The European Alliance on Agricultural knowledge for Development


‘In the Highlands of Central Java’








within the framework of the Master of Science Food Security and Climate Change (FSCC)


August, 2018

Authors: Joep van der Poel, Bern University of Applied Sciences

Sara Vaca, and Hermine Zimmermann, and Reinhard Rebering, BOKU


Indonesia is with its 262 million inhabitants, the 4th most populous country in the world. Indonesia consists of more than 16,000 islands. One of the islands, Java, is home to 60% of Indonesia’s population and the population density is approximately 1’000 persons per km2. Inherently there is strong demand for agriculture production, and (intensive) farming is being applied almost everywhere.

In the highlands of Central Java, frequent landslides and changing climate pose a serious threat to the sustainability of the farming systems. In the district of Banjarnegara, agriculture contributes about 40% to the GDP and it is the main economic activity in the area. Two villages in the region, Leksana and Penanggungan, have very different smallholder farming systems despite being only 15 km apart each other. In Leksana village, the farms run mostly integrated agroforestry systems. In Penanggungan, the farms are more intensive with cropping systems without trees.

Since three past years, the area of these two villages has been a research site for the students of Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. In 2017, a two-weeks summer school on sustainability transition, embedded in the framework of the Master of Science in Food Security and Climate Change (FSCC), was held in the villages Leksana and Penanggungan – organised by UGM in collaboration with University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna, Austria.

In the interdisciplinary research project that was devised subsequently, a group of four students from European universities has been provided the opportunity to perform research in this area within the framework of their Master theses. Topics selected are as follows: Farming System Changes, Family Succession, Livelihoods, and Pesticides in Soils. The on-site field work was undertaken from mid-August to mid-October 2018.

The farming systems under study need to adapt to be able to cope with challenges such as climate change and to reverse negative trends such as soil erosion. To facilitate this, a deeper understanding of the current sustainability state of the agroforestry and intensive farming systems is required.

The study carried out within the research project brings together social and natural research. The domains investigated are related to agronomy, soil science, household economics, family values and decision making system, as well as sustainability transition topic. Thereby, the project envisages to meet the following objectives:

  • To understand why and how farmers in Leksana and Penanggungan have taken so different pathways in the past, and which factors drive change into the villages.
  • To assess the soil status in the two different locations, focusing on pesticide residues as a proxy for ecological system health.
  • To understand the effects of livelihood diversification on the household economy and more broadly on livelihood resilience.
  • To comprehend the values and decision making at the village and the household level regarding family succession and soil conservation.

In this research project, four students are being guided by an academic supervisors from different disciplines and institutions including Indonesia as well as Europe. During the entire period of the stay in Indonesia, the students from local university (UGM) provided an assistance and  backing with all matters. This has enabled a rapid and joyful integration into the local culture and organization as well as the execution of the data collection in the field particularly with the local communities.

The data collection procedure was undertaken in the following sequence: upon arrival in the area, initial Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) were held with the farmers communities in the villages. The purpose of these FGDs was two-fold to allowe an introduction of the students to the villagers, and to enable the students to learn about the events and changes that played a role in the communities in the past. A timeline for 40 years was drawn up during these FGDs meetings highlighting relevant events and changes and marking items of interest. It provided a good initial overview of the status quo and the history of the farming systems and communities. Besides, it appeared to be an interesting introduction into the local community organisation and dynamics of both villages.

Furthermore, the household-surveys in both villages were undertaken during two weeks on basis of a questionnaires that had been prepared by the students prior their arrival to the field. Students visited the farmers early in the morning or later in the evening and asked them about the various information related to the students’ different topics of the study. The household-surveys were undertaken as a group i.e. the same questionnaire was used by all students. The questionnaires covered aspects of family structure, a land, crops, canopy coverage (trees). Also, questions regarding the use of the pesticides, the economics and livelihoods conditions, a community groups and their dynamics were included in the discussions. The result of the household-surveys was a sizeable quantitative database containing numerous indications on the different subjects of the research by the students.

Simultaneously with the household-surveys, initial soil samples and vegetation biomass measurements were implemented in (minimum) 10 fields in each village. The fields were selected further to an on-arrival exploration tour within the area of each of the village. The main findings indicates that the most  grown crops in Leksana and Penanggungan are cabbage and chilli, as well as potato in Penanggungan and maize in Leksana. The samples and data takings in the field were another interesting and valuable exposure to the local farming systems and the communities. A lot of physically intensive days in the fields and carrying around of the sampling equipment was done.

The students stayed at a farmer’ s house in Leksana village. They were also provided with food available all the time. The placement and the location enabled a vivid exchange and continuous cooperation within the group. During the stay in Penanggungan, the students stayed at a village head’s home. Altogether it was an enriching experience to stay that close with the local communities which were studied. Actually, all the students – notably the ones from Europe – were quite a sight in the villages and friendly greetings from adults and especially children were received upon the daily encounters with the local population.

Followed by the household-surveys, in-depth interviews were undertaken by the students individually, to gain more qualitative data on the topics of interest. This enabled to deepen the understanding of specific aspects of the subjects under investigation and to validate information and findings obtained in or derived from the earlier stages of the field research. Here again the assistance from the Indonesian students appeared to be a key in data collection and responses from the local communities.

During that time, the soil sampling and the biomass measurements of the different production systems proceed. The initial treatment and analyses of the soil samples were conducted in a laboratory at UGM in Yogyakarta. The whole organisation of sampling and processing was quite a logistical undertaking, yet with the dedicated support and resources made available, it was successfully completed.

It was nice to experience that with the weeks passing by, all students took benefit of being immersed in the local culture and the environment. The research project turned out to be a steep learning experience on many levels. While all students were new to each other, as well as to the geographical area of research at the start, the intense cooperation and almost non-stop pace of research activities facilitated a rapid integration into the local setting and inherently a thoughtful understanding of the communities and their farming activities.

At the end of the two-months stay in the research area, a feedback Focus Group Discussion was held in each of the two villages. Apart from being an opportunity to share initial findings and thoughts with the respective farming communities, it was also an occasion to say goodby and to thank the communities for their kind hosting and inputs provided during the field research, which is crucial to the success of the project as such.

At the time of writing this article, all students have just returned to Europe. The collected data from the field research will be analysed, written up into the respective Master theses, and ideally published via scientific channels in the coming months. In doing so, it is aimed to contribute to both a broader as well as a deeper understanding of sustainability issues affecting food security in the area. This may hopefully serve to decision makers that may have an influence on the future of the region and its farming systems and particularly to the communities.

Thus, the research project has been a unique undertaking and a great learning experience. The involvement of many different students and supervisors, from a variety of institutions, each with their own expertise, has been enriching and though requiring a great deal of coordination has created room for synergies that result in multidisciplinary assessment of the systems and communities being studied.

Herewith, a great appreciation expressed for the contribution of each single person involved in the project, students and supervisors alike, the Indonesian research assistants, the local communities, and specifically also to Agrinatura for financially enabling the entire research mission.


Some of the personal impressions by the students in regards their stay in the highlands of Central Java are shared here below:


Hermine Zimmermann, MSc student in Agriculture and Food Economy at BOKU, Austria

From the beginning on I was very excited to have an opportunity of working in an international research project that was so closely linked to my studies and personal interests. After few months, I am proud of what we managed to achieve in only three months. It was an amazing experience which from my perspective worked out so well due to the high motivation of all involved parties and because of the assistance and dedication of our Indonesian student colleagues.



Joep van der Poel, MSc student in Agricultural & Forest Sciences at Bern University of Applied Sciences, School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences (HAFL), Switzerland

Looking back at an intense, yet unique experience in the fields and homes of the farming communities in Leksana and Penanggungan as a valuable encounter with local farming practices and challenges. I very much appreciate the possibility to participate in this interdisciplinary research project, which will prove to render valuable knowledge for my future undertakings in agriculture and development.



Reinhard Rebernig, MSc student in Environment and Bio-Resources Management at BOKU, Austria

Researching resilience in socio-ecological systems of agroforestry and intense cropping farming systems in a foreign country only works, if a personal and authentic contact to the local population is possible. Facing challenging situations in connecting not only to farm-management-minds, but to a new culture and the hearts of the local population and overcoming the language barrier provided for a steep personal learning curve. I am very grateful for having been provided this exceptional opportunity, as I was not only able to gain field work experience and practice in participatory development research, make professional contacts, but in addition had lots of fun in exceptional encounters with the local population. That’s what matters most to me, as in the end people are in the centre of livelihood research.


Sara Vaca, MSc student in Natural Resources Management and Ecological Engineering at BOKU, Austria

My motivation to join this project was the opportunity to interconnect my personal background with different fields. I was really curious how social, economic and environmental aspects could fit in one research. Certainly, this combination provided us broad insights on different aspects and enriched our perspective of the reality of those communities. I feel blessed and thankful for being part of this project, as I took back with me, not just a lot of knowledge, but inspiration, life friends and incredible memories. I am sure that this experience will define many positive aspects for my professional and personal future.




Students’ Instagram posts from Asia

Facebook of Agrinatura ‘ s European students going to Asia