Conservation agriculture equips Indonesian farmers to turnaround poor-quality, marginal land

Better agricultural techniques help fight erosion and flooding, while increasing yields and income

After an FAO training on conservation agriculture techniques, farmer Seferinus We’e now keeps his goats in animal pens, which enables him to collect their manure and use it as organic fertilizer. ©UNIC Jakarta/ Miklos Gaspar


What is the link between a university education and manure? Conservation agriculture, say Seferinus We’e and Krensensiana Nasa, a farming couple on the bucolic eastern Indonesian island of Flores. Participants in a project supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and its non-governmental organization partners, Seferinus and Krensensiana have managed to increase their yields and income three and a half fold.

Through terracing and intercropping, they have put an end to erosion of their land in Nangaroro, located on a steep hill overlooking the Indian Ocean. By using the manure of domestic animals as an organic fertilizer on their conservation agriculture plots, their corn yield has increased from two tonnes per hectare to seven. And in that surplus corn, which they sell for cash, lies the linkage between manure and education: their two oldest children are now at university in Jakarta.

“We could have never been able to afford that,” says Seferinus, their father and a former subsistence farmer. He and Krensensiana now grow sweet potatoes, beans, corn and leafy vegetables, such as pok choy, for sale.

“Our food is guaranteed year-round, and we have a regular income on top of it,” Krensensiana adds. Building terraces on their steep slopes took some work, but it paid off.

These techniques are all part and parcel of conservation agriculture, a farming system that can prevent losses of arable land while regenerating degraded lands. It promotes maintenance of a permanent soil cover, minimum soil disturbance and diversification of plant species. It enhances biodiversity and natural biological processes leading to increased water and nutrient-use efficiency and improved and sustained crop production.

Krensensiana Nasa and her son work on their terraced land, which is generating 3.5 times more income as a result of conservation agriculture techniques. ©UNIC Jakarta/ Miklos Gaspar

Scaling up

Local agriculture authorities have taken notice, too. As of 2023, conservation agriculture was promoted in a handful of villages by FAO through local implementing partner, the Foundation for Partnership with Independent Farmers. The District Agriculture Office has now made this technique accessible to all farmers cultivating marginal lands in the area.

“These are very impressive results, and we have decided to roll out the methodology throughout the district through extension workers,” says Oliva Monika, Head of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Nagekeo District Office.

The Nagekeo district has around 21 000 farmers, and around 10 percent of them work on marginal lands. These are cases where the land is either too steep, like in Nangaroro, with rainfall gushing down on natural slopes causing the loss of the top-most, fertile soil, or the land is completely flat, with rainwater having nowhere to flow – turning what could be rich agricultural areas into wetlands.

The latter has been the case for Amandus Buiu, a small-scale farmer in Wolowae, who could only plant rice rather than corn or horticultural products, which fetch a higher price, because his one-acre plot often gets flooded.

Amandus’s flat plot now has small drainage canals to guide excess rainwater the soil cannot absorb down to the nearby creek. With these techniques, Amandus has been able to diversify his planting. Intercropping of corn with beans has also meant that there is enough shade, moisture and natural fertilizer from leaves in the soil for both plants to thrive. In the meantime, he has kept a rice paddy at the end of his plot, closest to the creek. “I am still experimenting with what balance of crops will work the best,” he says.

Intercropping of corn and beans and developing small drainage canals have enabled Amandus Buiu to turn what was formerly flooded land into a productive farm. ©UNIC Jakarta/ Miklos Gaspar

Supporting farmers, sustaining the environment

The support was much needed in Nagekeo, part of East Nusa Tenggara Province, one of the five least developed areas of Indonesia. Most of these provinces are agricultural, and moving farmers out of subsistence agriculture into generating an income is a key goal of the government, said Wayan Tambun, FAO Project Manager in Indonesia. “The methods we, and our local partners, help the farmers implement conserve the land and resources, while increasing yields and incomes,” he says.

In another marginal area, Rendubutowe, where high elevation means much lower rainfall, FAO partners, World Neighbors and Vredeseilanden Country Office Indonesia, have introduced to farmers the idea not only of terracing and the use of hedgerows to conserve soil and water but also of planting trees in order to minimize water run-offs in the rainy season and limit water shortages in the dry season. Farmers have moved from slash and burn agriculture and shifting cultivation to permanent farming. As a result of the new practices, the land in many areas is now covered by forests, providing natural erosion and flood control, carbon storage and giving rise to new water springs.

“Before, our land was barren and infertile and could be used for agriculture only five to seven months per year,” says farmer Antontius Pati. Twenty-five years later, his farm now consists of terraced land and areas with mahogany and gmelina trees, whose seeds and firewood he can also sell.

“Before, I had to move the farm to a new piece of land because once there had been three harvests, the soil was no longer fertile,” he says. “But with terracing and the use of leaves from leguminous crops as green fertilizer, my harvest kept on increasing.” His “family forest”, as he calls it, ensures that the local creek never dries out and there is water in the soil year-round.

Inheriting marginal land is no longer a curse, Seferinus says. Now he can even think of taking a trip outside the province, he added, “With our older children now in Jakarta, we hope we can go and visit them.” 

Conservation agriculture techniques enable smallholders to adopt more efficient practices, which can reduce crop losses and offer higher returns. FAO is working with the Indonesian government to expand the use of this technique nationwide.

This story was produced in collaboration with Miklos Gaspar from the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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2. Zero hunger, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 15. Life on land