Cat Wheeler interviews two Ubud-based communications professionals who are on fire with their project – a documentary series for TV that will cover stories from the span of Indonesia.


Indonesia is so rich in natural and human resources that no one should be poor in this country. But with wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few, millions of people across this vast archipelago struggle to feed and educate their families and live with dignity.

Increasingly, communities are finding solutions for their issues without government support. Two Ubud-based communications professionals are seeking out these stories and using them to inspire other communities country-wide.

“Empowerment issues can be the drivers of extremism,” says Indonesian photographer and journalist Rio Helmi. “We need to learn to respect all people and improve distribution of services. When people’s needs are ignored, it creates fertile ground for deep discontent.

Rio and award-winning American documentary producer/director Joe Yaggi have come up with a concept which they hope will inspire and empower ordinary people around the country. They’re creating a cultural adventure TV series called Swadaya (Self Help), 13 x thirty minute shows that will give Indonesians a look at how communities can work together and take charge of their own issues, empowering themselves with beneficial projects and programs. The series will be driven by people’s stories and achievements, and connect people across the archipelago.

Above: Rio with one of the leading figures of the series, Pak Hariono. Below: Joe on assignment.


Rio and Joe have both traveled extensively around Indonesia, especially in the eastern islands which have missed out on the prosperity of Java and Bali. “Government and foreign spending can be so wasteful in eastern Indonesia,” observes Rio, who has been covering stories on conservation, social issues and wildlife in Indonesia since 1980. “All that money is concentrated in a few places, it’s not always trickling down. When projects do happen, they are often presented to the people without consultation, so they feel no real ownership.”

“Swadaya will reveal inspiring stories of community initiatives and share them with every corner of Indonesian society. Rio Helmi, one of the country’s most passionate cultural photographers, will travel to the ends of the archipelago on his motorbike with his film crew seeking out fascinating projects and people.” Says Joe, who has been making documentaries on similar subjects in Indonesia as Rio since 1993

“We want to reach people of all social levels,” Rio told me. “Local initiatives have high success rates because ordinary people are invested. Communities working together are less susceptible to disillusionment. Prosperity increases. People are busy achieving things and making money, and feel fulfilled.”.


“Make no mistake, village people are not ignorant, they understand new concepts but need inspiration. Grassroots projects are so effective because the people have a sense of ownership.”


Swadaya will premiere on no less than 50 of Indonesia’s best loved local television stations. Joe’s organization, BumiHijau Media, has built a broad audience for Swadaya by distributing over 30,000 factual TV programs and PSAs to local television partners over the past 5 years. BumiHijau also represents Local TV stations for ad buying, placement and strategy offering huge potential for advertisers to reach tens of millions of new viewers countrywide, especially in remote areas.

Above: BumiHijau’s programming network . Below: School kid’s at the Pantai Cemara conservation project.

From Aceh to Papua, Indonesians have taken their lives into their own hands to create more sustainable and prosperous futures. For Swadaya, Rio and Joe have identified some inspiring stories in communities which have created solutions for their problems.

One of my favourites is about a gang of guys on motorcycles in Flores. A family crisis in a remote village motivated the leader of a motorcycle gang to organise transport for midwives to reach labouring women. The guys also teach appropriate technology high in the rugged mountains in areas inaccessible by car.

On a remote coast in West Papua, the people rally around a Whale Shark whisperer and build fish and crustacean farms to support their village.

A group of fishermen in Banyuwangi began planting a salt-hardy species of pine to stop erosion on their beaches. One unexpected result is that part of it has become an immensely popular beach destination for locals.


In the Riau, a group of farmers surrounded by large scale palm oil plantations have come together to train in sustainable palm oil production, benefiting their families and preserving their lands.

Here’s a story. Born and raised in a very poor village in Banyuwangi District, East Java, Pak Hariono managed to attain a degree in Education. Instead of pursuing a career, he returned to his village 12 years ago and worked as a farmer for a year while he assessed the potential for making a better living. He began to breed Etawa goats for their superior size and, noticing that they were copious milk producers, decided to start a goat milk business.

Setting up an association, he taught his fellow villagers how to raise the goats and milk them hygienically. Markets for the milk were soon found in East Java and Bali. Pak Hariomo now manages a What’sApp group that keeps up with prices, supply and demand and techniques.

He also helped local coffee farmers learn to cultivate their trees more productively and helped organise a bee association. Importantly, he guides local youth in planning for the future. The village is prospering and visitors come from all over to study the initiatives.

“Pak Hariono could have done anything,” Rio points out. “He has a degree in education, he could have taught at University. But he chose to go back to his village and help build sustainable livelihoods. He’s a role model for ordinary Indonesians and a great story for Swadaya.”

Please join Rio and Joe in making this happen, you can participate by contributing to the crowdfunding campaign please click Indiegogo here


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