Dean’s Column: Travels to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, November 2016

It was a good trip that left me with lots to consider with respect challenges and opportunities for our future.

By Bruce Mathews.

Group of people gathered for photo, background is beautiful landscape with sloping cliffs dropping off into water.
(l-r) With my wife Grenia, Monica (an Indonesian graduate student), Sylvia (the wife of Dr. Ardi), Dr. Ardi (Dean of Agriculture at Andalas University in Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia), and Thao Nguyen (a Vietnamese graduate student who is studying weed management options in upland rice farming systems). More photos of the trip.


Bruce Mathews
Bruce Mathews

After presentation of an invited talk entitled, “Phosphorus, Sustainability, and Advancing Nutrient Management,” at the 3rd International Seminar on the Sciences in Precision and Sustainable Agriculture in Bogor, Indonesia (near Jakarta on the Island of Java), I visited Bogor Agricultural University, and toured their facilities and field stations. This included visiting their climate smart agriculture program in the Department of Geophysics and Meteorology, visiting with their faculty and some local ag industry leaders, and presenting a talk on the chemistry of phosphorus in agricultural systems to their chemistry department which was followed by an overview of agriculture in Hawai‘i. Their climate smart agriculture program is connected to several remote real-time rainforest monitoring stations throughout the country with several more under construction.

Next my wife Grenia and I then flew to Padang in West Sumatra where we were hosted by 1986 University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources alumnus, Dr. Ardi, who is now the Dean of Agriculture for Andalas University. For several years Dr. Ardi had been looking forward to a visit from someone from UH agriculture to interact with their students. While Andalas is a university of about 20,000 students, the city of Padang was a lot more rural and less congested then Jakarta and Bogor.

After presenting the same talks at Andalas University for their faculty and students we toured the surrounding areas used for agriculture, forestry, and mining. Many of the farms were mixed operations where some family members raised horticultural food crops while others (usually women) raised ornamentals and had floriculture operations in greenhouses primarily for local markets. Vegetable farmers discussed huge pest and disease challenges and how they favored integrated approaches to deal with the problems.

On the larger scale in Indonesia there were of course the massive and highly controversial oil palm plantations, new plantings of Arenga sugar palm plantations for ethanol that are claimed to be more environmentally friendly, and tea plantations. Sugarcane and rice were grown primarily by small independent farmers. At both Andalas University and Bogor Agricultural University I was informed that some of Indonesia’s major agricultural challenges are that most of the farms are small, the farmers cannot easily increase their scale for improved economic efficiency, and that the farmers are not usually organized into effective cooperatives to improve their positioning in the marketplace to purchase inputs and improve product distribution and sales.

I was informed that the sugarcane industry suffers from inefficiencies associated with antiquated mills and lack of cane feedstock quality control with all the small independent growers. Similarly it was conveyed that rice production would improve if the better farmers could more easily expand their land holdings. The water and fertilizer saving System of Rice Intensification (SRI) that has been widely advocated by non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) was not strongly endorsed by any of the academics or farmers that I met with.

The major complaints were that it does not consistently work well across locations or growing seasons, and (or) promotes weed problems that require a lot more labor. The various “natural/nature farming” methods being promoted by NGO’s were considered crop nutrient management disasters because the supercharged indigenous microbe additions could not release nutrients from the soils and organic inputs in synchrony with crop demands and most beneficial effects were attributed primarily to the added substrates rather than the microbes themselves.

Organic farming of horticultural crops was considered highly lucrative when positioned close to large cities with a critical mass of upscale consumers with the means and desire to pay significantly greater prices. Organic farming growth is constrained by availability of high quality organic inputs of manures and composts.

There were lots of discussions about improved nutrient recycling and technologies to recover nutrients from locally mined sources. As expected the views on biotechnology were mixed however people tended to be open minded about future possibilities that could help tropical agriculture better meet regional needs.

Climate change was discussed with respect to greater average nighttime temperatures in the uplands, salt water intrusion in the lowlands, and more erratic rainfall distribution patterns. Andalas University already has quite a few international students through the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) University Network and is very interested in forming exchanges with UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM) and the College of Pharmacy.

They have one of the top five pharmacy programs in Indonesia. My one regret was not having time to visit the nearby Mentawai Islands just off the coast of Padang where there are world class waves without the crowds of Hawai‘i’s top breaks. Instead we took the short Air Asia flight from Padang to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the weekend to visit a family member who works there.


The international airport is quite a drive from the Kuala Lumpur city center and you see miles of oil palm plantations on your way into the city. Kuala Lumpur itself reminded me of a much larger Honolulu with a China Town and all. There are lots of interesting places to visit there such as the Batu Caves, the Royal Selangor pewter operation, etc. The most surprising thing was encountering quite a few Syrian and Yemenis refugees who were accepted by Malaysia as a fellow Muslim country. Based on discussions it was apparent that many were from middle class backgrounds but are now living in poverty as they used up all their savings and now lack the means to make a living in Malaysia. I did not have time to explore more of Malaysia beyond the Kuala Lumpur area.


Next we flew to Manila, Philippines. What a difference compared to my last visit nearly five years ago! The international airport was clean and modernized, customs and immigration clearances were fast, and there was even a welcoming live band. One quickly starts to hear about the changes under their new President Rodrigo Duterte who most Filipino citizens seem to consider favorably (despite negative press in the USA and Western Europe) as they simply want law, order, and reduced corruption and habitual criminals, even if it contradictorily means going to extremes (extrajudicial actions) to implement. You also soon hear about his $3.00 book entitled, “The Duterte Manifesto,” which some enthusiastic supporters around the country handout to visitors for free.

There is very little of the former disorderly chaos (hustlers, scammers, and insane traffic) when you exit the airport. Taxi driver’s talk about how they now comply with the metering requirements, que up orderly, and that people will call the government hotline if they have complaints and it is not worth the trouble to risk getting in trouble. The roads from the airport to Roxas Boulevard along Manila Bay were the cleanest and the traffic was the smoothest flowing that my wife who grew up in the Philippines says that she has ever seen. The hustlers, homeless, beggars, and drug dealers were almost completely gone from the parks and Harbor Square Bayfront sidewalks near the Cultural Center of the Philippines where we strolled on a Sunday morning.

Yet one is left to wonder what became of these people and what will be done to address the underlying causes of such problems that also still plague wealthier countries that unlike the Philippines have government run social safety nets.

The following day we were flying off to Kalibo on the north-eastern part of the Island of Panay to visit Aklan State University where its respective colleges are located at five different campuses, which we all visited over several days while being hosted by their president, Dr. Danilo Abayon, who had been looking forward to a possible visit from UH Hilo CAFNRM for several years.

Their College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Environmental Science, School of Veterinary Medicine, and School of Arts and Sciences are located at the Banga (main) campus. The downtown Kalibo campus is the smallest campus yet has the largest enrollment in its College of Industrial Technology. The New Washington campus is on the coast of the highly productive Sibuyan Sea and is home to an extremely impressive College of Fisheries and Marine Sciences with its numerous commercial-scale teaching, research, and extension operations and mangrove/estuarine system restoration projects.

Their fisheries program could be a wonderful opportunity for our aquaculture students to gain experience with large scale operations in the tropics.

It was amazing to see what hands-on PhD faculty with a heavy teaching load can accomplish when they were provided considerable support staffing coupled with requirements for students to provide service to the program. This being said, it is no doubt easier to mandate such hands-on service by students when the government rather than tuition covers 90%+ of educational costs.

The Makato campus is home to a teacher education program which places great emphasis on incorporating sustainable livelihood technologies into the curriculum. The very friendly Ibajay campus is home to their College of Hospitality and Rural Resource Management.

I also found this campus to be cutting edge with their hiring of some faculty (professors of practice) with extensive upscale hotel and restaurant management experience and considerable emphasis on sustainability and eco-tourism. The majority of Philippine tourism attractions are nature-based and the focus at Aklan state is on polices that strengthen rural communities while protecting the environment from human-induced degradation.

Many of their students do internships at the nearby resorts and tour businesses on the world famous 4.5 mile-long white-sand island of Boracay which is 15 minutes by boat from the barangay of Caticlan in the municipality of Malay, Aklan. Boracay is definitely geared to attract the young crowd that is into marine aquatic activities, seafood buffets, and fun nightlife.

Accommodations range from budget to five-star however there is a definite fear that the Island will turn into the congested Waikiki-Miami Beach of the Philippines.

Finally, we visited our own Dr. Norman Arancon’s alma mater for his B.S. degree, Xavier University – Ateneo de Caga-yan, on the northern part of the main southern Philippine Island of Mindanao. At Xavier we were hosted by Dr. Arancon’s former classmate, Dr. Maria “Charie” Mosqueda who is now Dean for their College of Agriculture which has 560 students.

The major regional topics of discussion at Xavier were the challenges faced by farmers expanding agronomic cropping into acidic, phosphorus deficient volcanic-derived upland soils with residual andic properties (despite the fact that none of them classify as Andisols); carbon sequestration in these soils; limited farmer use of soil testing services; accelerated decline during the past decade in the economic viability of small scale farming to support a family; sustainable rural development; contracted short-term (7 to 8 year) albizia cultivation by small farmers for the Paper Industry Corporation of the Philippines (PICOP) and the limited information on potential impacts pro (increased soil N supply) or con (soil acidification) on subsequent agricultural crops like corn or cassava; rural social justice issues; and inflated Mindanao security risks disseminated in Western governmental travel advisories etc. and their negative impact on the economy and international partnerships.

UH Hilo presently has an exchange agreement with Xavier however concerns were discussed regarding the fact that the exchange has been one way with none of our students going there. It was suggested that we might explore a June short course program on their campus as a bridge to entice some of our students to exchange for a full semester.

General observations

Some often repeated concerns that were brought up throughout this trip were a lack of Southeast Asian cultural and historical awareness by young Americans and Europeans who travel to the region. This also included some comments regarding limited awareness of the colonial legacies and post-colonial interventions by Western powers. Who can deny that general education and international cultural literacy should be improved in America? It was frequently mentioned that the role of American bridges to the region such as USAID and the East-West Center had dimin-ished too much during the past two decades and that it would be good if more American students, especially from Hawaiʻi, visited the region.

Muslims in the region were concerned about misperceptions in the West and wanted it to be known that they want peace, friendship, exchange of ideas and religious tolerance and don’t want radicalization. Some conveyed that recent external influences from Saudi Arabia were instigators for extremist viewpoints relative to the moderate and more tolerant Islamic norms in the region.

It is also worth noting that we received quite a bit of inquiry about the social fabric of America in terms of race relations, how mixed marriages (race and religion) work, the 2nd amendment issues, gay rights, etc.

On a very positive note, social scientists were happy about efforts in Hawaiʻi to revitalize Hawaiian language and cultural awareness.

During discussions the people we encountered would first generally state the party line rhetoric of their belief systems (religious, political, etc.) and then open up to dialogue with respectful inquiry. Some wanted to know what we thought about America’s future role in the world given numerous recent setbacks as a global policeman coupled with the increasing power of China. US President Obama was loved but often perceived as a bit too soft. Most viewed incoming US President Trump as someone who could escalate tensions with China which could definitely cause regional turmoil.

This being said some openly suggested that they would like to see some counterbalance to China’s influence which they consider excessive in certain aspects.

It was a good trip that left me with lots to consider with respect challenges and opportunities for our future.

Bruce Mathews is dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. His areas of research are plant nutrient cycling and soil fertility; assessment of the impact of agricultural and forestry production practices on soil, coastal wetlands, and surface waters; and nutrient management practices for pastures, forests, and field crops in the tropics (learn more about his research). He received his bachelor of science in agriculture, with high honors, from UH Hilo in 1986. He received his master of science in agronomy from Louisiana State University and his doctor of philosophy in agronomy, with a minor in animal science, from the University of Florida. Contact.