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Indonesia - The story goes that in the 16th Century an artisan from Champa appeared and taught Jepara’s residents a new style of woodworking. That fateful arrival turned the town – once surrounded by teak forests – into a center of creative carving.

Today, the natural teak forests are gone, but the people continue to shape, sand and sculpt wood, now obtained from planted forests further afield.

“It’s in our blood,” says Nur Hamidah, a woodcarving champion and master craftswoman who has been working with wood in Jepara for 25 years.

“This is work we have all known since we were kids – this job is like our own family,” she says, gesturing in a way reminiscent of prayer.

Jepara’s industry is dominated by small and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs) that line the large and little lanes of the city of two million. And those small businesses depend on the efforts of a workforce that embraces the town’s unique preoccupation.

   Women carve wood on the side of the road at a small enterprise in Jepara. Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR

“Jepara has a long history of woodworking and small enterprises, with both men and women playing a part. But women probably make half what men do,” says Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist Herry Purnomo. Purnomo has worked in the area for years with projects that aim to increase women’s skills in the industry and to boost the use of sustainably sourced wood, which contributes to improved market access and conservation priorities.

FRICTION

Zaekah works at one of Jepara’s small workshops; she is a grandmother who does the manual labor needed for small industries to produce furniture that sits in cafes in Sydney and hotels in Abu Dhabi.

Bent over slabs of teakwood, alternately with a belt sander and old-fashioned sandpaper, sawdust creates a hot cloud around her and her colleagues who are settled on small stools.

“I make IDR 35,000 [USD 2.60] a day,” she states simply when asked about her wages.

   Zaekah sands furniture every day at a small workshop in Jepara. Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR
   A man waits to load logs of teak wood off a truck in Jepara, Central Java. Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR

Workshop owner and Zaekah’s boss Mbak Njum says that it is becoming harder to find women like Zaekah to sand and finish the furniture produced in her shop, jobs usually done by women. Garment factories are moving into the area, and offer alluring job opportunities to young women, with better pay and working conditions free of sawdust and splinters.

This narrative of a novel new industry arriving may, in a strange turn, echo the story those in Jepara tell of the town’s artisanal origins, but now with the modern twist of global business.

EXCEPTIONAL

Triana, the office manager at Mbak Njum’s, describes the skills required of women in the workshop.

“I think women are more attentive when they sand furniture, because they don’t just rub the pieces, they understand the technique. Our job might not be perfect, but having workers to do this sanding work is one reason why companies can do business,” she says.

There is no doubt the work is gendered, with women handling finishing tasks such as sanding and adding appliques, and men working large logs of teak at sawmills, as well as doing carving and artisanal work. There are of course exceptions, like Nur Hamidah and the group of women she works with, who are part of a dedicated group of female carvers in the area.

“Women generally have little control over resources, decision-making and inputs in product development, and are particularly vulnerable to changes in demand and supply, and other disruptions that occur in the marketplace,” Purnomo says.

“The situation for women needs to be improved,” he adds. One step has been the creation of the Jepara Women Entrepreneur’s (JWE) Association few years ago, a group that works for better opportunities for women in all aspects of the trade.

With Jepara exporting goods worth about USD 150 million a year – approximately 10 percent of the country’s total exports – the industry is an important one, especially in a country presided over by a furniture seller. So improving pay and conditions for women in the area would be a major step forward in a crucial industry.

   A woman pauses during her wood carving efforts in Jepara. Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR

Triana yearns for a return to the time when Jepara was bustling with export business. “More buyers coming, more orders coming, that could help to preserve this industry. In Jepara, the furniture industry creates jobs to support people’s lives. So I still hope people in Jepara can continue to do this work,” she says.

For Zaekah, sanding remains her occupation of choice, and one of the few jobs available to her. One of her daughters used to work with her as a furniture sander, but has left for the greener pasture, so to speak, of the garment factory. That choice, even if she were to want it, is not available to Zaekah, as workers there are required to be under 30 years of age. But Zaekah, who lives in a simple home with her husband, daughter, new granddaughter and a cow they’ve just invested in for extra income, says she likes her job and still prefers it to laboring in the fields.

   A woman wraps a stool for export to Sydney at a workshop in Jepara. Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR
   A woman wraps a stool to ready for shipment to Australia.
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This research was supported by UK aid from the UK government.
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Topic(s) :   Timber legality Gender

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