus transfers and a dangerous motorcycle ride -the process of empowering people is crucial.

"Nani taught us our rights and how to unite, but we're still fighting fear and an old mindset here," says Yati, a dedicated farmer who serves up delicious fried cassava crackers. "In 1978, the government occupied our land and we said okay. Now, we can start a new generation that says 'go to hell.'"

Halimun's land conflicts date to 1978, when Indonesia's then-dictator Suharto decreed that 3 million hectares (an area approximately equal to 7.5 million acres) of Javanese forest, including much of Halimun would be controlled by the military and managed by the state forestry company. In 1992, the area was labeled a conservation forest and in 2003 it became part of a national park; but regardless of its status, chunks of the land were continually signed over to tea plantation and gold mining companies that collaborated with Suharto.

Halimun, which means "misty," is riddled with more than 9,000 hazy and conflicting land-use regulations, a mess that allows those with vested interest in resource extraction to have leverage over any local attempt to forge a sustainable way of life. Nani is quick to share rules like "the park should have a social function to the local community," but she concedes the existence of contradicting laws, forcing her to search for loopholes favorable to the villagers. Similarly, the government prints a land allocation map dating back to the Dutch era, in which all forests were state-owned. Updated maps of the region are crucial to the rights of locals, but to obtain them, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) must play bureaucratic ping-pong: write a letter of request to Jakarta, which requires a stamp in an distant province, which demands a visit to the regional office, which sends the applicant back to Jakarta. Once approved, applicants must hunt maps in archives, often in faraway cities.

In 1997, Nani arrived in Halimun as a volunteer for RMI (the Indonesian Institute of Forestry and Environment) with a modest conservation plan to introduce charcoal alternative to reduce local reliance on firewood. But the real issue, she realized, was that local farmers had no land on which to make a living, and they needed support in their pressing conflicts with tea plantations, gold mining companies, and Perun Perhutani (PP), the state-owned forestry behemoth that one villager calls "colonizers with the same skin."

With a tea plantation concession set to expire in 1999, RMI lobbied the Forestry Ministry to return a portion of land to local farmers. Nani submitted a tender on behalf of the locals, who had never been informed of the imminent change. She launched a media campaign that deterred the ministry from accepting the tea plantation's lucrative bribes, and the farmers were awarded the right to manage 120 hectares.

But the farmers demanded to own the land, not just manage it -and Nani realized that the village chiefs were less keen on real farming solutions and more interested in acquiring property titles to sell for fast cash. "I felt betrayed," says Nani. But she found that "women farmers were content managing the land. So we started dealing with the women."

After all, women here are responsible for all household chores plus 14 farming hours per day (the men work only nine). "No one had ever encouraged them to say what they think," says Nani of the women, who are awkwardly mute in the presence of their husbands and can seldom obtain property titles.

In addition, Nani founded a community bank. A $4 annual contribution makes members eligible for low-interest loans if they compose a viable, small-scale farming project. One woman dug a fishpond; another, a vegetable garden. It's a process Nani now oversees personally, after discovering men pocketing the cash while the women tolerated it in silence.

So RMI organized more than 200 Halimun farmers into 16 groups, including 10 that were all female, and initiated Forest School.

Initially, Forest School carried simple expectations: to build confidence and teach literacy, with a dose of elementary farming. With no education past the age of 6, locals initially struggled with most issues. But patience yielded progress, and with RMI's help, one village became the first in West Java to conduct a community mapping project.

"Now we have workshops on critical laws, and understand our rights in relation to companies and government," says Elly, a charming 23-year-old farmer who struggles to produce enough income and food for her husband and three kids on her one acre of land. "Before, we were scared to manage PP's land, but we've become courageous."

In 2001, PP initiated a massive logging campaign on the pine trees that the farmers had sustainably harvested -selling the wood and resin -for generations. RMI, with international assistance, lobbied against the logging and worked locally to give some control back to the farmers.

The logging ceased, and RMI's newly formed female co-op occupied the land. RMI provided seeds for horticulture, promising locals that the soil would be fertile enough o produce healthy crops within five years. RMI also suggested terracing the land with drive fruit trees, a foreign concept to the villagers who had previously only terraced less durable wet rice fields.

Last spring, RMI learned about a government contest offering 2,500 fruit tree seedlings to a needy village. RMI scripted a PowerPoint presentation on behalf of Malasari and taught the female leaders to deliver it. They impressed and won.

Now, as Nani teaches her group on the grassy hillside, the women are brainstorming on how to increase their income. One group suggests shooting the monkeys that have recently been invading their gardens. Nani explains how logging and mining have destroyed the habitats of the endangered Javan leave and black leaf monkeys, but most of the women cannot grasp why Nani cares to preserve the animals that consume their crops. So she resorts to another explanation: rare species can attract foreign visitors.

It's a subtle hint with a larger purpose. Nani has already devised a plan to attract educational ecotourism, and she's gradually guiding them toward realizing it themselves. With a deeper understanding of Halimun's political and environmental interests, the farmers can host Jakartan tourists, school groups, and foreign researchers. The program is modeled after the country's wildly successful Bogor Botanical Gardens, an enterprise that raises awareness of natural resources by hosting thousands of urban visitors annually.

"In 1978, the government occupied our land and we said okay. Now, we can maintain complacency, or we can start a new generation that says 'Go to hell.'"

Halimun's future remains misty-a government decree recently transferred all land owned by PP to the National Park, and anxiety among villagers is high that their land can now be legally confiscated at any time. But Nani's Berkeley experience helps facilitate her fight. She took a particular interest in organic farming at Berkeley, inspired by the marketing of organic products as a lifestyle, and prodded the Malasari villagers to devote 1.5 acres to organic farming, a move that offers protection against inflated fertilizer rates. She also created a network among farmers in Halimun and beyond, encouraging them to consume organic products and distribute surpluses to lower and middle class markets "to avoid the class divide of organic products in America."

Nani's biggest undertaking since her experience at the Beahrs ELP, however, may be the development of Kampung Pending, an infant NGO she founded to help RMI become self-sufficient, rather than continuing to rely on international donors. Kampung Pending is a large, bamboo-heavy complex an hour south of Jakarta. Its 70 beds and lecture halls provide accommodations and educational facilities for foreign researchers, school retreats, and corporate outings. Previously, RMI hosted Japanese and Korean researchers who made small donations. "Now, we're professionalizing that with fees, housing, translation," Nani says. The money goes to RMI and Halimun; she expects the enterprise to become a self-sufficient supporting income provider for RMI within five years.

While enthralled by her new business challenge, she keeps up her regular trips to Halimun. When asked where she vacations, an embarrassing grin paints her face, and she admits to taking only four vacation days since 1997. "I wouldn't know what to do. If I'm tired, I just go back to the village and picnic with the farmers."

After Nani's forestry class, she takes a leisurely stroll around the village with three women, checking up on the infant crops and the terraced trees. They pause under a shaded bamboo hut. At first, it seems like nothing more than a short rest from the intense heat. But it is more. The women are doing something that was totally unimaginable only five years ago: they're fervently expressing their ideas about how to expedite the area's growth. Together, they look more like a group of farming friends than an NGO activist and villagers.

"The project never meets my expectations," says the self-proclaimed perfectionist. "But there are always special people who make it worthwhile."

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-Adam B. Ellick, a 2004 Fulbright Scholar in Indonesia, is an international freelance journalist. For more information, visit


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