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Nature as a teacher

With little investment but conducive conditions, a bias against agriculture, an indifference vis a vis nature can easily be transformed into a positive and inquisitive attitude of learning and discovering and loving nature. This is what the field school of the Community School for children on Kaliget Organic Farm proves.

Haneefa observing rice flowerIn our semi-urban rural community, just 15 km from the industrial city of Karawang with its Toyota, Honda, Sharp and other factories, most farmers, men and women, and their children consider traditional knowledge as redundant.

They are buying their seeds (various clones of Ciherang HYVariety), buying fertilizers, dozens of types of pesticides, herbicides, hiring the tractor man, all with money from money lenders, who cash the biggest shares of the harvest. Soils have become hard and acidic.

School kids can hardly read and write when they finish primary school. Younger generation doesn’t want to know anything about that ‘dirty work’ in the wet paddy fields. Because of their low level of education ‘what else can they do’? Confronted with this reality, in 2006, Kaliaget Organic farm started an informal Community School for children.

Many of the children, having their mothers working abroad in the Middle East as domestic workers, joined the community school on Sundays to master Indonesian language. The local language is Sundanese. They started to make compost, to sow and grow vegetables, but also learnt to play music on the Gamalan instruments, and Angklung music on bamboo instruments.

With the growing alienation of the present generation of children from their immediate environment, last season, we also considered that time is ripe to engage a group of 24 children one full season in growing and observing the growth of paddy. Recently, till February 2011, during the main (rainy) planting season, a group of 15 pupils from the senior high school for agriculture from the hill villages above Garut, some 150 km to the east in West Java, have been doing a season-long (4 months) internship as well doing a course in Organic Agriculture[1].

Besides books on Experiential Education, our main teaching materials for the school curriculum are the Training Manuals for Farmer Field Schools[2] as written during the nineties by the FAOteam that introduced the IPM Field Schools in Asia and later elsewhere in Latin America and Africa. Some parts of the manuals had to be updated and changed, since on our 3.5 ha of paddy fields, we are farming Organic. Modules on fertilizers and pesticides were replaced by modules on optimizing the use of FYM, making and application of compost, use of green manures, botanicals etc. One of our fields was used for – what became to be known as – School in the Paddy field.

School in the Paddy field

The once in a week ‘School in the Paddy field’ mainly takes place in the paddy field itself. The Farmer Field School model has been discussed in the pages of LEISA India on various earlier issues. To do a similar curriculum with children was inspired by the earlier work of World Education with the Department of Education of Thailand, also in the nineties.

In our case, we had a mixed age group of primary and secondary school children (ages 8-17), and recently a more homogeneous senior high school age group of 16-18 yrs. Although the school with the children is often done in a more playful way compared with the adult Farmer Field School, they perform the same observations, also sample the growth process of 20 hills every week, do the same weekly rice-ecosystem analyses of their field, discuss data and impressions from the field and make their group presentations, each week by a different member of their group.

During the first Field School classes, the participants have to get used to their new roles as students of Nature, documenting, discussing their data and presenting. A few observation-sharpening exercises[3] are being added to the curriculum and the second session consists of interviewing elders in the village about traditional indigenous concepts about Bumi (Earth), Ibu Pertiwi (Mother Earth), the agricultural and cultural practices which they can remember of their elders and grandparents. This enables the children to get in touch with their culture and past, to discover the wider dimensions of agriculture and somehow forms the basis of seeing Earth and Nature as a ‘book of knowledge’ to read and discover.

To interview elders in the village about ‘mother Earth’ was a new experience and made them look at soil and earth in a different way. “We always thought soil was just soil, something you walk on, a dead thing. But now we have discovered there is a lot of life going on there. Especially among the roots of the (rice) plants”, says Susi from junior high school.

After 3-4 weeks and the discovery of how much there is to discover in the rice field: the way plants grow, develop their tillers, become home of the first generation of insects, how early leaves grow old and are easily being replaced by new ones, having a closer look at the behaviour of insects, being herbivores or predators, coming back from the field to the classroom becomes more and more a busy place of getting their observations accommodated in the presentations. However, observations are still often competing with prejudices. And so it remains important during the whole period of 15 (weekly) sessions to keep on underlining: “What do i see?”or “What actually did you see with your own eyes?”

While the presentations in the first weeks are still often reading the data from the presentation drawing or notes, after a couple of times the presentations become more ‘reflective’ on what has been noticed in the field. Some questions to bring to the field and to the discussion table (from the basic manual) in the meantime have to be adapted and rewritten going more stepwise from a broad field wide impression, narrowing down on a couple of square meters, to estimate the percentage of problematic hills, weeds, leaf colour differences etc. and finally getting more minute, on the 20 selected hills, the water, soil, worms and insects around.

Observing the characteristics and behaviour of insects on and around the plant often asks for more time than is available during the group observations. Some of the more curious participants however start to use their own spare time to the field and take more time to discover (for instance late afternoon when many insects show up) the behaviour of different insects, or discover other insects. This also should be encouraged and time should be given at the next school gathering to present additional individual (or group) observations done during the previous week.

With the transition from leaves to reproductive stage of the plant new life develops inside the stem of the rice plant. The growth of the panicle inside each tiller is one of the most exciting moments, later only to be matched by the brief flowering of the rice and the grain shaping process.

To learn about the flower during session 1, we use a 10x magnifying glass and the next week we use a basic microscope (40x) to even more closely observe the stamen, pistil and pollen, and the development of the rice kernel. A simple 10x glass is a basic requirement to show previously hidden phenomena in the growth of the rice kernel. “For the first time in my life with the microscope, I have seen the beauty of ‘Life’” exclaimed Rudi, a 17 year young senior high school pupil from Garut, looking at the flower of the paddy.

The importance of this ‘simple’ curriculum of ‘discovery learning’: observation, documentation, discussion and presentation of Nature’s growth and development during one season brings about a fairly different view by the participants on what was at first seen as routine (by farmers) or ‘dirty work to be avoided’ (by the younger generation). It is also a sign of the dire state of education and especially agriculture education which is dry, disconnected from nature and practice.

During the recent ‘Graduation’ and harvest celebrations with songs from all over Indonesia, with a play about migration, with African percussion and Sundanese (West Java) traditional singing, one of the schoolteachers from the junior high school informed us that the pupils who had joined in the Rice field school did remarkably well in the regular school.

The experience of this one season, involving meeting fifteen times during a field school shows how with little investment but conducive conditions, a bias against agriculture, an indifference vis a vis nature can easily be transformed into a positive and inquisitive attitude of learning, discovering and loving nature.

Paul ter Weel
Facilitator at Kaliaget Organic Farm and School, Karawang, Indonesia.
E-mail: paulterweel@gmail.com

References
[1] The course is based on the IFOAM Training Manual for Organic Agriculture in the Tropics, Frank Eyhorn, Marlene Heeb, Gilles Weidman, Edit., 2005, IFOAM-FiBL, pp 231. www.ifoam.org
[2] Community-Based Rice IPM Programme Development: A Facilitators Guide, 1996, 199 pp. FAO, Kevin Gallagher.
[3] The Skill of Observation (training), A.N. Copijn, AME India Programme, ETC Foundation, 1985, 11pp.