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Organic Healing for the Soil and the Soul - Bogor, Java
Last modified: 2010-02-14 19:40:26

High in the Puncak hills is a farm with a difference. You see young men tending lovingly to their green crops planted in neat rows of identically proportionate beds. Look closer, and you might see a heavily tattooed arm scoop out a wriggling worm, hold it in the palm of a calloused hand and then place it gingerly on the side.

This is the Learning Farm, where street children and vulnerable youth can come to live for between five months Jiway Tung Learning Center, Bogor Indonesiaand a year to learn organic farming, and through the powerful medium of nature, learn something about themselves and about life.

The farm is run by a soft-spoken, unassuming young man who first came to Indonesia in the early '90s. Jiway Tung is an American of Chinese descent, and he is an eco-hero for running this program that provides a triple service to the community.

"It is the start of a small but powerful movement, and the ripples are being felt in communities as far away as Kaliurang in Central Java, Serang in Banten and Pontianak in West Kalimantan," Jiway says, before sitting down for an interview.

What got you interested in the work that you do?

There is something wonderful about holding a handful of seeds and feeling their energy, working with the earth to help them grow, and tending crops that will nourish other people. It is all inherently therapeutic. This is what makes organic farming such a powerful learning medium.

I also realized early that the future of humanity depends on us respecting nature. Organic farming is about respecting and working with nature, not against it. Through The Learning Farm, I have learned that respecting nature also makes us respect ourselves. Youth who previously did not care about themselves or others started to change through caring and nurturing for plants.

What first brought you to Indonesia?

After graduating, I worked as a community organizer in the Bronx [New York] and in 1992, I decided to come to Indonesia as an English teacher through the Princeton-In-Asia program and taught at Parahyangan University in Bandung for two years.

My real motivation though was that I wanted to further my study of White Crane Silat [PGB Bangau Putih] which is a holistic martial art teaching both self-defense and self-cultivation.

With all the turmoil that accompanied Reformasi it seemed right to turn to the land for exploration and new solutions.

We started farming on a plot owned by the White Crane Silat organization and also started an extracurricular program for children from the surrounding villages.

Describe the early days of setting up the Learning Farm. What were your major challenges?

There was no blueprint, no model of how to do this. We have what we feel is a model that answers the needs of our youth now, but it has taken three years to develop it.

Also, many people said that it was impossible to teach street youth discipline, that rural youth have no interest in farming.

Our emphasis on discipline, responsibility, accountability and hard work ran counter to much of what we had seen being done with youth of this type. We engaged in a "learning by doing" process for both the students and ourselves. In the process we have learned what works, what motivates these kids and our success stories speak for themselves.

What is organic cultivation?

The narrow answer is that it is growing plants without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Instead we use things found in nature to help plants grow, like manure. We do not kill pests with chemicals.

It is healthier for the consumer, healthier for the soil, healthier for the waterways that don't get polluted and eventually healthier [and cheaper] for the farmer who learns to grow crops maximizing the use of local knowledge and minimizing external inputs.

Organic is basically farming that works with nature, using natural patterns and cycles.

We also plant a variety of plants to imitate the biodiversity of nature.

Why is organically grown produce good for you?

Organically grown crops do not have the chemical residues that conventionally-grown crops have. This is particularly important for babies and children as their fast- growing bodies and nervous systems make them more vulnerable to the effect of pesticide residue.

Chemicals are linked to all kinds of health concerns. Atrazine is linked to cancer as well as lower sperm count in males. Research has linked symptoms such as headaches, tremors, lack of energy, depression, anxiety, poor memory, dermatitis, convulsions, nausea, indigestion and diarrhea with dietary intakes of pesticides. Belgian research strongly suggests a link between women diagnosed with breast cancer and increased pesticides in their bloodstreams. Hawaiian scientists link chemicals to Parkinson's disease. The list goes on.

Why are organic vegetables good for farmland?
Organic farmers look after not only their plants but the health of the soil and the ecosystem as a whole. Organic cultivation increases soil fertility, preserves topsoil, prevents erosion and conserves biodiversity.

Organic farming also happens to be better for the earth since it emits 30 percent less greenhouse gas than conventional farming and uses 16 percent less energy.

How do you choose the boys for The Learning Farm?
We send out teams to rural and urban locations to meet with vulnerable youth and explain our program. Staff interview those interested and then we cross check their choices with leaders from their organizations and communities.

What do your boys do once they graduate?
About 40 percent of our graduates make a "career" in organic farming, meaning they either work on commercial organic farms or manage their own farms.

Is it easy for them to get jobs?
Nothing is easy, but we help them by making links with others interested in developing organic farming. For these youth, as tough as the program is, it's only the beginning of their struggle for work and self-worth. Those lucky enough start their own farms, but there are still all the challenges and obstacles involved with any start-up, plus these boys are pioneering a new agricultural system.

We send out staff to visit alumni every month, to help them work through all their initial problems. We have seen alumni not only open their own farms but also start to train neighboring farmers, and help them market their produce.

We are starting to see our graduates speak out and educate their communities and the general public about organic farming and environmentalism.

What is your success rate?
To date we have graduated five classes with 110 graduates and are now on our sixth class. Since we started the graduation rate has climbed steadily, with at least 70 percent of all participants completing Phase 1.

This story is excerpted from the first story in a new series on "eco heroes" in GlobeAsia magazine. The full story appears in the June issue, which is on sale at newsstands now.

Gouri Mirpuri - May 27, 2009 (Photo: Defriza, GlobeAsia)


Keywords: Indonesia, organic, projects, The Learning Center, Jiway Tung, Bogor, Puncak
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