This is my personal narrative of an academic paper that I prepared for a discussion at the AKATIGA Center for Social Analysis last June 2016. The paper (in Bahasa) can be downloaded here: Paper_Angga_AKATIGA.

Let’s stop for a moment at the end of 1997. At that time the dry season was prolonged. Many rain-fed rice fields were practically out of production. Elsewhere, the water that remained available in irrigated fields seemed to benefit the farmers, but an explosion of pests also haunted the rice farming in the north coast. Indonesia is limping along. The agricultural subsidization that was heavily rolled out from the beginning of the New Order is now starting to weaken – the government is running out of money. Even before the monetary crisis erupted, leading to the overthrow of the New Order regime and massive riots in many Indonesian cities, farmers already knew that this would not be a good ending. It is interesting that Borgeouis and Gouyon’s review of Indonesia’s 1998 reforms states that, in their interviews with farmers, it was not the financial crisis that they feared, but the environmental crisis and their inability (in this case not only farmers, but all elements of the nation) to survive it. What happened?

But the storm did pass. And in the midst of the storm, we see many farmers and villagers doing wonders to survive the crisis. Through village granaries, informal businesses and family strength, they were able to weather the crisis and remain faithful to producing food for the community. They (in this case at least the farmers), arguably, demonstrated their capacity to remain resilient in the midst of change. The farmers were able to be resilient and adapt, and therefore the agri-food system became resilient… or at least that is the simple idea. System resilience is more important than sustainability.

The concept of resilience, or criticality, or resiliency, or resilience, has increasingly become the new buzzword for practitioners and policy makers concerned with sustainability. Of the many definitions (from the realms of psychology, ecology, engineering, disaster, etc.), I take Buzz Holling, a systems ecologist, who defines resilience as how much a system/society is able to withstand stress before it shifts to a new state of stability. Like a spring that returns to its initial position after being stressed, a resilient society or system is one that can return to its original state in the midst of crisis and change, or to a new state that is essentially the same. Rice farmers in Java who managed to survive the pest explosion and drought caused by ENSO can be said to be resilient.  Some smallholder and state-owned plantations that eventually went out of business or were burned down due to very low productivity and unprofitability, on the other hand, may not be as resilient as the previous case. Of course, the ultimate goal of national policy is to make the country’s agri-food systems (seen as an integrated production-distribution-consumption system of food commodities) highly resilient – in other words, able to withstand whatever shocks and crises come their way.

Now to the problem: resilience becomes a dilemma when we need to define what a system is, what shocks are, at what scale the system and shocks are, and what a state of stability is. For example, a conventional farming system in Java may be resilient, but the farmers within it may not be. It may also be highly resilient to climate change, but not to political shocks (and perhaps not to a combination of them, as happened in 1998). Furthermore, resilience may not be something we want. Brian Walker, also an ecologist, describes an ecological-social system that is highly resilient, but unlivable by society, and therefore changing the system to move to a new, perhaps more desirable state of stability is a necessity.

In my paper above, I talk about the theoretical framework of the concept of resilience, combining it with a sociological-historical framework that can help understand how the world’s agri-food systems change, grow, disintegrate and grow again in new forms. For academics like me, playing with theory and abstraction is exciting – it helps me understand different perspectives on the what and why of the world’s food system: why it has grown the way it has, how it has influenced the direction of our own agricultural system, and what will emerge in the next few years. For agricultural practitioners and observers, however, resilience theory may mean nothing. Small farmers are still being squeezed, industry is still destroying the environment. Or is it?

In the past twenty years, many social academics have taken on the additional task of being social activists. They are no longer just photographing the conditions of society, but also moving with the community. Academics can play a role, at least in helping to provide context – what is happening here today is inseparable from what is happening out there, so what we do here today needs to be able to synergize with what others are doing out there, past and present. Understanding resilience, in this case, leads to at least one thing: that we need to collectively enlarge the spaces of the system that we all want, that can bring more prosperity to people and preserve nature, while minimizing the spaces that oppress many people and the environment. Activism speaks to that. The more people care about local and community food, the more inclined our agri-food system will be to shift towards the desired conditions.  Indonesia’s agri-food system may eventually lose its resilience to industrialization and the exploitation of nature, and move to a new and better state of stability, at least in my opinion.

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