lombok pottery center: fair trade reflections, part two

I spent one week in Lombok with Lisa, the lovely Forum Fair Trade Indonesia coordinator, visiting artisans from the Lombok Pottery Center (LPC), one of FFTI’s member groups. Nusa Tenggara province is made up of a string of islands extending east from Bali and Java, of which Lombok is the closest to Bali.

One our way to our first of three  cooperative visits, we drove by a bustling morning market with octopus and glassy-eyed fish for sale in buckets. Lisa told me, laughing, that the supermarket closes every day from 3-5 pm, so that the proprietors can take a nap. This is a place far from the traffic of Bali, where we pass nearly as many horse carts as cars. I was fascinated by people chewing betel nuts, their lips and teeth stained a bright orange.

Lombok Pottery Center

On the shady verandah of the Penujak Village Cooperative, Ibu Ayuri, the cooperative’s leader since its beginning in 1988, tells her visitors from Bali and the U.S. how fair trade has changed their lives: “There are few employment opportunities in our villages: in recent years one of the only ways women are able to earn money is to work as maids overseas. Working with Lombok Pottery Center offers quality wages and ensures that women can remain in their communities.”

Ibu Ayuri has been leader of the Penujak cooperative, which comprises 75 women potters, since 1988. Lombok Pottery Center provides the main income for the entire village: when pottery orders are good, the village economy thrives.

Penujak Village Cooperative is one of the 4 cooperatives that own Lombok Pottery Center (LPC), a fair trade company operating in ruralLombok. For Ibu Ayuri, working with fair trade means that she is not just a businesswoman, but can also follow her passion in social work and community organizing. “It’s not easy to work with the community. You have to really know the community’s characteristics, what they really want, what they need, and then make a true assessment,” she tells us.

Recruiting artisans and extending fair trade in the villages is one of the challenges that LPC faces. In 1988, when the project began, few artisans were comfortable working with foreign buyers. “People were afraid to see bule (foreigners) and lacked the confidence to market their pottery,” Ibu Ayuri recalls. LPC began with 9 artisans, all widows, and slowly built the enterprise with initial project funding and artisan training funded by Oxfam New Zealand. 

When the cooperative staff explains the meaning of fair trade to artisans, they focus on fair price, high quality, and giving back to the greater social well-being of the community. One of Ibu Ayuri’s most important missions has been ensuring that producers do not use child labor. “We tell our artisans that children have a right to play and to get an education,” Ibu Ayuri explains.

LPC potters are artisans, but also farmers. They split their time between making pots and tending their land. The relatively dry climate means that most families grow only enough crops for daily consumption.

Traditionally and to this day, creating Lombok pottery is women’s task, although husbands often help with finishing. The people of Lombok believe that women are the best potters because of their patience. The renowned priuk design is always made by women. The priuk is a wide, rounded pot with a flaring mouth, made using the paddle method, in which the potter beats the pot’s wall rhythmically with a bamboo paddle, while holding a smooth stone against the inside wall. The technique results in a strong, thin-walled, elegant shape.

Making priuk:

In Lombok, price competition between potters is very high. Often, potters do not calculate the cost of materials and labor needed to make a piece, meaning that they sell their pottery so cheaply that they actually lose money. Part of LPC’s job is to fight this trend by offering fair wages and avoid exploitative situations in which artisans are losing money. LPC pays 7000 Rupiah for a big bowl or plate that would fetch just 1000 Rupiah in an art shop. LPC’s payment also sets it apart from the other pottery buyers inLombok, who mostly operate on consignment: LPC pays cash when the product is completed, collecting finished products on regular quality-check days in each village.

Sukian, a Masbagik potter, lists several important changes that have improved her life since beginning work with LPC: soft loans offered by the cooperative help her afford large costs, like children’s school fees or purchasing raw materials; the reliable payments from LPC; sustainable orders; and, finally, being a shareholder.

Most of all, Sukian says, it is the sense of security that LPC offers that has transformed her life. “It’s difficult to express the feeling of safety,” Sukian says. For the first time, she feels financially secure because of the steady orders she receives. Furthermore, when she completes an order for LPC, she knows she can trust that she will receive her payment promptly.

Being a shareholder also contributes to Sukian’s sense of safety and ownership. As one of the cooperative founders, she feels great loyalty to the group. “I would be very sad if LPC did not exist—I wish the staff and my fellow artisans health and success so they can continue their good work,” she tells us.

Zuriati, another potter, echoes Sukian’s opinion that being a shareholder has improved her financial security: “I receive an annual dividend. If I or another cooperative member face an unexpected expense, like a marriage, illness or death of a relative, we have access to a special fund that’s part of the cooperative budget.” Zuriati was also selected as the village representative to the cooperative for her ability to read, debate and share ideas, and serve as an advocate for the interests of her village. She is proud and honored to have this big responsibility. Before traveling to Mataram for the cooperative meeting, she meets with potters in her village to discuss concerns that she will relate at the meeting. “Learning how to make a decision that everyone will be happy with is a good challenge for me. I enjoy feeling important and useful,” Zuriati tells us. Participation in fair trade enterprise gives Zuriati and her fellow artisans a voice and helps them develop as community leaders.

The firing process is still a challenge, as the open-fire process that has been used for generations directly exposes artisans to harmful smoke. An attempt to develop closed-kiln firing in 1992, aided by the government’s industrial development fund, was abandoned because the firing took too long, and each kiln could be used for one color only—so each kampung would need separate kilns for the black, brown and tamarind-colored pots. For now, that is an investment that they can’t afford. According to Sukian, firing is the hardest and least pleasant step of the pottery process. She is always relieved to sell items that don’t need firing. (After seeing the area where the pots are fired, Lisa told me, “This is the other side of fair trade.” Later, reflecting on the day, she revised that observation: “Maybe that isn’t fair trade at all.”)

Still, despite the challenges, Hadiah, another Masbagik artisan, sums up the changes that LPC has produced at the most fundamental level: fair trade has helped the village provide for daily needs. “Before, the village had no money even for cooking. Now, the poor people and the rich people can have their same rice.”

(I own a beautiful black LPC-made tagine dish that has produced several delicious Moroccan stews, so I was excited to see where it began its life. It turns out that it likely began its life in the strong, sure hands of Hadiah, who makes six tagines per day, and whose name means “gift.”)


mitra bali: fair trade reflections, part one

One thing that I hope to do at the end of this year is compile a list of best practices for craft producers—in other words, the best strategies and approaches for building craft enterprises that are financially viable, democratically and responsibly governed, environmentally friendly, innovative and sustainable—based on the examples of groups that I’ve encountered along my way. In Indonesia, I’ve been lucky enough to interview artisans and organizers affiliated with several different fair trade organizations as part of a documentation project I’m undertaking with Forum Fair Trade Indonesia, the umbrella network for fair trade groups in Indonesia.

I’ll start with some thoughts on my visits and interviews with artisans at Mitra Bali, a wonderful and very successful fair trade organization working with hundreds of artisans in Bali. Their products include wood and bone carvings, silver jewelry, ceramics, items made from coconut shells and bamboo… Click here to see some of the products that Mitra Bali exports to Ten Thousand Villages. 95% of Mitra Bali’s production is for export.

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) identifies ten Principles of Fair Trade that fair trade organizations/companies are expected to strive for. Commitment to these principles distinguishes fair trade enterprises from other for-profit companies. You can find more detailed explanations of each of these principles on the WFTO’s website. Briefly, they are:

1. Creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers
2. Transparency & accountability
3. Trade practices that function with concern for the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of marginalized small producers and do not maximize profit at their expense
4. Payment of a fair price
5. No child labor or forced labor
6. Promoting gender equity, freedom of association, and generally non-discrimination
7. Healthy working conditions
8. Capacity building
9. Promotion of fair trade
10. Friendly to the environment

Things I Learned from Mitra Bali

Standing behind principles. Mitra Bali provides placards listing the ten principles of fair trade for each artisan to post in their workspace. This seemingly small measure speaks volumes to me: most Mitra Bali artisans’ workspaces are within their homes, and having those ten affirmations about the right to a better life strikes me as a powerful statement about artisans’ ownership of the fair trade movement. Not only that, but it shows a commitment to building an organization in which every member and employee, from the wood-carver to the people packing boxes to be shipped, are invested in fair trade principles and serve as checkpoints making sure that Mitra Bali lives up to its ideals.

Sometimes craft production is not enough. Mitra Bali understands something that I have been reminded of over and over this year: even if artisans are given a fair price for their work, their prosperity is still dependent on the whims of consumer desires, the unpredictability of the American and European appetite for painted cat figurines or batik scarves or decorative baskets. These are not inelastic goods; craft producers suffer and thrive in direct relation with the highs and lows of Western economies.

In order to help its artisans achieve economic security, Mitra Bali implemented a sort of mini-Heifer International project. Artisans are given a cow, which is kept as a sort of buffer– if someone in the family suffers an illness, or if orders lag, or if the artisan wants to undertake an expansion project or build a new home, they can sell the cow. The program is self-sustaining, because each artisan who receives a cow donates its first calf back to Mitra Bali to be given to another artisan.

For the World Fair Trade Day celebration in May, the cows were temporarily painted with fair trade slogans! Bovine stars of the show with the Mitra Bali staff (who seem very much like a family– complete with family-style lunches for the whole staff and exercises after work on Fridays ).

-Fair trade is about humanizing economic transactions. Mitra Bali and most fair trade organizations I encountered in Indonesia do an especially good job of emphasizing this point.  Nearly every artisan I interviewed spoke about the importance of direct, honest communication between producers and buyers in their relationship with fair trade marketing organizations. Many even said that this is a more important positive aspect of fair trade than the higher price they receive for their craft. Simply being able to openly express their needs, issues, and desires to producers is empowering. It’s an important reminder, I think, that in an ideal fair trade situation, both the producer and consumer (and all the other people playing roles in between) should be treated like human beings, not economic cogs, and hopefully can even gain some sense of meaningful global connection from the exchange of goods from one person’s hands to another through the big, sometimes impersonal networks of our global economy.

Unrelated: A couple weeks ago I attended a discussion/presentation by noted Canadian designer David Berman, author of the book Do Good Design and an outspoken proponent of design thinking as an important way of improving the world. Cool project: he re-designed Canada’s unemployment law– with clear language, diagrams, etc– so that it’s easily understood by anyone, without the need for a lawyer’s interpretation. Social design/human-centered design keeps popping up everywhere this year! I think I kind of want to be a social designer.

a post to placate my abandoned readers

Ok. I know I’ve been a really bad blog-updater recently. I’m running around trying to do a million things before I fly to Mongolia on Tuesday, and the last weeks have been packed with jetsetting: a few days in Lombok, a few days in Sulawesi, a few days in Java, now a final few days in Bali. Here are some photos from recent days, and a promise of several wordy, fair trade/craft research-related posts soon to come.

Faces of Borobudur

Borobudur is a huge, ancient Buddhist temple outside of Jogjakarta. The many stone stupas, arranged in concentric circles, are covered with intricate relief carvings. I visited on a misty morning- no dramatic skies to offset the gray stone.

I think I divided my time at Borobudur equally between walking through the many levels admiring the beauty of the stonework, and posing for pictures with Indonesian school groups.

More batik!

Look what I made this time! It’s a combination of two traditional Javanese motifs- parang (the diagonal stripe pattern) and sido asih (the motif with wings/leaves/birds).

It has a lot of mistakes, but I’m proud anyway. My teacher/host Nani told me, “There are no mistakes in batik. There is only character.”

Detail in progress:

Three little tjantings sitting in a wax pot:

Beaches, beauties, beasts

Bau-Bau, Sulawesi: on a bluff overlooking the sea

Sulawesi: pastel-painted houses on stilts. Oh, how I want to live in one of these!

Giriloyo, Java: I stayed in Giriloyo, a village known for its batik artists in central Java, with the lovely Nani and her unlovely chickens:

Sulawesi: outrigger boats and jewel seas

Gili Air, Lombok: beach sunset

Gili Air, Lombok: I was walking through the island’s untouristed interior when I stumbled across a group of men playing a game that I would describe as top warfare. Each person had a big, heavy, carved wooden top (the spinning kind) with a piece of string wound around the top of the top in a tight coil. After a huge arm windup, one person would hurl the top at the ground, releasing the string to set the top spinning madly. Others would then hurl their own tops violently at the already-spinning one, trying to knock it off balance.

Bali: at the annual arts festival

Gili Air, Lombok: hermit crab!! This one even found a shell with a convenient eye-hole

En route to Gili Air, Lombok: riding the public boat

Bau-Bau, Sulawesi: old cemetery in a huge rock fortress on top of a bluff.

That’s all for now. More to come very soon.

bye, dreadz!

This weekend I decided to cut off all my hair. I loved my dreads, but 3 years and 10 months was long enough, and I was ready to move on. The Indonesian heat and humidity certainly helped catalyze that decision. (I never check the weather… but finally out of curiosity I checked the Jogja report last week. 95 degrees and 82% humidity, WHAT. I learned my lesson and will not check again… I’d rather not know the details of my tropical suffering.)

Milking my last moments of serious hippie-dom for all they’re worth:

I realize that I look like a fool in this picture, but I just wanted to show how LONG they were!!

Goodbye dreadlocks.

I look like an alien.

Or maybe like a rambutan!!  (Rambutan is a popular Indonesian fruit; rambut means hair in bahasa indonesia.)

After about two hours of combing and a lot of conditioner, I had hair again! So fluffy and wavy!

I paid about $8.50 for a haircut at a fancy salon. The stylist must have sensed that I haven’t had a haircut in four years (!!!) because they gave me the wonderful shampoo + head massage + conditioner treatment before and after they cut my hair! (Possibly they just sensed that I was a dirty hippie who needed more washing. Either way, I’m ok with it.)

I’m a little sad to lose the automatic artsy identity that comes along with dreadlocks. Not so sad to lose the ubiquitous offers of weed. And I’m so excited about being cool (temperature-wise, anyway)! And running my fingers through my hair, and being able to use those amazing wire head-massage thingies, and fitting into hats again!

in praise of walking

Two weekends ago I went to Singapore– my 30-day tourist visa was up, and I needed to flee the country and hide out for a few days and then sneak back in (or something). It was a pretty uneventful trip, aside from being sick on my way there (not a story you need to hear). I couch-surfed successfully for the first time, with a very kind family! (Best quote of the weekend came from awesomely sassy 5-year-old Ulfah, daughter of my couchsurfing hosts, commenting on my French-braided hair: “Why does your hair look like a unicorn? It’s not nice.”) They were leaving early Saturday morning to catch a plane to Kuala Lumpur, so we all left the house just before six. I had a few hours before I needed to leave for my own flight, so I took the amazingly efficient subway to Chinatown, and had the best stroll around the still-sleeping city as the sun came up.

Lanterns and deserted streets:

A Hindu temple and the nearly full moon.

Aren’t these shutters nice?

Shiny buildings in Riverside.

Later that day, I made it to Jakarta, where I stayed with friends I met at the ultimate tournament I played in during my first weekend in Bali– Melanie and Drew and their housemates. Turns out that Melanie and Drew, besides being wonderful people, just finished writing a guidebook to Jakarta– a unique guide designed to give visitors and resident expats alike the chance to experience Jakarta beyond the huge malls, skyscrapers, and gridlocked traffic. I couldn’t have asked for more ideal hosts, basically. (Here is Melanie’s awesome blog detailing all kinds of adventures around Jakarta, with amazing photography.)

That afternoon I took one of the book’s 20+ walking tours– around the neighborhood of Benhil.

Bright street-food vendor carts!

The canal at sunset. The end of my walk included a trip across this canal on a tiny hand-powered ferry.

The next day I went out walking around again– this time to Glodok and Kota (Jakarta’s Chinatown and Dutch colonial districts, respectively) accompanied by Melanie.

Interior of a Chinatown temple:

This temple has a ritual that allows you to ask the gods for some insight into the future, and receive a fortune in return. I tossed two painted wooden blocks into the air and shook a numbered stick out of a canister, and the temple attendant read the position of the blocks along with the stick’s number, and handed me my fortune, printed on a pink piece of paper! I’m not telling you what the gods see in my future, but it was much juicier and more satisfying than your average fortune-cookie platitude.

And a few blocks away, a Christian church:

This guy at the Chinatown wet market was visibly delighted to witness our half- awed, half-grossed-out reaction to his demonstration of his excellent eel-gutting skills. Warning: blood and guts ahead.

Along with the eels, there were live fish, frogs, and turtles, all destined to be deftly dismembered on their way to becoming someone’s meal (except a lucky few of the turtles, which were to be sold whole as pets, lucky guys).

More urban wildlife: creepy monkey performing in the street in Kota.

So there you have it! Two days full of lovely walks. Walking, in my opinion, is by far the best way to get acquainted with a new place. Even if your range is smaller, the experiences you have within that limited radius will be all the richer for being immersed in sensations and moving slowly enough to notice the changing light as the sun crests over glassy skyscrapers, appreciate just how red that eel blood is, and try new Indonesian words  in broken conversations with guys chilling at the neighborhood hangout.  (Yes, this post is mostly an excuse to share some pictures I thought were cool.)


Nothing like feeling proud of my new skills to rouse me out of my blogging inertia…

One of the reasons I came to Indonesia was because of batik, an art form in which cloth (or sometimes other materials) is painted with wax, using brushes and a special tool called a tjanting, and dyed. This enormously time-consuming process is repeated several (or many) times to produce layers of color, resulting in textile designs that can be amazingly intricate. In Javanese society, the art of batik was generally women’s work.

Right now I’m in Central Java in the city of Yogyakarta, also known as Jogja, which is one of the centers of batik heritage. Jalan Malioboro, the avenue that forms the heart of Jogja’s tourist district, is lined with rows and rows of batik shops, and many people still wear batik clothing.

Javanese motifs, with just the first layer of wax applied (no, I did NOT make these. Oh, I wish):

Actually doing batik is tricky for a number of reasons: first, it takes some practice to get the hang of using the tjanting, which is like a tiny wax pot, with a small spout, on a handle. The wax in the tjanting has to be kept hot enough that it will fully soak through the cloth, so it has to be dipped in the molten wax pot very often. Accidental wax drips have to be painstakingly removed with a hot knife.

On top of the technical challenges, I had a little bit of trouble wrapping my head around the process of planning the layers of color. You have to start with light colors and work your way to the darkest colors, and the painted-on wax is a different color than the hidden textile color underneath, so it’s hard to tell exactly how the thing will look in the end. I think my visual-learning brain had a little trouble with this different approach, but it was a lot of fun! Sort of like a lateral thinking puzzle. I think I’ll get the hang of the thinking/imagining process more as I practice.

Susie, my wonderful teacher. I’m not sure why, but we get along really well. It’s funny how many middle-aged women I’ve befriended over the course of this year.

Here’s my first attempt!

First layer of wax & color. (The very first layer of wax covers areas that will be white in the final piece.)

Applying the last layer of color– black.

After the final, darkest color is applied, the whole thing gets put in a pot of boiling water to remove the wax. (Hello, blue sky)

About 13 hours later… Done! Yes! I can’t wait to do another one!

the road ahead

FYI, here’s my general itinerary for the next 2 1/2 months– I finished buying all my plane tickets! I’m trying not to think too much about how quickly time is going to pass until:

june 28- goodbye, indonesia! fly to ulaanbaatar, mongolia via kuala lumpur and beijing. off to explore felt cooperatives in the north!

july 30- goodbye, mongolia! on my way back to the USA, flying via beijing and vancouver. once i hit the states i’m stopping in san francisco for a couple days to see friends and family.

august 3- back to minnesota.

august 4 through 7-  returning watson fellows’ conference in northfield, mn.

More on my recent sojourns in Java (Yogyakarta and Jakarta) and Singapore to come!