Junior researchers embed themselves into the daily life of a seaweed village
For almost a year, four young Indonesian researchers have been embedded in two different seaside villages as part of the PAIR major project on seaweed.
Their work has become integral to collecting data that will help with creating a more sustainable seaweed industry, and develop a deeper understanding of the communities who derive their livelihoods from it.
This commitment from the young researchers has enabled them to develop interdisciplinary skills, while also learning how to interact in a constructive way with the people who can provide the best insights.
Radhiyah and Zulung
When Radhiyah Ruhon thinks back on her time working as a researcher in a small village in South Sulawesi in years to come, it will likely be the friendships made and cultural connections built that she remembers most fondly.
Radhiyah has been living in the small village of Pitusunggu in Pangkep district for almost a year, quite a contrast to her bustling home city of Makassar which has around 1.5 million inhabitants.
She is one of four young people who have been placed in villages with a strong connection to the seaweed industry, helping with a PAIR major project on the commodity and how to create a stronger and more sustainable industry.
Another young researcher, Zulung Walyandra, also living in the village of Pitusunggu, is having a similar experience after not being sure of what to expect with this placement.
The young researchers are fisheries graduates who are more used to working with marine life than human life. Their work in the village has given them a chance to undertake high-level socio economic research and this adds to their capacity as multidisciplinary professionals.
Radhiyah has been working on two research projects in the village; one on the state of the seaweed farming industry generally and the other to gauge how much microplastic is getting into the ocean due to seaweed farming.
So what has been her experience?
“I like the village environment, not too secluded but not too crowded also.”
“There is just enough going on to release the tension from the ‘urban frenzy’,” she said.
Radhiyah stayed in the same house with a local family who made her feel welcome from their first meeting.
To make them feel at ease with her coming into their family, she made an effort to spend as much time as possible talking with her hosts, not only about seaweed farming but other aspects of life.
“I also make it a habit to bring a small gift whenever I come from Makassar, as a gesture of gratitude,” she said.
Participating in community events was also important as a way of building trust.
“I usually attend community events whenever we are invited, I see this as an opportunity to get to know village residents better and vice-versa and just get people familiar with my presence,” Radhiyah said.
Being an early riser has helped. As the sun’s first rays creep over the horizon, Radhiyah can be found on her bicycle, observing the work of the farmers and, in a small way, making them familiar with her presence.
“At this hour, some farmer’s families are usually still on the terraces of their houses where they are enjoying their morning tea.
“Often they call me to enjoy hot tea with them and we have some chit-chat about anything. Not infrequently, I am the object of conversation,” she said.
Radhiyah feels fortunate to have been assigned to Pangkep, a district where most residents share her Buginese heritage.
“Most of the villagers are Buginese, the same as me, so I found it fairly easy to fit in,” she said.
“At first I found it a bit difficult to make people talk or respond in the way I expected because I usually talk in Bahasa and my Buginese was rusty.
“But as I refined my Buginese, it became easier to interact with the farmers.
“In fact, I can feel they were more open to discuss things once they know that I can talk in their language, and they no longer see me as an outsider.”
Radhiyah has a background in marine biology and says being entrusted to work with people has been a beneficial professional leap.
“Being entrusted to work and interact closely with people as the subjects of the research has given me enriching experiences. I have been able to learn how to communicate better with other people to extract information without causing any issues, learn how to build rapport and to develop a bond with people from different backgrounds, she said.
“These are things that are not taught in any college but are very special,” she said.
The placements also came at the time of the coronavirus pandemic, and PAIR program coordinator Hasnawati Saleh had to make sure the young researchers kept themselves and others safe.
“Even though the placement was started at the height of the pandemic, things were running well and all the junior officers were embedded in the village life.”
“They were advised to take extra care for themselves and also protect all the people around them, including when returning to their family at home or in the village community.”
Radhiyah found the pandemic did not greatly affect her experience.
“I personally do not experience any hindrance due to the pandemic, there is no such significant issue. Perhaps also because people in the village seem to be not affected by the situation. It is just business as usual,” said Radhiyah.
Radhiyah is keen to build a career as a marine socio-ecologist and is delighted that her research has the potential to benefit the coastal community in which she has lived.
“I see this profession needed more than ever, where marine environmental problems often clash with the livelihoods of coastal communities,” she said.
“That is especially evident with the consequences of climate change.
“I believe that my background as a marine biologist and my passion for more social research opportunities can help me to reach this goal.”
So will she remember her time in the village?
“I got a new family, my hosts, and I am not planning on saying goodbye soon, not with their hospitality,” she said.
“In fact, I already plan to pay visits to the village later after the project ends. Not only to meet the family where I stayed but also to meet the people that I used to bother with my random questions about seaweed!”
“I think we all agree that connection with people is something that is not easily forgotten.”
Working in a coastal village was a new experience for Zulung Walyandra who was more used to working on islands. The 30-year-old has been in the fishing village for one year and the placement has heightened his curiosity to learn more.
“For me, this place is like an integrated field laboratory that provides many interesting things to research. For anyone who is interested in doing research, they can easily find topics related to resources, economy, social issues, and others.”
“Besides, working in a field like this has always been my dream. Working by interacting directly with the environment and society is a very fun activity to do every day,” he said.
Zulung also feels that his interpersonal skills have developed as he has gotten to know the residents.
“I feel like I have a new family.”
“A job where I have to interact with local people helps me to overcome my shortcomings, namely being shy and not confident in dealing with other people,” he said.
One of the pleasant memories for Zulung is running the village’s labour diary program. The program is recording the daily activities of seaweed farmers and other activities related to farmer cultivation.
“I chose a young farmer who was 20 years old to be one of the respondents. After one week he was very happy to be involved in the labour diary program because it allowed him to return to writing.”
In the future, Zulung wants to continue to be a researcher and help the community overcome the problems that occur in their livelihoods.
“According to the data I’ve read, the ratio of researchers and regions of Indonesia is not balanced.”
Zulung is hoping his experience will encourage other Indonesians to come to the village and conduct research in order to help the community solve their problems.
Zulung believes that by doing more research in coastal areas will result in better policies that benefit the community.
Imran and Risya
About 80 kilometres away in Laikang Bay in the Takalar district, two other young researchers are working with villagers on the PAIR seaweed project.
Muhammad Imran Lapong has been working with a resource network or Jaringan Sumber Daya (JASUDA), a research partner of PAIR for seaweed commodity activities. Since 2003, he has been involved in the development of a seaweed cultivation project. To date, he still enjoys his job with the local community.
“Almost every visit, we learn something new,” said Imran.
A check of his daily field observations notes has become a journal of village life.
“We mostly record what key information we find, such as ethnographic research. Like a journalist who wants to know the ins and outs of the village and what the socio-economic conditions of the village community are.”
“In this Laikang village, one hamlet with another has different community characters. For instance, the people in Puntondo hamlet are more open to accepting differences and interacting with newcomers. They respected the work of researchers in conducting surveys and visiting their houses to collect data. There may be differences that shape the culture.”
“So far, we seem to have become part of them, when there is a family event such as a wedding we are invited. The young people are also friendly and often invite us to play football.”
While Imran has almost 10 years experience working in the field, Risya Arsyi Armis is relatively new and challenged herself to explore a new sector in seaweed.
“This is the first time I have been involved in such a complex research team, from various universities. The challenge is that because all research team members are in different locations. We try to stay in touch as much as possible through various platforms because each role is very vital in this project.”
As a graduate of marine and fisheries science, she has found the seaweed mapping project interesting because it has allowed her to expand her horizons.
Like her colleagues, Risya had to make some cultural adjustments.
“Local people in Puntondo are part of the Makassar tribe, I am limited in understanding Makassar dialect. It was my first time visiting this village and I had to familiarise myself with it for the first 1-2 months. I learned a lot from Imran on how to start communicating with the farmers and encourage them to participate in this research,” Risya explained.
“If we want to ask questions related to research that want to be clarified, as much as possible we talk directly through Whatsapp and Zannie and Scott respond quickly and are really helpful. I believe being responsive is a key to the successful implementation of this project,” she concluded.
Taking part in field projects like this has enlightened Risya to future pathways.
“I am open to any opportunities in the future, hopefully it will pave the way for me to go to Australia with a scholarship for a master’s degree,” she said.
Through this project, I was skilled to be able to develop insights in qualitative research.
It takes courage to leave the bustling port city of Makassar to the far southern peninsula of Sulawesi. These young researchers are paving the way for others by showing how professional development occurs through field research while also collecting valuable information that will help the communities they are living in.
The contribution of the four researchers to the PAIR research projects has been of great value.
Image at top by Risya Arsyi for the Australia-Indonesia Centre