Indonesian nuns promote organic rice to boost sustainable agriculture among Christian and Muslim farmers
by Mathias Hariyadi
For the past 14 years, three nuns have promoted farming methods that protect the environment in the Diocese of Purwokerto. As Pope Francis advocates, their goal is to protect nature and promote development. The project involves mostly Muslim farmers, said Sister Alphonsa Triatmi.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – For more than 14 years, a group of Indonesian nuns has been developing organic farming methods to grow food whilst protecting the environment through a form of lay apostolate that has attracted the attention of many farmers, most of them Muslims.

Recently, thanks to government certification, the sisters are getting ready to market their product, a type of organic rice. In so doing, they are showing that concern for the environment and creation can be reconciled with human needs, as Pope Francis indicates in his encyclical ‘Laudate si’ (Praised be to you), which was released today, on the care of mankind’s common home.

In Indonesia, organic farming has developed over the past decade to meet growing demand from the high end of the market. So far, only rich consumers can buy organic food given its high cost to produce.

However, few farmers have switched to organic production because its profit margins are not the same as those of traditional farming. Organic products has also remained a niche market because many farmers are unaware of its farming techniques. 

The Diocese of Purwokerto, in Central Java, has backed three Catholic nuns from the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary and Joseph. In the past 14 years, the sisters have promoted organic farming in their residence, in Purwosari (Purworejo District).

In the world’s most populous Muslim country, where Catholics are a tiny minority (about 3 per cent), their lay apostolate is unusual because it has been able to involve the entire community, including non-Christians.

With the backing of Mgr Julianus Sunarko, bishop of Purwokerto, Sister Alphonsa Triatmi, along with her fellow Sisters Bernadette and Franziska, has pursued the initiative. Mr Albertus Dwi Widyatmojo, AKA Bejo, has also helped the group. 

In early June, the three nuns, Bejo and a group of farmers from Puworejo officially inaugurated their production of organic rice in the presence of local authorities.

This caps a long, three-year process of inspections and tests, at the end of which, the group of farmers received the Indonesian Organic Farming Certification issued by the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture, attesting that the grain met the required quality standards and was thus fit for sale.

Similarly, “the Purworejo fields were officially recognised as organic” because they respect the 2013 regulations, said Sister Alfonsa Triatmi.

Although an educator by training, Sister Alfonsa told AsiaNews that she got her enthusiasm and passion for agriculture from her family because "my parents were farmers."

"Without the contribution of a layman of good will,” i.e. Bejo, a former seminarian, “and two other nuns of the congregation," this particular form of apostolate would not have been possible.

Despite her age, 67, Sister Alfonsa can still ride a motorcycle, covering the 70 kilometres between Purworejo and Wonosobo. She can also drive a car on her own.

Although she owes her passion for agriculture to her family, her love for the land blossomed back in 1995 at a meeting, which she followed by joining various programmes and initiatives.

Today more than 140 families have joined hands to produce organic rice in the district. "Only a small number of them are Catholic; most are Muslim with whom we forged a strong bond of friendship,” the nun said.

"My point of view is clear and simple,” she added. “I want to educate farmers and peasants to produce organic food within a programme of sustainable environmental development."