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In Indonesian Papua, a one-time gun trafficker now preaches permaculture

Mbah Gimbal

Mbah Gimbal, who once sold illegal firearms, now shares the principles of permaculture in one of Indonesia’s poorest regions. Image by Tantowi Djauhari.

  • The son of a soldier, Mbah Gimbal was once an illegal gun runner operating in various parts of Indonesia.
  • After a year in jail, he embarked on a seven-year journey of spiritual enlightenment across Java on foot.
  • Mbah Gimbal then migrated to Papua to start a new life, where, along with his wife and like-minded associates, he established a community education center and permaculture farm.
  • Since then, he has taught hundreds of students and their parents the principles of permaculture and environmental conservation.

SORONG, Indonesia — Thriving across half a hectare in the hills of West Papua’s Mariat district are mustard greens, long beans, spinach, chilies and tomatoes. There’s also fruit such as watermelon and soursop, and tubers including taro, cassava and sweet potatoes. These bountiful crops have all been planted by Mbah Gimbal, who once sold illegal firearms but now shares the principles of permaculture in one of Indonesia’s poorest regions.

When he established the farm in 2018, on land next to a graveyard, Mbah Gimbal first planted porang, a type of tuber commonly found in the area. Since then, 2,500 porang seeds have grown into seedlings.

Originally from Malang in East Java province, Eko Task Kusno Setio, who goes by Mbah Gimbal (a nod to his prominent dreadlocks, known in Indonesian as rambut gimbal, or “messy hair”), practices permaculture, a model of farming that prioritizes balance and sustainability and is supported by patterns of permanent agriculture.

“This is the culture of our ancestors that was lost, and which must be developed again,” he said in an interview. “These days, so-called modern agriculture, modern farming, doesn’t use conservation principles. In permaculture, it is these principles that are most important.”

For Mbah Gimbal, agricultural modernization is “nonsense” and exacerbates environmental damage. Directly or indirectly, farmers are taught to depend on chemicals. That means all their needs, from seeds to fertilizers and medicines, can’t be separated from industrial production methods, Mbah Gimbal said. This, he added, all boils down to capitalist business interests.

With the concept of permaculture, farmers work with nature while maintaining ecological balance, he said.

For fertilizer, Mbah Gimbal collects organic waste such as discarded fruit and vegetables from the community, which he ferments with local microorganisms he cultures himself. While most farmers use inorganic mulch made from synthetic materials such as plastic, which over time damages the soil, Mbah Gimbal produces his own organic mulch from weeds and leaves.

“This is how we become independent farmers, not dependent on anything or anyone,” he said. “Everything is collected from nature and the environment.”

Mbah Gimbal in Kompipa
Mbah Gimbal in Kompipa, the “nature school” where children from surrounding villages can study. Image by Tantowi Djauhari.

Many years before becoming a permaculture practitioner, Mbah Gimbal was a successful duck breeder in Java who owned an incubator with a capacity for 12,000 birds. The eggs were processed into salted duck eggs and purchased by traders from across East Java and as far as Bali. He also had a side business selling used cars.

Just as it did for countless others across the region, the 1998 Asian financial crisis left Mbah Gimbal bankrupt. Despite selling all his livestock assets he was unable to pay his debts, while his used car business was also unable to sustain him.

“At that time I was preparing to get married,” he said. “But it was called off because I went bankrupt. My prospective in-laws did not approve.”

It appeared to Mbah Gimbal that the only business that withstood the financial crisis and remained lucrative was the illegal firearms trade. Before his duck farming and used car businesses collapsed, he had already begun making inroads into the black market for weapons.

The son of a soldier, Mbah Gimbal was introduced to firearms when he joined the military service program in 1988. Back then, conscription was mandatory for the children of military personnel. During his training, Mbah Gimbal stood out as a sniper. Those same rifle skills later gained him membership in Perbakin, the national shooting association of Indonesia.

His fellow members in the association had impressive firearms collections, a mix of domestically produced and imported guns. Mbah Gimbal set out on his own buying and selling weapons illegally. He kept it secret from even his father.

From East Java, Mbah Gimbal’s gun running soon expanded to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. In the latter, he caught the attention of a timber baron who requested his services as a bodyguard. But in 1999, Mbah Gimbal was arrested by police, having been on their radar too for several years.

Mbah Gimbal
Mbah Gimbal, who once sold illegal firearms, now shares the principles of permaculture in one of Indonesia’s poorest regions. Image by Tantowi Djauhari.

After a year in jail, during which he vowed to leave the illegal firearms trade, he settled in Sampit, in the Bornean province of Central Kalimantan, as a place of refuge. There, he met a Sufi teacher who remains his spiritual guide to the present day. For a year, Mbah Gimbal underwent a process of spiritual cleansing, before his teacher instructed him to embark on a pilgrimage across Java, giving him not a penny but only this advice: “Ask for nothing, reject nothing, keep nothing.”

For seven years, Mbah Gimbal traversed a large part of the island on foot, meeting religious leaders and visiting the graves of those who had died. He began at the Great Mosque of Demak in Central Java, traveled to Cirebon in West Java, then along the southern coast to Banyuwangi in East Java, before returning to Demak. He walked this route three times.

“I learned that we have to be grateful for what we have, and that we shouldn’t mess around,” he said.

After completing his spiritual journey, Mbah Gimbal was invited to establish an Islamic boarding school in Jepara, Central Java. This venture only lasted a year, however, and in 2015 he migrated to Papua, in Indonesia’s far east.

He first tried his hand selling the popular meatball-and-noodles soup bakso in the city of Sorong. But the social inequality he witnessed there discomfited him. Things didn’t improve when he moved to a new location, where he witnessed many Indigenous Papuan children skipping school and sniffing glue. These conditions prompted him to establish a social association, Komunitas Peduli Papua (Papua Care Community, which goes by the portmanteau Kompipa).

Together with his wife and several like-minded associates, Mbah Gimbal opened a “nature school” and visited local villages to invite children to study. Kompipa manages donation opportunities for the school.

“Our initial target was how these 12-year-old Papuan children could achieve basic literacy and numeracy levels,” he said.

As soon as the nature school program was up and running, Mbah Gimbal’s focus shifted to the students’ parents through a “work with nature” program, with permaculture on the curriculum.

In the years since, hundreds of people have learned about permaculture from Mbah Gimbal, both at this permaculture farm and in their own villages. He continues to share natural ways of planting with permaculture patterns, helping the community meet its need for healthy food, while also preserving the environment.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on July 24, 2022.

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