Sitting in Mbak Njum’s tiny office in the coastal Central Java town of Jepara, talk was of exports, trends in furniture styles, cargo containers and logistics.
“Business used to be much better, and Western Europe used to be my biggest market,” said Mbak Njum, who has had her business since 1997. She added that Indonesian customers now make up 10 percent of her sales. A whiteboard in her office noted where else her items were headed: Saudi Arabia, Canada, Australia.
Jepara’s economy – almost completely dedicated to wood products – has experienced booms and busts over the decades. The 1998 Asian financial crisis actually opened up its export market, but 2008’s global economic collapse meant declines and a pivot to local buyers.
Scientist Herry Purnomo from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has been working in the area for years, supporting the use of certified and legal wood and improved supply chains to benefit the town’s many small- and medium-scale enterprises.
“Almost 30 percent of Jepara’s economy relies on furniture. If furniture disappears from Jepara, then the woodcarving culture will disappear too. Woodcraft carving and furniture-making are essential to Jepara and they need raw materials, and those raw materials are trees – specifically teak and mahogany,” he said.
Just last year, Indonesia’s timber legality assurance system (SVLK) was the first in the world to be approved for the European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) license, which allows legal timber and timber products to smoothly enter Europe’s markets. With this license, people are hoping for a boon for Jepara’s small businesses.
To say that Jepara’s economic life is centered around wood and woodcrafts would be an understatement. The town’s streets are littered with scenes of logs being loaded onto and off of trucks, women carving intricate designs at roadside stalls, men cutting and measuring slabs of teak, and a motley assortment of furniture available for sale at shops both large and small.
Pak Tafrikhan owns one of those stores, complete with a workshop in the back where his furniture is made and sold to Jakartans, and people in Dubai and Taiwan. Like any true entrepreneur, he is passionate about his craft and a keen observer of trends.
“My father’s principle was, don’t be afraid to make things; they’ll always sell. I still remember that message, so I never hesitate to produce. They’ll definitely sell because furniture has an extraordinarily wide-ranging market share. It depends on which segment we direct it towards,” he said, gesturing to an intricately grained teak coffee table of his own design.
Jepara has definitely cornered the market in Indonesia, so now the question is certification and licenses to expand. Many in the town aren’t yet knowledgeable about how to get their products certified, or are avoiding the levels of bureaucracy involved.
“Is the SVLK beneficial in financial terms? Perhaps it hasn’t been yet. But if this can be done, at least it will change the furniture industry’s culture in Jepara,” small business owner Pak Trisno said as the sun set at his warehouse.
As a carved relief of the Beatles serenaded men wrapping coffee table tops and women prepping stools and chairs to be sent to Australia, a carving of Jesus laid hobbled on its side, waiting for the final touches of arms and a crucifix – and hopefully a church to purchase the finished piece.
Nur Hamidah, who had been carving a decorative wood piece together with a lively group of women along a small lane, said, “This is work we all have been familiar with since we were kids – this job is like our own family, it’s in our blood.”
Here, markets, certifications and international agreements are only the finishing touches to an industry based on tradition, passion and creativity.
“People have been using teakwood for centuries, and for hundreds of years it has sustained the lives of Jepara’s people. It’s given birth to many artisans; many great works. Carvings, reliefs and many things from these trees – from this teak – have been exported to many countries, and have made Jepara famous throughout the world,” Purnomo said.
Helping craftspeople out by giving them access to sustainable wood and markets is the next step, he added, and SVLK or FLEGT licensing can help with both.
“If we see these teak trees standing tall there is huge potential to preserve the furniture industry in Jepara. And on Java small-scale forestry is actually developing rapidly. Many people are planting trees because the industry is good on Java. We want this to continue so we can preserve Java’s forests with economic incentives,” Purnomo said.