Dean’s Column: Sustainable economic development visions in West Sumatra, Indonesia

There are new opportunities for Hawaiʻi as an agricultural technology node and as a model for self-reliant food and food production in tropical islands.

By Bruce Mathews, dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.

Ardi. Mathews, and Evensen standing for photo
(Left to right) Dr. Ardi from Andalas University, West Sumatra, Indonesia; UH Hilo CAFNRM Dean Bruce Mathews; and UH Mānoa CTAHR Natural Resource Management Specialist Carl Evensen, at Sherman Hall, UH Mānoa.

On 13-14 November, 2017, I was invited to Honolulu to meet with a delegation from West Sumatra, Indonesia to the East-West Center, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), and the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. The delegation included the governor of West Sumatra, The Hon. Irwan Prayitno, and the former dean of the faculty of agriculture at Andalas University in Padang, West Sumatra, Dr. Ardi.

Dr. Ardi presented a talk on the outcomes 30 years henceforth of the TropSoils Indonesia project conducted by CTAHR, the Indonesian Center for Soils Research, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Sumatra during the 1980s. The project developed sustainable agricultural practices based on integrated nutrient and pest management for resource limited farmers cultivating the regions acidic, low-fertility soils. Overall the economic standing of local residents improved as a result of the project however there are new challenges that need to be addressed for farmers to sustainably intensify their operations and be resilient in the face of climate change and other stresses.

In order for their agricultural, forestry, and aquacultural-fisheries industries to be globally competitive while providing for local needs they are seeking a new round of collaboration with Hawaiʻi and other global partners. They envision partnerships and hosting faculty and students from Hawaiʻi to study agricultural and aquacultural input optimization by further refining the integrated approaches that include locally sourced inputs, soil microbial adjuvants to optimize soil health and plant nutrition, coupled with the latest in precision agricultural technologies (sensors, automation, robotics, etc.) and real-time, data-driven, on-line decision support systems and cell phone apps. This is an opportunity for us as the agriculture technology revolution is picking up speed fast in the Asian tropics.

Billions of investment dollars are going into both agricultural biotech and the precision agricultural technologies. Microbial adjuvant start-up companies that deal with plant-microbe
interactions are increasing and many leaders in the soil-plant research arena claim that microbial manipulations to optimize soil health and plant nutrition will be a big part of future agriculture in order to reduce the amount of fertilizer required. And cutting edge labs in California, China, and India are initiating amazing projects on genetic innovations and synthetic metabolic pathways that will surely impact agriculture and associated food, feed, fiber, and biofuel product processing in the decades ahead.

These innovations will contribute to more efficient use of inputs, reduced pollution, and greater resilience to climatic stress. And while there is little chance for much acceptance by the organic farming sector, and people who share their rigid ideology against human engineered processes, we must also accept that organic farming cannot solve all the challenges of an agriculture that has to provide for a population of 10 billion in 2050 (Kirchmann et al., 2016; McGuire, 2017). The path forward will no doubt have to be holistic, integrative, innovative and balanced or we will enter a dark phase by continuing on current business as usual paths which are providing less than desired ecological and economic dividends.

Economically viable farming is increasingly data-based and these data will have their greatest value if combined and aggregated in useful ways. Big data will be a huge part of agriculture’s future where decision support systems are linked to on farm data, weather, crop growth stage, etc. This will allow farmers to understand what is happening on their farms at a higher level than ever before and make appropriate realtime decisions for the management of inputs such as fertilizers and feed supplements and other practices. Robotic machine learning algorithms will allow for automatic detection of unhealthy, diseased, and otherwise undesired plants like weeds and eliminate them from the system. Unmanned aerial vehicles with powerful hyperspectral cameras can be used to estimate biomass development and nutrient status of crops. Globally, financially constrained farmers are recognizing that precision management which embeds input optimization is key to their future economic success and ag techie analyst consulting services are expanding (Wortmann and Kaizzi, 2016; Walter et al., 2017).

West Sumatra Governor Prayitno presented a thorough overview of his continuing vision of sustainable economic development in West Sumatra however it was clear that some graduate students in the audience did not embrace a holistic an integrated view of how to balance resource conservation, socialistic ideals, and sustainable economic development. Governor Prayitno calmly answered their comments and talked about the livelihood needs of West Sumatra’s 5.2 million residents and what sustainable economic development entails in terms of a balance among environmentally friendly production/business practices, local food self-sufficiency, conservation, preservation, and restoration. One graduate student had fears that the Mantawai Islands, a growing mecca for surfing, would one day become another Bali or Waikiki. Governor Prayitno answered that as long as the islands are primarily a destination for venturous surfers there is unlikely to be the emergence of environmental problems any time soon.

Considerations for Hawai’i

This brings me to more local considerations for Hawai‘i. On the way out of Governor Prayitno’s talk, an American graduate student and I had a talk about how we are good at turning out graduates with strong conservationist/protectionist mindsets and socialistic ideals but not so much in terms of sustainable economic development which is key for providing a tax base for the social good that sound governance seeks to perform. Specifically, we talked about ecological imperialism and the hypocrisy/illusion of some of our well-intentioned conservation/preservation advocates and how Hawaiʻi can’t really be a model for tropical island nation states until we start producing more of our own food and wood/fiber products. Our hypocrisy is rooted in the fact that we tend to import many of these products from regions of the world with much weaker environmental regulatory policies and quality controls than we have.

Hence, our illusion of natural resource conservation and preservation is greater global environmental degradation than if we produced and extracted our own resources in an environmentally prudent and resilient manner, especially given that we have the expertise (Berlik et al., 2002). The essentials for human sustenance have to come from somewhere so why not locally? I have tired of going to local environmental meetings because the cautionary protectionist ethic reigns with little holistic discussion of local consumption patterns and their implications, not to mention increased risks of more invasive species coming in with imported produce.

For inspiration on how to take next steps we may wish to look to the New England region of the USA which has a long history of environmental protectionism. Through the University of New Hampshire, Harvard University, and Food Solutions New England they have recently articulated a vision for more of their landscape to be managed as sustainable woodlands for locally used wood products and for farms that actually produce healthy food for the region rather than as increasingly subdivided accommodations for rural gentrified living and retirement communities (Donahue et al., 2014; Foster et al., 2017).

We can also no longer discount the reality of capital-intensive, greenhouse contained horticultural food crop production. The good news is that if it works in hostile climates like the Northeast and Northern Europe, there’s a reasonable chance it can work in Hawaiʻi. Our challenge is finding people with the investment funds. Small farms are making a comeback in New England, Northern California, and parts of Canada however this is largely due to people who have funds for the resources to be competitive and because the local consumers are increasingly willing to pay the costs of environmentally friendly local production. Compared to Hawaiʻi it is indeed surprising to see that these regions are increasingly packed with glasshouse production of vegetables (tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers, etc.) and a significant portion of the local populace would rather pay more for local products than out-of-state/international imports.


Berlik, M.M., D.B. Kittredge, and D.R. Foster. 2002. The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources. J. Biogeography 29:1557-1568.

Donahue, B., et al. 2014. A New England Food Vision: Healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, thriving communities. Food Solutions New England and Univ. of New Hampshire, Durham, NH.

Foster, D., et al. 2017. Wildlands and Woodlands: Farmlands and communities, broadening the vision for New England. Harvest Forest, Harvard University, Petersham, MA.

Kirchmann, H., T. Kätterer, L. Bergström, G. Börjesson, and M.A. Bolinder. 2016. Flaws and criteria for design and evaluation of comparative organic and conventional cropping systems. Field Crops Res. 186:99-106.

McGuire, A. M. 2017. Agricultural science and organic farming: Time to change our trajectory. Agric. Environ. Lett. 2:170024.

Walter, A., R. Finger, R. Huber, and N. Buchman. 2017. Smart farming is key to developing sustainable agriculture. Nature 114:6148-6150.

Wortmann, C., and K. Kaizzi. 2016. Optimization of financially constrained fertilizer use. p. 67-75. In A. Chatterjee and D. Clay (ed.) Optimization of financially constrained fertilizer use. ASA, CSSA, and SSSA, Madison, WI.

This column was originally published in the CAFNRM/Agriculture Club Newsletter, Nov-Dec 2017 Issue 1.