Project results are culmination of institute-led four-year collaboration
INDONESIA — Universities and smallholder farmers of Indonesia continue to fight hunger and poverty together by building a stronger industry around the country’s tropical plants – the culmination of a four-year project led by the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.
The Indonesia Tropical Plant Curriculum Project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, paired the Borlaug Institute with three partner universities of Indonesia: Bogor Agricultural University, Bogor; Udayana University, Denpasar; and Sam Ratulangi University, Manado.
Together, the partners revamped university curricula to seek unknown health benefits and innovative commercial uses for underutilized plants abundant across Indonesia. Project coordinators said in-country collaborators continue to deliver beneficial, science-based information to farming communities across the country of islands.
They said this has helped empower smallholder farmers and youth to build strong agricultural livelihoods on bolstered university curricula, good agricultural practices, innovative new food products and more comprehensive food labeling practices.
“Training is done in individual villages to educate the members of those villages and communities about the value of tropical plants, how they might be utilized and how they might be conserved,” said Dr. Tim Davis, the Borlaug Institute’s regional director for Asia.
By the project’s March 2014 closure, 17 Indonesian university courses had been enriched with new instruction on tropical plants – teachings that now reach a student enrollment of about 1,100. Graduate students then transfer their lessons on tropical plants to smallholder communities and vocational students.
“Response from the (graduate) students has been very good,” said Dr. Pur Hariyadi, director of Bogor Agricultural University’s Southeast Asia Food and Agriculture Science and Technology Center. “We work very closely with the student association here; they have a lot of ideas on how to work with the community.”
Through the project, grade school students have also received instruction on the benefits of tropical plants – a measure to cultivate the next generation of agricultural leaders. For example, students at SDN Cihideung Ilir 03 Elementary School in Bogor have begun learning about the properties and benefits of specific medicinal plants.
Wulida Nurfadillah, a sixth grade student there, claimed top laurels in the project’s writing contest on medicinal plants.
“I wrote about ginger because ginger is one of the rhizomes, which has many benefits,” she said. “My parents were so happy and said I have to keep studying to reach my goals.”
Meanwhile, the project trained 1,000 community members on the importance of conservation and utilization of tropical plants. Nine documents outlining good agricultural practices are now available to farmers across the country through the project. About 40 entrepreneurs received training related to tropical plant product development and 12 products were created or revamped through project efforts.
“We look at developing tropical plant-based products that can be sold here in Indonesia and maybe even elsewhere, eventually, that will allow for economic development in the communities,” Davis said.
In several regions, cooperatives have also been formed through the project to give producers greater market bargaining power. Before the Sun Rises Forestry Cooperative near Manado, for example, has banded together to train new producers of palm sugar and to more effectively dictate a fair price for the product. A secondary effect has been to move some co-op members away from distilling and selling illegal liquor made from palm sap.
“After I introduced the TPC program, now they know how to make palm sugar,” said Dr. T. Lasut, forestry lecturer and palm sugar expert of Sam Ratulangi University. “We still have problems (with the liquor) but now we’re trying to have standardization to get the product so we can sell it in supermarkets. We’re supported by the government because they know this product can decrease the production of the alcohol.”
In Padangan Village near Bali, the Tunas Bamboo Cooperative has been organized as an effort of the project to boost the market for a type of savory bamboo shoot exclusive to the region.
“Since formalizing the cooperative… the production and the price of bamboo shoots are increasing and it is automatically increasing the welfare of the community,” said Made Lakir, the cooperative’s leader. “As the leader, I also feel happy and am so motivated because the market is very promising.”
Meanwhile, other project research has looked at previously ambiguous health benefits of some tropical plants. The widely used kenari nut, for example, was found to contain high levels of antioxidants and shown to reduce cholesterol in lab rats, said Dr. Robert Molenaar, an agricultural engineer at Sam Ratulangi University.
New findings on the health benefits and nutritional content of foods are now being used to improve food labeling practices, which food processors, like those at the Airmadidi Village Kenari Nut Bakery near Manado, will add to their products’ consumer appeal, said project administrators.
“This is how research goes back to the community,” said Erny Nurali, an agricultural scientist with Sam Ratulangi University.
By the project’s closure in March, in-country university partners had already begun to draft proposals for funding to continue developing industry and education around tropical plants. The country’s directorate of higher education had already allocated funds for continuing food processing and labeling education near Manado, Nurali said.