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ONLINE DOCUMENT: INDONESIA HELPS WEAN ITS FARMERS FROM DEPENDENCE ON PESTICIDES

SHARE ONLINE DOCUMENT: INDONESIA HELPS WEAN ITS FARMERS FROM DEPENDENCE ON PESTICIDES

At the age of 63, Ili Sadeli has gone back to school. A village elder and seasoned rice farmer, Sadeli may have little left to learn about modern agriculture.

But along with two dozen other farmers from his village in western Java, and nearly a million more from around Indonesia, Sadeli wants to learn what his parents always knew about farming. He wants to learn how to live with pests."When I was young, there was no problem with pests. None," Sadeli said on his way home from school in a rice paddy. "Then the government told us to use chemicals. We sprayed and sprayed and sprayed."

He paused to look back at his village's verdant valley of rice paddies. "And more pests came."

The government no longer tells Sadeli to spray. And in Sukajaya, pests are a big problem.

Ten years after banning most chemical pesticides, only to see them re-emerge in new forms or illegal markets, the Indonesian government has started to work with its 18 million farmers to end the country's massive dependence on pesticides.

Through a form of sustainable agriculture known as integrated pest management, it wants to teach farmers how to co-exist with pests.

Across Indonesia, the world's third-largest rice producer, hundreds of thousands of farmers such as Sadeli now treat their fields as the insect safari parks that they have always been, with predator and prey co-existing on rice stalks. Pesticide spraying is to be considered only as a last resort.

In Sadeli's placid hill-top village, the prosperous rice farmers figure they each save about $900 a year on local pesticide brands which they once used regularly. More surprisingly, most of them say their rice production increased once they stopped using pesticides.

"I used to spray for pests three times a season, but not anymore," said Engkur Kurnia, 31, a Sukajaya farmer.

The message that conservation can increase profits has spread swiftly across the Third World, from India to the Ivory Coast, where pesticide bans and integrated pest-management programs are pushing aside 30-year-old agricultural practices.

National pest-management programs are now in place in nine Asian countries, and increasingly popular in wealthy agriculture nations, too. Moreover, in the past five years, more than 80 Third World countries have registered import bans on the most hazardous and widely used pesticides.

Indonesia, which was once one of the world's largest consumers of chemical pesticides, reached a painful turning point 10 years ago, when a pest known as the brown plant hopper threatened to devastate the rice crop.

The government, which thought it had crushed the brown plant hopper in the 1970s, resorted to intensive spraying only to realize the pesticides were killing the plant hoppers' natural predators. The target pest, meanwhile, developed a tolerance to the spray.

Facing a potential crop crisis, President Suharto moved quickly and banned 57 of Indonesia's 63 major pesticides. But simply outlawing pesticides also proved to be inadequate. Farmers needed to learn better ways to manage their rice paddies as active ecosystems of plants, soil, water, pests and predators.

With funding from the U.S. government and World Bank, Indonesia established field schools in which farmers could teach other farmers about the integrated pest-management (IPM) philosophy of growing healthy crops and keeping insects alive.

Now, with 10,000 field schools in rice paddies across the country, Indonesia's IPM program expects to train its millionth farmer next year.

Those farmers, who cost about $10 each to train, in turn spread the IPM philosophy to their neighbors, through village theaters, local newspapers and tea-stall conversation.

In many ways, the schools are designed like high-school science classes, with the emphasis on experimentation.

Halfway down a steep hillside in west Java, on one of the endless sculpted terraces of land that hang like wispy clouds above the rivers, the farmers of Sukajaya scour their rice paddies for a school project.

As a part of the 12-week course, they count bugs in their fields, collect pests for the village's insect zoo and gather at a thatched hut in someone's field to compare notes.

Led by Kurnia, who took a special IPM course so that he could teach the farmers in his village, they use crayons and large sheets of paper to draw their fields and the pests, bugs, caterpillars, spiders, frogs, rats and other creatures that inhabit them.

An agriculture-department worker attends the weekly four-hour class to answer technical questions, such as how seed selection can deter the most tenacious pests and how the spacing of crops keeps pests and rats under control.

The farmer school also manages two plots of crop land - one with pesticide, the other without - to demonstrate how pests can adapt to chemical spraying while their predators cannont.

Turning Indonesia's agriculture system around wasn't easy, and it might not have happened if Suharto, a fierce dictator in many other ways, were not a keen student of agriculture.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Indonesia proved to be one of the most fervent followers of agriculture's green revolution. The government offered massive subsidies for fertilizers and pesticides and gave authority to agriculture officials, who formed "pest brigades," to call in aerial bombers whenever pest outbreaks threatened.

At one point in the 1970s, Indonesia consumed 12 percent of the world's pesticide production.

"There was a belief that the only good bug was a dead bug," said Russell Dilts, a pest-management expert with the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, which helped to establish Indonesia's IPM program.

At first, the technological approach helped Indonesia achieve self-sufficiency in rice production. Then the brown plant hopper returned with a stunning resistance to spraying. In 1985, the plant hoppers destroyed enough rice to feed three million people and threatened to undermine Indonesia's rural revolution.

By swiftly shutting down most of the pesticide industry, Suharto not only saved his government more than $100-million a year in subsidies, but he also saw Indonesia's rice crop increase.

In less than five years, rice production jumped by about 10 percent, even as sales for the 14 major pesticide producers plunged by 58 percent. The reason: by not spraying their fields, farmers allowed natural predators to return and control the pest population, which had grown resistant to many chemicals.

Better use of water, fertilizer and seeds also produced healthier plants that were more resistant to pests.

The farmers involved in the integrated pest-management program also spent more time in their fields - to study bugs, among other chores - which in turn made them more observant and thus more productive farmers.