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Traditional Craftswomen Step into Modern World

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93-year-old batik craftswoman leans over her loom, opens her betel-stained red mouth, and asks me where I come from. I explain how I have been living in Jakarta and traveled for days to reach her village of Rembang. I am with the Indonesian Pluralism Institute co-founder, William Kwan, visiting a rural batik village. She smiles and continues the questioning. "How did you get here so fast?"

We know that cars, planes and modern transportation systems allow for rapid travel, increased dissemination of goods, and the spread of cultural identity. But in a nation like Indonesia, comprised of 17,000 islands, change takes time. For Grandma Sukini, who has never left her village of Desha Jerk, Central Java, our visit was a glimpse of a larger world. A glimpse was enough. Grandma Sukini looked away, bored and distracted, and returned her attention to the familiar. She picked up the batiking tool, dipped it into hot wax, and continued the motif she had begun months before.

How can business and culture sustain each other? Can economics save a cultural tradition? To address these important questions, the nonprofit Indonesian Pluralism Institute (IPI) has developed a pilot project, The Revitalization of Batik Lames Culture in Rumbaing Regency, Central Java Province. They are searching for the best policy models and practices to preserve the traditional batik culture of rural craftswomen. IPI co-founder, William Kwan, an ethnic Chinese-Indonesian, established the pilot project in September 2006 in Desha Jerk, Decimatin Pancur (Orange Village of Pancur District), Rembang Regency, Central Java. Rembang Regency is a dry and poor coastal area located on the borderline between Central Java Province and East Java Province. It's the second poorest region in Java island.

Desa Jeruk was selected as the pilot project not because it is home to top level pembatik (batik craftswomen) but because it is a dry and poor village with many pembatik kasar (low skilled batik craftswomen). The project started with one unemployed pembatik with hidden leadership talent who organized an unemployed batik craftswomen's business group. The group is named for Srikandi, a courageous heroine in a traditional Indonesian wayang tale. The villagers use their new business leadership skills to promote batik production and marketing. After a year of capacity building the women's group is the income center for 11 pembatiks. They produce and sell simple batik fabrics, including experimental organic batik dyes.

IPI's program is a complex, holistic mix of governance, micro-finance, community development, education, cultural heritage revival, research, and leadership training. It was recognized with the 2007 Danamon Bank Community Empowerment Award, and is continuing this momentum through strong partnerships with organizations such as Peace X Peace (www.peacexpeace.org) and a forthcoming partnership with Harvard Pluralism Project (www.pluralism.org). IPI's development model stands to be replicated across Indonesia and beyond.

Lucy Heffern, Indonesia

For further information on the Indonesian Pluralism Institute, visit their website: www.batiklasem.org (still in a trial Indonesian version), or contact William Kwan: williamkwanhl@yahoo.com/ kwan.hwieliong@gmail.com


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