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Indonesian farm turns poor young boys into organic farmers

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Young unemployed men are finding opportunities in a project that also aims to introduce sustainable farming methods to Indonesia's agricultural sector. A year ago, 17-year-old Mohammad Maghfur was one of many high-school dropouts. Now he earns money planting and harvesting organic crops to feed 30 children in an orphanage.

Maghfur was taught organic farming techniques at the Learning Farm, a half-hectare plot in the green hills of the Puncak area, just a few hours' drive from Jakarta. He said the main reason he went to the farm was to stop being a burden on his parents, since he could not find a job.

"I just hung around, did nothing," he said, joking that it had never been his ambition to stand knee-deep in mud and manure. "I did not want to end up as a street kid."

The farm boards 45 impoverished boys aged 16-24, who are attending a five-month programme to become organic farmers. Some are juvenile offenders or former drug addicts, but not one finished high school.

However, the Learning Farm can only help a fraction of Indonesia's 83 million children; almost half of 16-18-year-olds do not go to school, or drop out, according to the Central Statistics Agency.


High unemployment

Even with a high-school diploma, finding employment is difficult in Indonesia, the world's fourth-most populous nation, where about nine million people are jobless.

According to the latest official data in August 2009, the unemployment rate is 7.87%, but it hovered around 10% until 2008. And with more than half the country's 245 million people living on less than US$2 a day, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), many quit school early to contribute to the family income.

"The good thing about the Learning Farm is that it will lead to the creation of livelihoods for people living in the area, because the young people at the farm will teach the surrounding community how to practise organic farming," Catharina Dwihastarini, a project manager with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Indonesia, told IRIN. UNDP has provided a grant of $40,000.

About 40% of the young men trained at the Learning Farm either go on to start their own organic farms, teach organic farming and environmental education, or are employed by commercial farms.


Escaping poverty

Poverty in Indonesia is largely a rural phenomenon, with agrarian households accounting for about 57% of the nation's poor, according to the World Bank. Three out of five Indonesians still live in rural areas and farming is their main occupation. Desperate to escape poverty, villagers migrate to the city, many disappearing into the slums.

The Learning Farm's director, Jiway Tung, a Chinese-American from New York, is trying to create a new interest in farming by using ancient Indonesian organic methods. "It's not bringing in something foreign; it's reconnecting and re-envisioning," said Tung.

Most Indonesian farmers, however, still use fertilisers and pesticides on their vegetables that are forbidden in other countries.

Although this is still common practice, organic farming is slowly making an appearance in the archipelago. The Indonesian market for organic produce might be small, but there are opportunities: the Farm's customers include the well-heeled in Jakarta and it is also negotiating with a large supermarket chain to sell its vegetables.

Such deals will make it attractive for young people to become organic farmers. While the organic field that Maghfur tends is already feeding 30 children in the orphanage, his goal now is to grow more vegetables, so they can also be sold to the community.

"We want to create agents of change, so that they take what they learned back to the streets, to their villages," said Tung.

This story, originally entitled INDONESIA: Farming for alternative livelihoods, was datelined Cianjur March 11, 2010 and written and distributed by IRIN News, the humanitarian news agency. The photographs show (top)

boys working in the fields of The Learning Farm in the hills of Puncak, Indonesia. The sign reads: don't walk on the vegetable patch; and (bottom) a boy takes care of shoots in the greenhouse at The Learning Farm in the lush hills of Indonesia's Puncak. Photographs by Esther de Jong/IRIN


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