The Future of Farmers is the Future of Us

Our Editorial Writer Tria wrote about her conversation with a friend regarding a program called Science Field Shop, revealing how the future truly depends on collaborations that respect equality, and how farmers hold an important role in this future.

“In 2050, the human population will reach 9 billion, how can we survive and feed ourselves when this time comes?” asked Iqbal Hafizhul Lisan on our video call in the early morning of September a few weeks ago. He is currently studying at Columbia University as a graduate candidate in Climate and Society.

During his undergraduate anthropology studies, Iqbal was involved in a program called Science Field Shop, or SFS, in Sumedang, West Java, Indonesia. The program was an education effort first initiated in 2007 for farmers in Indramayu. Anthropologist Yunita T. Winarto, who is also Iqbal’s undergraduate professor, developed the program with agrometeorology scientists C. J. Stigter and Sue Walker. SFS gradually grew and developed in more regions before it eventually reached Sumedang.

I invited Iqbal for a chat to talk about the Science Field Shop in Sumedang to commemorate Indonesia’s National Farmers Day on the 24th of September. And his experiences with SFS, along with what he has written about the program, helped me to be aware of the issues regarding the nation’s farmers holistically.

 

The Double-Edged Green Revolution

We began our chat with the article he co-wrote titled ‘University’s Inclusion in Providing Climate Services to Farmers’ that discusses findings from SFS in Sumedang. “In Indonesia, agricultural extension services have always been made in the ‘Training and Visit’ model,” explained Iqbal, referring to programs endorsed by the Ministry of Agriculture. Examples include sending an intermediary staff to update farmers on the newest agricultural products, or conducting workshops that would only last in numbered days. The main issue: “there isn’t a sustained learning condition since the intermediary would visit the fields, do their part, then leave.”

This model of extension services is heavily influenced by the introduction of Indonesia’s Green Revolution, an intensification program which began in the early 1970s with the main agenda of increasing the country’s harvest yield. As discussed by Winarto, Stigter, and Wicaksono (2019), the Green Revolution was the beginning for Indonesian farmers to abandon traditional crops and start planting government-subsidized rice crop varieties—which take lesser time to harvest, utilize pesticides and fertilizers, as well as other forms of new agricultural technology. 

The Revolution kept farmers occupied with yield targets that were already set by the government. As a result, farmers are unable to make their own decisions for their own fields, and they aren’t equipped to understand nor foresee the risks of their agricultural practices. Another consequence is farmers’ traditional cosmology, which used to be their reference to decide what and when to plant, is now no longer useful, as the Revolution introduces new timings and issues beyond their traditional comprehension.

Researchers have reported how the Green Revolution negatively affected farmers and the environment. Programs such as Farmers Field School and Climate Field School were designed to alleviate it, done by building farmers’ scientific knowledge and restoring their ability to decide for themselves are their main objectives. 

But what SFS does differently from these programs is that the learning environment has no hierarchy. “That is why we adopt the term ‘shop’ not school,” continued Iqbal about the program’s name. “The idea is like going to a warung [tr. an establishment that offers low-priced meals typical in Indonesian neighborhoods], there is no fear of hierarchy upon entering the place, everyone is equal.” Science Field Shop has no teachers or students, rather, everyone is there to share their knowledge.

 

Mutual Exchange of Ideas

As a part of the anthropologist team in SFS, Iqbal lived with the farmers for one and a half years. The team and he spent time together with the farmers, following their routine, conducting SFS meetings monthly, and working on a solution to solve issues at the field. The constant presence of the SFS team established a bridge between them and the farmers, resulting in trust. The farmers trust the scientists and vice versa, and together they developed knowledge that would be beneficial for farming and planting. Iqbal explained that after the team left, the system is basically self-maintained. The interaction between farmers has been set, and they often consult the scientists remotely through WhatsApp.

Gradual and equal are the key points here. “What the anthropologists wanted to see is how the local knowledge of the farmers interacts with the knowledge of the experts,” said Iqbal, emphasizing on the process rather than results. This is especially shown in another soon-to-be-published paper he wrote titled ‘“Sensing, Drawing, and Seeing” El Niño: Metaphor-Based Learning for Anticipating the Consequences of Climate Change’ which discusses Sumedang farmers’ process in creating a metaphor to understand the climate phenomenon known as El Niño, during which the temperature of the Pacific Ocean near Papua New Guinea rises, causing low rainfall in Indonesia.

 

Translating the Scientific to Practical

It was around August in 2018 when the SFS team went to the Department of Agriculture and Food Security of Sumedang to obtain permission for conducting SFS in this region. One of the primary motives of SFS was to equip farmers with a basic understanding of El Niño, as it would most likely affect their harvest. But Iqbal recounted the authorities at the time responding quizzically, “They said, ‘We will allow [the program], but please don’t teach the farmers about the climate.’ They believed the farmers would be scared to plant rice [if they were taught to understand the climate] and, instead, switch to maize. And if the region couldn’t reach the rice target, [the authorities] would be the ones who’d get the scolding.”

The team eventually pulled through by connecting with the farmers directly, and from there, words were quick to spread around across the county about SFS, thanks to the farmers network. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however.  Finding a way to explain the phenomenon in a way that the farmers can fully understand was a challenge. So the team decided to try out other approaches, one of which was training the farmers how to observe the rainfall. It took months for them to master the skill, but by that time, they were also able to notice an anomaly in the pattern of rain quantity. Using metaphor, they named it the ‘uncertain, long dry season’. They have discovered El Niño.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it serves its function. “You have to understand why this metaphor of El Niño [i.e., uncertain, long dry season] must come from the farmers themselves,” Iqbal told me of this metaphor creation, “I’m from the city, I had the chance to go to university, and I’ve never worked in a rice farm like these farmers.”

Now that the farmers are aware of El Niño, most of them then came to the conclusion that planting rice during that period of time would only lead to crop failure. Therefore, farmers did eventually switch to maize and other climate-sensitive crops for the time being. They managed to avoid fatal financial loss, a situation they would be in if they just obeyed the will of the government.

 

Humanizing Farmers

Truthfully, what I gathered from Iqbal’s story is the fact that there is a glaring disconnect between what the government expects from its people, and what the people are actually experiencing. Farmers are just encouraged to follow the rules, not to make their own decisions. They are locked in a target set by people who rarely set foot in the field the farmers work on. And after all these regulations regarding planting, farmers must still bear the consequences of crop failure themselves. 

Returning to the question Iqbal raised in the beginning, how can we survive?

Iqbal believes that if farmers’ rights to understand scientific phenomena and be equipped with accurate knowledge continue to be ignored, then agriculture will probably not survive. Malnutrition, then, would follow, and it would entail other aspects like poverty and education level. 

At one point I asked him about one of Soekarno’s famous speeches titled “Food for the People is a Matter of Life and Death” [orig. “Pangan Rakyat Soal Hidup atau Mati”]. Iqbal decided that, while this 1952 speech from the first president of Indonesia has some truths to it, he wanted to look at it more as our responsibility to humanize farmers. Food—and farmers as the producer of our food—is not a mere industry we can just trust to perpetually exist. Efforts need to be made to ensure its workings and the welfare of its workers. The future of humanity relies not on some people setting the target and hoping for others to reach it; there needs to be a collaboration.

Iqbal also thinks there is a need to destigmatize farmers. The widely-held belief is that farming is a low-brow work. And this affects the regeneration of this job. Younger people, including the kids of the farmers themselves, think that farming means to be in this constant back-breaking stress to reach a target and avoid crop failure. They would rather get a job from places that offer more stability.

One thing that Iqbal perceived can be a starting point for us, regardless of our background, is to regard all knowledge as equal. “What I mean by that is that there is no sort of knowledge that is more important than the other. When talking about knowledge, what we really need is the ability to see this equality.”

 

The Obvious Path

Before we ended our call, Iqbal asked me once more, “Do you know why our environmental policy is often a misstep?” He swiftly answered, “It is because policymakers think they know what they’re doing. They would read data here and there and make their own conclusion. This is the danger of misleading statistics.” With that, I realized how all the points Iqbal made through his articles and our chat made me feel, “Oh, of course, it is.” Of course relying on data without a proper interpretation of it could result in exploitation. Of course collaboration is needed, and it’s the key to our survival. Of course to see other people just as human as ourselves is the key to that collaboration. They’re all logical and so obvious. 

Yet, somehow, we have always been living with the consequences of these ‘obvious’ things being overlooked.

That is to say, nobody can ever think of everything. Farmers need other farmers to solve their issues. They also need other people with other expertise and, ultimately, those who have the ruling power to assist them. But this collaboration won’t happen when one party isn’t able to see the knowledge of the others as equal to theirs.