Green gold from dry land

31 Aug 2011   |   Blog   |   Indonesia   |   Long-term Development

Tags:  climate justice   |   No comments

Bernabas, from Dubesi village Indonesia

Just two short years ago, Dubesi – a remote village of West Timor – was notoriously crooked. Try to hold a community meeting after daylight hours and sure enough you’d leave the gathering a few possessions lighter.

“As soon as it got dark things could go missing,” recall Caritas partners, Joseph and Vincent from Yayasan Mitra Tani Mandiri (YMTM).

“If you parked a car outside the village hall while having a meeting, the car could go missing and people even used to do gambling at the back of the hall.

“The village had a history of being full of criminals and yet, we’ve turned that around.”

Caritas Australia has been supporting the innovative Foundation for Partnership with Independent Farmers in West Timor (YMTM), since 2004. The YMTM initiative was founded more than 20 years ago by a group of uni students who believed that their study of agricultural science could be used to achieve social justice.

“As students, we felt it just wasn’t sufficient to do research so we formed a group that did agro-forestry training with villages.

“In the first three or four years we didn’t have any money, we just lived in the villages to run discussions, and the local people provided us with some food.”

Today YMTM is working in 98 villages across five districts in West Timor and Flores. For its work in some of Indonesia’s most vulnerable communities, YMTM has achieved both national and international acclaim. In 2010, YMTM was awarded the United Nations Development Program’s Equator Prize for poverty reduction and environmental conservation; its entrepreneurial programs, innovative agricultural techniques and irrigation methods have enabled poor communities to transform once dry, barren land into productive, agricultural farmland.

So what does all of this have to do with the crime rate in Dubesi?

Two years ago Barnabas was well established as the Dubesi village thief. He tended a meagre garden and stole what he could to provide for his family of 11. For Barnabas and his children, life in Dubesi was uncertain and riddled with risk.

When we met Barnabas earlier this year, his life couldn’t have been more different. Rather than ‘head of the thieves’, Barnabas was head of his local farming group and his thriving garden now produces more than enough to support a happy and healthy family.

Of his new life, Barnabas says: “if I steal, it’s easy but the money is quickly gone. I needed to learn to become a good farmer.

“When YMTM first came to our village we had a meeting to discuss our challenges, and then our next step was to build [garden] terraces.

“We also built bamboo structures to hold up the plants; we prepared seedlings; and after the rains we were able to harvest some crops like papaya, banana and cassava.

“Since YMTM has come, we’ve produced many different kinds of plants.  From some we’ve been able to gain short term profits and others are long-term plants that we hope will be able to support our future in this village.

“With the products we have produced over the last two years we were able to buy kerosene for our lamps and were able to pay for our children’s school; we’re also part of a savings and loans scheme organised by YMTM in our village.”

Barnabas and the members of his farming group are just some of the hundreds of people you have helped through YMTM’s unique, grassroots approach to community programs. It is the spirit of partnership that underpins YMTM’s work that truly helps communities to help themselves.

“Most of our staff is based in the villages. They live there, year round – this is one thing that distinguishes our approach,” Vincent explains.

“The people that we work with are very marginalised people; if you approach them as an outsider it is often difficult to communicate with them and to understand the conditions in the village.

“Our staff actually live in the village, the village chooses them and they become villagers themselves. They understand the conditions: they can work alongside the local people whether in the fields or with each household.

“With Barnabas I’m sure he changed because of the relationship with YMTM staff – they spent a lot of time with him. He also did an exchange to another district and learnt the different methods being used there.”

For YMTM, the health of communities is linked to the health of the land and of the local environment. Working in close partnership with Barnabas and his farming group, YMTM have not only enabled community members to generate a bona fide income – but also to be faithful stewards of the environmental resources that will ensure a better future for their children. 

“If you look at Barnabas’ garden now, it is much, much better than it was. But more than that, his garden is a great source of pride for him; he’s felt very proud to show it to other people,” says Vincent.

 “We work with the poor to address the many challenges they face with a range of activities, including health and environmental education, agricultural training, development of farmer institutions and advocacy to local government. In the end, these issues are all connected.”

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