This month has been one long crazy slog, and before I launch into things that are more current, I thought I’d go through the draft blogs I’d started ages ago. For example, this one I had started 6 Dec 2011. And it is about time I shared a bit more about what this nilam (aka patchouli) is all about here in Aceh.

Vana White and the nilam seedlings in Aceh Selatan

The above picture, I (not Vana White) am in one of our project sites. Caritas Czech Republic (CCR), the NGO I work for, is working in four districts (Aceh Jaya, Aceh Barat, Aceh Selatan and Gayo Lues). Our major activities are: Farmer Field School (FFS) on organic farming techniques (“Learning By Doing!”), improving distillation with stainless steel kettles, establishment of one cooperative per district, and increased direct market access (the fancy word used here is “value chain”). This is the nursery at the Nilam Business Center (NBC) (each cooperative gets a business center for administrative, agricultural and production activities). It is clearly our intervention, because traditionally farmers here do not use seedlings in polybags, but use cuttings. A farmer in Gayo Lues just took a stubby little stick of nilam, shoved it in the ground at an angle, and then stepped on the ground next to it – done. By using seedlings in nurseries, CCR is promoting the use of higher quality plants, increase in genetic diversity, disease prevention through early detection and a possible income source to sell to other farmers. That’s the plan anyway.

Peace, Love & Tolerance

I am going to try and  refrain from hippy jokes, but it is always interesting to see the back story to something that has such a strong stereotype in the U.S. when it is not (at all to my knowledge) grown or distilled or processed in anyway there. That those seedlings above could eventually become incense sticks or essential oils that then transforms into a symbol of the hippy movement, an olfactory emblem of sorts that causes signs such as the one above to be displayed.

Though most likely the nilam oil will be used for the insect repellent industry, or detergents, or as a base oil in the perfume industry, despite the overpowering and unique smell that most people think of when and if they ever think of patchouli, it has chemical properties that lend itself quite well for other odors to cling to it.

Although there are larger, more well-established and more organized nilam growers on the island of Java (the Indonesian island where the capital city, Jakarta, is located) and in North Sumatra (the portion of Sumatra that is just south of Aceh), the nilam growers in Aceh are still individual farmers with approximately 2 hectares (HA) or less divided up into fields used in rotation. They may grow nilam on about a sixth of a HA at any given time. After the glorious Green Revolution, farmers started using the combination of RoundUp with the traditional burning to clear fields, which CCR is definitely not promoting in the FFS. If they can afford it and their crop is looking a little scraggly, they’ll use other chemical inputs. One farmer though had some gorgeous nilam not using any fertilizer or amendments of any sort, organic or chemical (though he does use the above land clearing method, because it’s much less backbreaking than clearing by hand). This is how traditionally well-suited the area is for nilam.

Anyway, I’m not one to promote the attitude that decisions often come down to “the bottom line,” but these are small-scale farmers (I had originally used “vulnerable” in place of “small-scale,” but changed it, because they are comparatively less so after six years of extensive Tsunami disaster relief and construction aid; some districts got more aid than others, but still) that, like farmers everywhere, are essentially living harvest-to-harvest. The biggest difference is the lack of a government safety net like there is in the U.S.; hopefully this isn’t just for the time being… Election 2012!

Back story

I’ve seen this picture composite to the right a couple times now, and it’s brilliant (plus I’m a sucker for puns and wordplay even though I’ve been told by a friend that it’s the lowest form of humor – his loss!).

I certainly didn’t really know anything about patchouli before starting work here: what did it really look like, where it came from, etc. I was only ever seeing the top picture before (except replace this wholesome scene with some hippies). Below are just a few photos from trips to meet beneficiaries either in our FFS or at their home fields. Disclaimer: these won’t win any photo prizes.

Some lovely nilam a few months away from harvest in one of our FFS plots - orderly, monoculture rows

Livelihood destruction; sometimes bad things happen to the nilam. Here is a nilam infected with "mati bujang." Other pestilence affecting nilam are nematodes, grasshoppers, a disease called "budog" that chokes the plant with reddish warts, etc.

The lady farmers who are members of the above FFS. It's two field schools in one large field; one group is men and the other women. The women's nilam and corn intercropping is looking better... We have a minority of women registered as beneficiaries, because men are the head of the household; however, frequently the people who are sent to actually attend the FFS sessions are the wives of the registered beneficiary, so our knowledge transfer to women is much higher than can be officially recorded.

The farmer, Mr. Mohammed Yatin, that uses no extra inputs tucked in among his nilam, chili, coffee, corn, etc.

Another beneficiary home field with patchouli in the front, some papayas, tobacco, chili, cacao, and various fruit trees in the back.