Smallholder farmers and local businesses work together to protect Indonesia’s forests

23, April 2021
Communities choose agroforestry for a better future.

In the forests of Indonesia’s South Sulawesi, where small-scale farmers often struggle to make a living, 38-year-old Marni is thriving.

She has a new tin roof on her house and enough money to send her daughter to university and her sister to teacher’s college. Marni is reaping the rewards of a decision she made years earlier to build a sustainable coffee farm.

Several years ago everyone was planting corn and other food crops. But officials were concerned about soil erosion and forest degradation caused by this kind of monoculture. So, when experts and officials came with seedings and an offer to teach coffee farming, Marni jumped at the chance.

“Now I am grateful that I can earn more money and even expand my farm,” she says at her village in Bantaeng District in the island’s south.

Map of Indonesia and location of South Sulawesi

Marni’s success is the culmination of a decade of RECOFTC’s collaboration with villagers in the remote district in South Sulawesi to develop sustainable livelihoods from their local forests. RECOFTC has been at the heart of efforts to forge this form of community or village forestry. Here, local people are given a greater mandate by the state to manage the forests they depend on for survival. 

New skills, better products

To develop the initiative, RECOFTC spent years building partnerships with local communities, forestry and agricultural officials, the local university and civil society. They worked together to obtain land permits for villagers, who were also offered training in agroforestry and other sustainable farming techniques. As they honed their new skills over the years, their ability to manage small coffee plantations grew and the quality of the coffee improved. More recently, the farmers joined a new cooperative to secure a better price for their beans and to break into bigger markets.

 “The farmers know that higher quality coffee means a higher price,” says Hasri, head of the Akar Tani Cooperative that now has 95 farmers as members. “They understand the importance of sustainable farming.” 

Coffee in South Sulawesi

Marni, also a member, says over the years she has learned good harvesting and processing techniques, such as picking only ripe, red berries and sorting them properly. She also knows how to care for her arabica coffee plants and the three hectares of land on which they grow. 

“We know we have to plant more trees to shade the coffee plants, otherwise they won’t survive,” she says. “So we have planted jackfruit, mahogany and many other trees.”  

Today, one kilogram of her coffee beans can fetch 120,000 Indonesian rupiah or US$8.50, compared with 20,000 Indonesian rupiah when she started 10 years ago.

Improving landscapes, increasing incomes

While the collaboration has focused on improving local livelihoods, conserving the surrounding forests has also been important. Indonesia has some of the world’s largest tropical forests, which store carbon and are crucial to combating climate change and sustaining biodiversity. But like most forests in Southeast Asia, they are under severe pressure from degradation and deforestation, resulting from unsustainable agriculture, illegal logging and unchecked development. 

Village forestry aims to safeguard forests by empowering Indigenous Peoples and other local communities to sustainably manage them and earn a living from their products.

Adam Kurniawan remembers the days when farmers, with no secure rights to the land, would cut down trees and quickly clear a new patch of forest. They would then plant a fast-growing crop, hoping to harvest it without getting caught by forestry officials. 

“Farming was based on quick returns and high risk,” says Kurniawan, head of the Balang Institute, which works with local communities.

In 2010, farmers from Bantaeng were invited to come together to learn about agroforestry. In meetings organized by RECOFTC, the local Hasanuddin University and others, farmers began to learn about sustainable ways of managing the land. Research commissioned for the farmers in 2012 used satellite images of local forests to show them how agroforestry could improve the landscape, while also increasing incomes.

preparing coffee

“In the years that followed, farmers continued to meet to learn new practices and share lessons learned from working their coffee plantations,” says Kurniawan. “They discussed ways of diversifying crops to become more resilient in the face of floods and droughts that threaten to become more frequent due to climate change. The community came together to conclude agroforestry was the future.”  

Permits provide security

Land conflict is a major problem in Indonesia and throughout the region. Conflict between the state and marginalized communities often arises when the state wants to guard a forest that the community has long depended on for survival. 

When farmers do not have clear legal rights to land, the state can deny them access at any time, making them skeptical of investing in sustainable farming practices. Securing tenure for the farmers was therefore essential to their success.

Three villages in Bantaeng agreed to apply for permits under a national forestry policy aimed at ending such conflicts, along with reducing poverty and deforestation. The application process can be lengthy, confusing and bureaucratic, especially for local communities with limited information about government requirements. But supported by RECOFTC and the university, the villagers received their permits in six months, giving them permission to manage parcels of forest land for the next 35 years. 


South Sulawesi map close up

“They had the certainty of land tenure in just six months,” says professor Supratman Suyuti from the Hasanuddin University in Makassar. “It was a real achievement.” 

He cited strong support from the district government head as a reason, along with the commitment and cooperation of the villages. 

“Bantaeng became a place for people to come and learn about village forestry,” says Suyuti, a pioneer of natural resource management in the area, and a long-time RECOFTC partner. “It became a place for people to better understand how to manage their forests and to gain a clear status for local people.”

Farmers in Bantaeng have changed the nature of their relationship with the 700 hectares of land on which they work, and with the forest around them.

A cooperative, sustainable approach

“After the permits, they started thinking about the forest differently,” says Kurniawan. “They started working together to develop ways of protecting their land. They no longer cut down the trees and they came together to discuss the best management plans for the future.” 

Empirical evidence has yet to be gathered on whether the forests are regenerating, but Suyuti says people are no longer trying to open up new sections. 

“The number of forest fires has definitely been reduced because people are not trying to open up the land by burning it,” says Suyuti. “The system has kept people away from the rest of the forest. This is a clear indicator. The forest is at least safe.”

While tenure has brought security for some, others are still hopeful. Farmers in nearby Pabumbungan village have not yet applied for permits, citing the expense and the need for support to undertake the process, which includes surveying. But they have agreements with authorities to grow and sell sustainable coffee, and they believe they have gained officials’ trust for their ability to manage the land.

“The forestry department can see that the forest is greening again, so we don’t have as much pressure from officials,” says Hamsir, 22. In 2018, he took over his parents’ farm, growing a mix of coffee and vegetables on a small plot. 

After joining the Akar Tani Cooperative last year, Hamsir quickly learned new methods for improving the quality of his coffee, including pulping the beans to remove the skin and drying them properly. He works with other farmers to share information and ensure forest conservation takes place. He has successfully expanded his plantation from 100 to 700 plants and is eager to grow even more. 

“We want to know which markets we can access to get good prices for our coffee,” says Hamsir. “We depend on Akar Tani for this.”

Roasting reaps rewards

In a warehouse in the nearby town of Tompobulu, where many of the beans are stored, Akar Tani’s handful of workers have been learning how to master a roasting machine.

“There was some trial and error initially, especially getting the timing and temperatures right,” says Akar Tani’s head Hasri.

“But after training, they are skillful now,” he says of the workers trained in the past 12 months. “Buyers have requests for medium and other types of roasted beans and we have the skills to cater to them.” 


Since it was formed in 2016, the cooperative has worked to fetch higher prices for farmers. Training and information have flowed so growers can improve the quality of their coffee. Collectively, through Akar Tani, the farmers have more bargaining power to seek higher prices, rather than individually selling to unscrupulous middle men offering lower ones. Farmers have also access to pulping machines and the new roaster.

“It’s more profitable to sell roasted beans, although there are overhead costs from roasting and packaging,” says Hasri. One kilogram of roasted beans can go for 165,000 Indonesian rupiah, more than double the price of unroasted green beans at 75,000 Indonesian rupiah per kilogram.

Navigating challenges 

With continuous support from RECOFTC, Akar Tani also has access to capital, including a government loan, to help build the enterprise. Members gained business and risk management skills to help navigate its early stages, and learned how to use financial planning tools. A study tour was organized to a successful coffee cooperative on Java so members could learn more about good farming and business practices.

“RECOFTC has helped us connect with government agencies for support,” says Hasri. “They have provided training, such as in how to undertake risk assessments and how to comply with government regulations.”

Despite the collective’s success, challenges remain. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Akar Tani focused on increasing the quantity of coffee from farmers to meet volume requirements in larger markets, such as the provincial city of Makassar. Then it began to focus on quality. But when the pandemic hit, demand for coffee beans fell as shops and other businesses shuttered, sending prices lower. Akar Tani was forced to cut, by almost half, prices paid to farmers for their beans. As the pandemic eases, Hasri is hopeful demand will pick up again and he can resume growing the enterprise.

For farmer Marni, COVID-19 has been tough. But she is determined to build on her success, and keep supplying her beans, sometimes using unorthodox methods. Akar Tani, for the moment, is buying less, but Marni has found other buyers, and even coffee shops willing to buy from her directly. She is washing and drying the beans using simple machinery on her farm. And she has even tried roasting them herself in a kitchen wok.

Supporting local businesses

In an upmarket coffee shop in Makassar, customers have started returning to sip and chat, in the wake of the pandemic. Andimal, owner of Beans Coffee Shop, is among the baristas selling Akar Tani-branded coffee who have reopened their doors.

“My customers are coffee connoisseurs,” he says. “They really know what good coffee tastes like and they always ask me ‘where do you get your beans?’.” 

Andimal is confident that with its strong, distinct flavour, Akar Tani coffee can compete in the future with larger and more established brands in the area, which has a rich history of coffee cultivation. The collective just needs a strong marketing campaign and a steady supply of consistently high-quality beans from its farmers, he says. 

“I will continue to support them,” says Andimal. “I am from this island. I want people to know that the coffee from my homeland is just as good as Java and Sumatra coffee.” 

In the nearby town of Jeneponto, Ika O. Turatea shares this sentiment. She manages a gallery to support local artists who gather to work and sell their handicrafts. When Akar Tani approached her eight months ago with packets of local coffee to sell in the gallery’s cafe, she didn’t hesitate.

“The coffee is good quality,” says Turatea, whose cafe draws steady crowds of young people, although numbers have dipped during the pandemic. “I was sold on the idea because the collective supports local farmers. This is the same vision for the gallery. We are trying to empower local artisans.” 


RECOFTC’s work is made possible with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).