Carving a place for women’s rights in Indonesia’s furniture trade

Women workers finish assembling furniture. Jepara, Central Java, Indonesia. Photo credit: CIFOR
Women workers finish assembling furniture. Jepara, Central Java, Indonesia. Photo credit: CIFOR

JEPARA, Indonesia — Women have worked with wood for centuries in Jepara, the capital of Indonesia’s thriving carved teak and mahogany furniture industry. Unfortunately, recently the trees and the women whose lives depend on them have not gotten a very good deal.

After decades of over-exploitation, Indonesia’s stocks of teak and mahogany are dwindling. If Indonesia is not careful, soon there could be no trees left to carve.

Located on Java’s north coast, Jepara’s port has exported furniture for hundreds of years. Even in colonial times its products were world famous. In the 19th century Raden Adjeng Kartini, an icon of Indonesian feminism, lived here and promoted Jepara’s products to Europeans with whom she corresponded. The work was considered ‘Godly’. High standards of craftsmanship were expected.

The area was once led by powerful female rulers, Queen Shima and Queen Kalinyamat. Presumably even then, intricately carved tables, chairs and cupboards were leaving Jepara’s harbor in sailing ships.

The women who work in Jepara today are not seeing much of the profits. They still represent around half the workforce, but are typically paid just $1.50 a day – half as much as their male counterparts. Although the more skillful and lucrative jobs like carving were once done by women, these days they are largely done by men.

We at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) are based in Java. For five years we have been doing action research – studying and changing behavior in a participatory way – to improve the fortunes of both trees and workers who depend on them, especially women.

If the woodworkers make a better living from the trees they will have more incentive to manage them sustainably – for the sakes of their sons and daughters.

At present, most of the profits are absorbed by large companies, both Indonesian and foreign. The small workers have not had a voice.

In the case of the women, we have helped organize training in carving. A lot of added value comes from the carving. It is a key job.

We have also tried to help them understand marketing, and encouraged furniture makers to group together in associations. Then they can lobby on behalf of the whole industry. We got them talking to the regional government, which also has a stake in seeing the industry survive.

Teak and mahogany are both slow-growing trees. Mahogany can take 25 years to grow before they are ready to harvest. In the case of teak, we have identified a fast-growing variety developed by selective breeding which can be ready to harvest in around five years. We encouraged the furniture makers to grow their own trees, to boost their income.

These fast-growing teak trees are worth up to $50 within five years – a very large sum for most Indonesians.

In Jepara, we have something unique, and quality is high. Jepara has its own traditional designs, but fashions and tastes change. To get more ‘added value’, we have encouraged furniture makers to think of their own designs, based on tradition but with an added touch to satisfy the market’s fashions — which in turn should command a higher price.

There is also the ‘green certificate’ – new for Indonesia, but increasingly required by foreign countries by law. Now Jepara’s furniture makers can obtain one that is internationally recognized.

Not all the obstacles have been cleared away. Nevertheless, results are starting to show.

More women are learning carving skills. Statistics show the incomes of small-scale furniture makers are increasing. They have an association recognized by the government. Furniture officially certified as ‘environmentally-friendly’ is now being produced. The landscape is lined with planted teak and the local parliament has passed a law to support the industry and promote ‘green’ furniture.

For Indonesia, the stakes are by no means small. Government officials are starting to see that these efforts makes economic sense as well as ecological sense. Carved furniture is a major Indonesian export — one of the biggest.

Jepara’s furniture exports are worth around $120 million annually. The industry employs 120,000 people in Jepara alone. Without wood, they could join the ranks of Indonesia’s millions of unemployed.

Written by: Dr. Herry Purnomo
Affiliation: Center for International Forestry Research
Country: Indonesia

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