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.
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.”)