Anton Muhajir, Contributor, Denpasar
Ni Nengah Rasa was desperate, to the point she was prepared to sell the property she had just inherited from her late husband to pay the Rp 5 million bill for his cremation.
Men Nengah, as she is known to neighbors in their small village near the Kintamani resort in Bangli, was given six months to pay the debt.
But no matter how hard Men Nengah, 51, worked on her little plot of land, she was never able to save enough money.
“I always work alone because my children are still in school,” she said.
Men Nengah said she lived in constant fear of being chased down by a debt collector, before she met her savior about three years ago.
Agung Alit, director of the Mitra Bali Foundation, was interested in renting her property. The 90,000 square meter plot of land was planted with thousands of albesia trees, which are used in the island’s handicraft trade.
The foundation’s interest is to help provide Bali’s handicraft producers with the necessary raw materials, and eventually to close the profit gap between the producers and the national and international markets where their products are sold.
Owners of land rented by Mitra Bali are still allowed to use a portion of their land to grow other crops besides the albesia trees.
Men Nengah, for instance, grows cassava, chili, corn and other vegetables on the land.
“I already got the money from renting the land, plus additional income from growing vegetables and other crops. What’s more important, I did not need to sell my property,” Men Nengah said.
When they heard about Men Nengah’s deal, several neighbors asked how they could get involved. Now, three years later, more than 70 percent of the 400 families in the village have leased land to the Mitra Bali Foundation.
Nengah Pundoh has an 8,000 square meter plot of land which is now planted with albesia trees, which take about five years before they are ready to be harvested.
“In the past, we just cut down old trees and sold them to handicraft makers in Ubud or other places across Bali,” Pundoh said, adding that usually the trees were felled without being replanted.
Mitra Bali is also active in promoting community-based development programs among farmers and handicraft producers.
“We have seen unfairness when it comes to producing and selling handicrafts, as well as farm products,” the foundation’s Gung Alit said.
Bali has served to inspire many handicraft makers around the world, but most local workers have failed to benefit from exports of their work.
“It is the businessmen (handicraft exporters) who get most of the money.
“At the same time, the craftsmen remain poor,” Gung Alit said, adding that most local artisans have no idea of the price of their products in either domestic or foreign markets.
To increase the bargaining power of local artisans and farmers, he established Mitra Bali in l993.
Gung Alit, who is also secretary-general of the group Fair Trade Indonesia, said the foundation used a system of trade originally developed by the International Federation of Alternative Trade (IFAT) to benefit local producers and workers.
Fair trade stresses the importance of establishing mutually beneficial, fair and open systems. Mitra Bali also promotes sustainable and environmentally friendly activities.
Abuan village is just one of Mitra Bali’s pilot projects.
“Our business is improving every day. Mitra Bali always buys our products at good rates and pays us a 50 percent down payment,” Nengah Pundoh said.
In the past, he had to wait for moths and even years to get payments from buyers. “I was cheated so many times and lost a lot of money because the buyers did not show up.”
Currently, Mitra Bali works with more than 80 small-scale handicraft producers employing around 2,000 artisans in Bali, East Java and Yogyakarta.
“I just feel sad seeing the Balinese having to sell their land and ending up poor,” Gung Alit said.