Rich insights on Indonesia’s periphery

The smoke from the fire-pit rises up to the attic, drying the corn which hangs in bundles from the ceiling. My friends use the rising smoke to protect the beans, seeds, and other crops from humidity, insects and other pests. They say that this will preserve the seeds so that they can be used for the next planting season.

They pass me a small bowl of the local specialty dish, jagung bose — boiled corn, nuts and beans cooked with salt and coconut milk or santan. Unlike in Central and Western Indonesia (Bali and Java) which rely primarily on rice as a carbohydrate staple, the Indonesians in West Timor, often prefer a-corn based diet. As we begin to eat together one of my new friends asks the expected question: “So Nick, what brings you here?”

Looking around my surroundings, I chuckle. I also had to ask myself, how I had wound up here — in the South Central hills of Timor Island in Eastern Indonesia? Was I a lost backpacker? A journalist? A cultural-linguistic anthropologist? Not quite. “I’m just an Australian exchange student and this is my homework”. My friends look at me with a puzzled expression, a cue for a longer explanation.

These days the Australian government is focusing on encouraging young Australians to study, work and engage more deeply in Asia, I explain. In 2013 I was lucky enough to gain a government research grant so that I could do my honours year through a cross-institutional program involving La Trobe University in Melbourne and the University of Nusa Cendana in the Nusa Tenggara Timor Province of Eastern Indonesia.

For my study component, I decided to enrol in the Certificate of Tropical Rural Development, which is a six month component of the Masters of Tropical Rural Development. These multidisciplinary programs — along with a number of Bahasa Indonesia courses for foreigners including the collaborative online UniBRIDGE project — form part of the University of Nusa Cendana’s strategy to become a “global-oriented university”. The program allowed me to choose subjects from a range of faculties at both an undergraduate and master’s level while also undertaking internships and research in the field.

Given such a unique opportunity to learn about disciplines which I could not access in my humanities degree back in Melbourne, I decided to make the most of this opportunity by choosing subjects which were unique to this context of rural, remote and developing Eastern Indonesia. I ended up studying subjects related to dryland farming, coastal and small island management, maternal and neonatal health as well as environmental health. I’ve done this alongside field research and internships with local organisations. Needless to say, it has been a challenging multidisciplinary learning experience.

There are three main advantages that come with studying tropical rural development in an international development context, rather than within the confines of the ivory towers back home.

First, proximity allows us to make frequent visits to the field for research surveys and experiments. Such practical field data and experience serve to strengthen our research findings through the provision of concrete examples rather than just literature review.

Second, it allows us to engage directly with local village communities. This may even enable participatory research approaches or community-based projects which empower local communities by involving them as the implementers rather than just the targets of research programs and development interventions.

Third, it means that our studies and research are more likely to be relevant to these communities. For example, a study which leads to innovation in agriculture, fisheries or even public administration may have a greater chance of being picked up and passed on by locals. This kind of bridge between the ivory tower and the field is becoming increasingly rare in a world where most of the outcomes of our studies and research are more likely to be collecting dust in an archive, library or an exclusive journal.

During my program here I was able to experience each of these three benefits through studying in one of the more disadvantaged parts of Indonesia.

For studies relating to management of fisheries, small islands and coastal areas, our class made field trips to islands and coastal areas as well as coral and seaweed farms.

We engaged with communities during our visits to farms and pastoral areas where we conducted surveys for reports relating to agriculture and livestock management practices. We also attended village meetings, interviewed local farmers’ collectives and conducted focus group discussions.

To ensure that our work was relevant we explored issues which were important to local villagers. For one of my exams, I made my way up to the hills to conduct a survey on remote villages relating to maternal, neonatal and environmental health. The study looked at traditional practices in terms of the Ume Kebubu grass thatch hut which serves as granary and also traditionally as the resting place for newly born children and their mothers. For my exam, I investigated community perspectives on the use of the Ume Kebubu and the effects on maternal and neonatal health.

Even compared to the rest of Indonesia, Eastern or “peripheral” Indonesia remains a unique campus. Past study and travel in Java and “core” Indonesia provide a different experience. Life is more difficult here in the East and there are less opportunities for the communities of peripheral Indonesia. This is mainly due to a development gap, clearly illustrated by the Human Development Index of Indonesia which ranks the 33 provinces of the archipelago in terms of both social and economic development. Nusa Tenggara Timur ranks at No. 31, near the bottom.

Eastern Indonesia’s disadvantaged position makes it a unique campus where one can both learn more and contribute more. It was my study and research that had brought me to this unique campus.

This was how I ended up here in this grass thatch hut, I told my friends. They responded with another question. “Why have you come alone? Why aren’t there any other Australians or other foreigners at the university here?” 

It’s true. There are no other students from overseas at my university here. I suppose one of the main reasons is the decline in focus on Indonesian languages.

This decline has been commented on by news media and academics throughout Australia. A report commissioned in 2011 by the Asian Studies Association of Australia had already observed the wider breakdown in Asian language literacy, a state of affairs it described as a “crisis”. More recently, this trend in terms of Indonesian language has worsened, culminating in what Melbourne University’s Tim Lindsey says resembles a “death spiral”.

An interesting paradox is that this collapse of Indonesian languages is taking place at a time when there are more funded opportunities and scholarship options to study and engage in Indonesia than ever before.

These opportunities have been outlined through the Australian Government policy papers such as the Australia in the Asian Century report of the previous government and the New Colombo Plan of the current administration. The new government’s vision as outlined by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is for study in the Indo-Pacific region to become a “rite of passage”.

I believe that this vision and these government policies provide a useful road map. However, I hope this road map will direct us towards a more meaningful form of engagement with Asia. It should not merely be seen as a narrow scheme of training Australians to engage with Asian elites in order to exploit business and economic growth in the region.

I hope that it will encourage Australians to adopt a more holistic approach towards engaging with Asia, and encourage more Australians and Asians to build partnerships for educational and cultural exchange. Perhaps most important, from my own perspective, would be a greater focus on capacity building and skills sharing programs to empower our neighbours. One clear example of this is the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Maternal and Neonatal Health, which has made a real difference in the province where I am now living.

Reducing poverty in some of the most disadvantaged areas in our region, such as Eastern Indonesia, would have a number of spillover benefits for Australia. We can share skills and knowledge in terms of sustainable agriculture, animal husbandry and cattle management as well as by building capacity in the education and health sectors.

Through a greater focus on capacity building at a grassroots level we can increase cross-cultural understanding. Such understanding may go a long way in mending our foreign policy relations after the ups and downs experienced at the elite level.


First published in The Australian on 28 February.

Nicholas Metherall, a Prime Ministers’ Australia Asia Endeavour Award Recipient, is doing his honours year in International Development and Asian Studies at La Trobe University. These are his personal views.

Image credit: jbeaulieu