Women, families, communities

In 2004, the province of Aceh in Indonesia was affected by a devastating earthquake and tsunami. The impact on the rural communities was particularly harsh, exacerbating the poverty and poor living conditions caused by a long separatist conflict. Under these difficult circumstances, the network of women farmers is not only benefitting all participants, but also their families and communities.

Like many other organisations, ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, started a series of projects aimed at the recovery of farming in Aceh in 2005.

Although we were well aware that many development programmes similar to the one we wanted to start are criticised for having had a limited impact, we wanted to support the many rural communities struggling to recover from the loss of life, displacement and breakdown of the community networks. Our projects were research-centred, seeking solutions to the soil and crop problems faced by farmers after the tsunami, and the early consultations and forums were predominantly attended by male farmers and government staff.

A chance meeting with Ibu Supriyani, an inspirational extension agent working on the tsunami-devastated west coast of Aceh with Penyuluh Petani Lapang, the local extension organisation, showed us the importance of providing direct assistance to women farmers. Like elsewhere, in Indonesia, women in rural Aceh are highly dependant on farming for their livelihoods, but, we could not see many programmes supporting them.

Small benefits add up

Supriyani had established organic agriculture groups made up of women farmers, working to provide an occupation for women who had no work in the tsunami-damaged rice fields, and who had limited opportunities elsewhere. With limited funds, the participants were making their own fertilizer from fish waste and manure, and growing small crops on vacant lands.

The women’s engagement and enjoyment of working together to produce food for home and sale, and their interest in learning new skills inspired us to include seed money for women’s farming activities in a new project. The funds helped Supriyani provide training, establish new groups, and meet the growing demand to participate in the group programme.

The initial financial support provided to the groups was small. The focus was on leadership and capacity building, to enable groups establish a solid basis for the future. Growing fresh food locally saves money, and helps families invest in, for example, education. Fresh organic crops now form a greater part of the diets of these families, improving their overall health. Training and capacity building has helped diversify the local food production options, creating more independent and sustainable communities. And some groups have taken their development further, identifying business opportunities to supply fresh and processed products to the local and regional markets. All this happens without disruption to family activities in the rice fields and rubber plantations.

Bringing women together, the start of a network?

It was not too long before we met other extension staff working with groups of women farmers, so as to bring them all together in a forum to identify the activities that should be supported. The discussions and recommendations from this first forum held in Aceh 2009 helped us design a training programme for women. This programme was built on Supriyani’s model of group management, the group members’ commitment, the management of profits, and also on an organic approach to farming small crops. This provided other extension staff with a guideline to establish new groups too.

In 2009, Balai Pengkajian Teknologi Pertanian, the provincial agricultural service (or BPTP), appointed Ibu Nazariah as coordinator of the women’s farming groups, with the specific responsibility of establishing and managing the program. During these years, Nazariah has been assisted by volunteers from Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development, and also by an increasing number of local extension staff who provide the day to day support to the groups. In 3 years, the total number of participants has grown from 60 to more than 700 women. The programme’s credibility is reinforced by its training and communication activities, and by a regular interaction with the local staff. Some groups are now financially independent and act as hubs for the demonstration and dissemination of new ideas.

The most interesting observation, however, is that the programme has evolved into an informal network of women farmers and advisory staff, who maintain contact through exchange visits and farmer forums. A meeting in July 2011 invited farmers and representatives of the government and of a group of NGOs that support or work with women to discuss the establishment of a Women in Agriculture Network in Aceh, following similar examples in Australia and Papua New Guinea. We agreed on the goals and structure of the proposed network, and started working to formally establish it.

From isolation to leadership

Immediately after the tsunami, the focus of most programmes was on soil rehabilitation and agricultural recovery. Working in the more accessible parts of Aceh, we rarely saw the impacts of the civil conflict that lasted nearly 30 years. The impact on infrastructure has been reported, but the social and psychological impacts are rarely mentioned. Visiting some women’s farming groups established in the more isolated parts of Aceh, we began to see what happened and understand its impact. Social isolation and a limited access to social services are some of the lasting effects of the conflict in Aceh. Rural networks were affected by the loss of life and displacement, and in some cases farming ceased altogether because of the difficulties and danger of working in the fields. The access to technical assistance and resources like seed remained difficult for many rural villages.

Comprehensive strategies to develop community-based programmes are crucial to meeting the challenges of an estimated total of 600,000 people displaced by the conflict. The women farmer programme meets some of the needs of local communities, providing income generating activities and promoting communication and co-operation within and between villages.

Whilst not all groups in the women farmers programme are situated in former conflict-affected areas, the social contribution of our communication and co-operation efforts is easily recognised as the main benefit by the Aceh women. The group farming activities provide a focus for social interaction which is often missing in the villages. In former conflict zones, women spoke of years of remaining isolated in their homes, only leaving when deemed safe to work in the rice fields. Coming together as a group has provided a renewal of village life, and a good opportunity to work together and help each other deal with past difficulties.

The programme not only addresses the isolation and needs of women farmers, but also recognises that poorly resourced advisory staff struggle to obtain the necessary knowledge, training and experience to help rural farmers in Aceh. A “training of trainers” programme in soils, crop nutrition, pest and diseases, group dynamics and financial management is spreading knowledge and technical skills to advisory staff and members of the established as well as the new groups.

The need for leadership training was identified as a number one priority at the Second Women Farmers’ forum held in 2010 in Bireuen. Groups with strong leadership have taken advantage of opportunities to approach local governments and businesses for support as they expand their activities, encouraging their sustainability as a group. Not surprisingly, the more organised groups tend to be situated closer to the urban areas and members have a higher level of education. But the exchange visits that have become a regular activity provide an opportunity for all groups, like those made up of young conflict widows, or those established in the new post-tsunami communities along the west coast, to learn from the more established groups.

Forming new networks, strengthening old ones

The women farmer’s program in Aceh has been successful because there is a specific purpose in all group activities, and these activities provide specific benefits for the women, their families and communities. Equally important is that long term support has been provided, addressing the needs and interests of the women, and local capacities have been strengthened. An emphasis on creating links to the education, health and nutrition initiatives of the local agencies has also strengthened the interaction with other networks. Without excluding men, a specific focus on women empowers participants, and ensures that ownership and development of the Women in Agriculture programme remains with women.

A network for women farmers in Aceh has started. It may or may not develop into a formally recognised network, but it is already having a positive impact, and it may help extend the benefits currently enjoyed by the women farmers groups to other parts of Aceh, especially to isolated hinterland communities that are still struggling to come to terms with the impacts of the conflict.

Gavin Tinning

Gavin Tinning works with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. 1243 Bruxner Highway, Wollongbar, NSW, 2477, Australia.
E-mail: gavin.tinning@dpi.nsw.gov.au


Strempel, A., Women in agriculture in Aceh, Indonesia: Needs assessment for the BPTP and ACIAR, 2011, ‘Women Farmer Groups’ project.

Tinning, G., Ibu Supriyani: Organic farming pioneer in Aceh, March-June 2008, ACIAR Partners Magazine.

Tinning, G., The role of agriculture in recovery following natural disasters: A focus on post-tsunami recovery in Aceh, Indonesia, Vol 8. No. 1, 2011, Asian Journal of Agricultural Development.

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