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Flower power spurs Indonesian priest's credit union venture

It's not only farmers' finances that are blossoming thanks to Father Willy Malim Batuah

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Flower power spurs Indonesian priest's credit union venture

Father Willy Malim Batuah of the Disciples of the Lord speaks during a 2017 anniversary event in Malang, East Java, marking the founding of Credit Union Sawiran. It now has 8,000 members in Indonesia’s East Java and Bali provinces. (Photo courtesy of Credit Union Sawiran)

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Since its establishment 31 years ago, the credit union founded by Father Willy Malim Batuah has helped thousands of Indonesian farmers in East Java and Bali provinces meet their daily needs and their children's education.

The credit union was established soon after he was appointed to serve at St. Joseph College in East Java’s Pasuruan district run by the Congregation of the Disciples of the Lord (CDD).

There he saw many farmers struggling to survive but also the potential to grow flowers.

He then told the farmers that if they wanted to improve their lives they should not only plant vegetables but also cultivate chrysanthemums. Now the district has become famous because of the flowers, which are now being sold in other regions.

The priest, who was ordained in 1982, says farmers are now earning more than US$500 a month from the flower business.

Father Batuah says he established Credit Union Sawiran to help save the money they are earning.

The idea for the credit union was inspired by Jesuit Father Carolus Albrecht, who in 1960 pioneered credit unions in Indonesia that were supported by the bishops’ conference and then adopted by the government.

His goal is to have farmers manage their finances better. 

“My initial plan was to encourage growers to save their money to support the education of their children and healthcare for their families,” Father Batuah, 80, told UCA News.

The priest, who joined the CDD in 1975, says they can save their money every week or month as well as borrow money when the need arises. 

“I don’t give them financial aid, the credit union does it for them,” the priest says. “The union is not mine but belongs to all members. They must manage it carefully because their future depends on how they do so.” 

Life-giving values

Another reason he established the union was to encourage farmers to care for each other as they come from different backgrounds.

He says the church is known for its efforts to empower poor people and the credit union was a good vehicle to do this with farmer.

“Through it I want to educate members in values such as solidarity, trust, honesty, discipline, humbleness, empathy and patience,” the priest says.

“These are needed in communal life and also to attract more people to the union.”

The credit union now has 8,000 members, mostly flower-growing farmers, and total assets of 50 billion rupiahs (US$3.4 million).

Although he is now elderly, Father Batuah still provides input to help manage the credit union.

Dialogue of faith

Father Batuah says that besides improving farmers' financial situation, the credit union also encourages interfaith dialogue among members from different religions.

He says Pasuruan district was a difficult place to hold such dialogue but the credit union gave people a common focus which has helped people understand each other more.

“Interfaith dialogue was not my priority. I went there to empower people financially through the credit union, which eventually became a melting pot of people of different faiths. They meet every day, so communication cannot be avoided,” he says.

“I came on behalf of the Church to do something useful for the people and it has been successful.” 

Kristien Yuliarti, from Malang, East Java, who became a member in 2010, said the credit union has helped her manage her income better. Through the union, she also meets and socializes with people from other faiths.

“The credit union is not only a place where we save our money. It is also a place where we learn from each other and build solidarity among members,” she told UCA News.

“Father Batuah has taught us to manage the union for the interests of all. He always reminds us that the spirit and mission of the credit union is to educate and build solidarity.”

Award from president

The priest’s efforts have earned him much-deserved recognition from government officials at local and national level. 

In 2011, Father Batuah received an award from then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for helping with government programs to empower farmers and eradicate poverty.

“The award confirmed that what I did for the farmers was right,” he says.

“Now the credit union has become a lifeline for thousands of people regardless of their educational, religious and ethnic backgrounds.”

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