3. Agus, the 'director general' of farmers

Posted by: Administrator

Features - December 08, 2003

Paul Agusta, Contributor, Jakarta

Agus Pakpahan counts himself lucky to have been raised in a farming community because as one of his role models, Abraham Lincoln, once said, "Agriculture unites us".

Sitting in the large room at the Max Havelaar Indonesia Foundation at Jl. HOS Cokroaminoto No. 113 in Central Jakarta, the former director general of plantation production development for the Department of Agriculture, fielded questions and telephone calls, while periodically checking his laptop for reference information as his staff rushed in and out.

With a Ph.D in Natural Resource Economics from Michigan State University, Agus' life has been about culturing in the widest sense of the word. He believes not only in tilling the fertile soil of Indonesia's vast archipelago, but also in planting seeds of change in the minds of the people who live here.

"Change happens through knowledge, not power," said Agus who was born in Sumedang, West Java on Jan. 29, 1956. As evident in his own endeavors, which include a visiting scholar program at Cornell University and a research fellowship at the Australian National
University, he believes strongly that people can shape their lives for the benefit of themselves, their communities and their nation.

He again cites Lincoln whom he admires for having the ability to pull himself up out of poverty through his own integrity. "He was a true humanist in every sense of the word," Agus said, adding that he also admires the country's founding father Sukarno for having similar qualities.

Agus also holds in great esteem and tries to exemplify the compassion both men had for their peoples who were in the midst of massive upheavals during their presidencies.

He decried the lack of this kind of attitude among the nation's current leaders. "Our leaders only fight with each other, not for their people."

Agus has made a point to struggle for reform from both within and outside of the bureaucracy. Known as "Mr. Clean" among his former colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Agus' career was marked by controversy and efforts at real and fundamental change for the betterment of the farmers.

A former forestry official familiar with the former director general's reputation, but who declined to be named, said that Agus inspired him to remain honest and to adhere to his own personal integrity in spite of the various temptations his own position afforded.

When asked to make a routine "declaration of wealth" during corruption screening at his department, the form that Agus filled out created quite a stir among the investigators, who couldn't figure out why this one particular bureaucrat in a powerful and potentially "lucrative" position was not nearly as wealthy as his counterparts in other departments.

He insisted on applying his principles to others within his circle of influence, and was known as a mover and a shaker, particularly in relation to the efficient and careful use of donor aid in his work. His lack of compromise and desire to improve his work environment finally led to a feeling of restlessness at what he called "lack of momentum".

"I felt after four years that my creativity had declined. I was no longer dynamic. I believe in order to maintain growth speed, a fresh new mind-set is required from time to time," he said. It was this feeling of being boxed in that led him to move on from his post as the director general of plantation production development.

"I didn't resign from the bureaucracy, I embarked on a pilgrimage into a new field of endeavor," he said, adding that "... I wanted to maintain my creativity in a more challenging new field, in this case, organizing farmers and teaching them."

This was not an easy step to take, and Agus consulted with another of his role models, his mother. "She just said if it will benefit the farmers more, go ahead. You can be the director general of farmers," Agus said with a fond smile.

In order to provide a solid base and clear direction for his planned pilgrimage, on Feb. 26, 2002, Agus set up a foundation as a vehicle for his vision of channeling the creative potential of farmers, plantation workers and rural communities, a full year before he left
his post at the ministry.

"Everyone experiences restlessness. In 2000, this country was in bad shape. So I asked myself a question. Who really cares about this country's people?" he explained. "Then, I remembered the book Max Havelaar, and how a foreigner cared so much about this country's people, and I took that as inspiration.

Agus believes that the author of Max Havelaar, Douwes Dekker, whose pen name was Multatuli, could serve as a source of inspiration to help the people here love their country more.

Among the activities Agus has undertaken with his foundation is the establishment of the Collective of Plantation Farmers Organizations (Gappindo), which unites the voices and strength of the farmers as leverage toward more reasonable prices and greater access to markets.

"The market is dominated by a handful of companies or traders who determine prices, and the farmers are not organized enough to be able to bargain," Agus complained.

It is his dream to provide the farmers with better knowledge and skills to organize and leverage their potential in order to empower them with greater negotiating leeway. In order to do this he has established and funds the publication of the Sugar Observer, a weekly trade paper that focuses on educating cane farmers in the most recent developments and techniques.

"Sugar is the best sector to teach the best lessons in how agriculture can work to our benefit," he explained.

"If we can't solve our sugar problems, none of our other problems will be solved."

He said further that he meant for the Sugar Observer to develop knowledge and concern among the people working in the industry to fight the "crippling import dependent mind-set" through discussion of economics, as well as science, environmental issues and culture.

And Agus' dream for the people living in the agricultural sector is for Gappindo to help the farmers develop trading houses, financial institutions for farmers, a comprehensive educational institute for agriculture, and increase communication among farmers associations throughout Indonesia.

But most importantly, Agus said, "I want to put the culture back in agriculture."