Consumer demand for beautiful, hand-crafted goods — made ethically and sustainably — is giving a growing number of Indonesian artisans economic resilience and a fair share of tourism profits.

Watching master wood carver I Made Muluh shape a serene face out of a rough block of wood is a real privilege. He starts with a small hand axe — his carefully measured blows send up a flurry of woodchips — and a head slowly emerges. I Made Muluh has carved wood all his life, from his village Gianyar, Bali. However, it was only in 1993 when he began to work with fair trade business Mitra Bali he started being paid a fair price for his crafts.

“I have been able to build my house, send my children to a good school and provide enough to eat," he says. 

I Made Muluh is a master wood carver, and now six other craftspeople in his district.

I Made Muluh is a master wood carver, and now six other craftspeople in his district.

It's a simple, yet significant story, says Mitra Bali owner Agung Alit. "Tourism tends to only benefit a few. Bali has great arts and crafts, and people work hard, but don't get a good price if they sell through a middle man," he explains. "We aim to be fair to our workers and fair to the environment. It’s not about wringing out every last drop of profit from the business." 

Mitra Bali is one of eight organisations in Indonesia accredited under the global fair trade system that Oxfam Shop works with, explains Oxfam Australia Trading General Manager Julia Sumner. "There is an increasing demand for products that have been made ethically, fairly and sustainably," she says. "It's estimated the fair trade industry has grown to more than $150 million dollars of sales in Australia and it's a rapidly growing market.

"People feel there is not much point having something beautiful decorating their house if the craft-person had to suffer to make it,” she says. “Buying something from our shop is a guarantee of both quality and fairness. That’s something people really value.” 

Wayan Marni Penath and Ketut Suter share a joke during a work break from sanding products sold by Oxfam fair trade partner Mitra Bali

In nearby Seminyak, husband and wife team I Made Wartana and Wayan Pasti from Tampasksitung villlage paint whimsical, carved dragonflies. "As long as our quality is good, the orders keep coming every month. It gives us a good wage [by village standards], Wayan says. 

The dragonflies, and many of the other wooden produces the couple make, are based on the designs of American-born Andrea Phillips, who works in her husband Nyoman's fair trade business "Balizen". It's the fusion of western design and Indonesian craftsmanship that has made their designs some of Oxfam's post popular —  and has reaped benefits for their workers in terms of training, business development and fair wages.

"Wood carving is our main income. Ten years ago, I worked for somebody else, now I work for myself and employ eight other people," I Made Wartana says. "We are now buying our own property, and have built a factory."

Sitting in the balizen workshop —  an  Aladdin’s cave of artfully clashing colours and ingenious, beautiful designs — Andrea’s pride and connection with the craftspeople she works with is palpable.

Every product has a story, a craftsperson and community behind it, and all of these people Andrea and her husband regard as part of their extended family. "Many of the people who started working with us 10 years ago are still with us. They are all having children and they are growing up together. It's a wonderful thing." 

Balizen owner Andrea Phillips in her workshop. Her parents called her "busy-fingers" as a child.

Across Indonesia, outside Yogyakarta, this story of family, support and economic resilience has never been stronger than at the crafts organisation, Apikri. Since it was founded in 1987, it has mentored hundreds of local craftspeople to bring their work to international markets. 

According to director and founder Amir Panzuri, developing a fairly-paid handicrafts industry is a way to link rich and poor, building strong economies and self-reliance. He points to the devastating 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake as an example of how a strong community can recover.  

“Everything was flattened. Workshops and homes were destroyed. We worked together, with support from our international friends, and helped our artisans rebuild. We were back, at full production, within three months,” he says proudly. “That income was so important to the recovery.”

These coconut shell bowls have helped craftsman Nur Taufik build back better after an earthquake devastated his village.

These coconut shell bowls have helped craftsman Nur Taufik build back better after an earthquake devastated his village.

For coconut shell craftsman Nur Taufik, his business — which had been partnered with Apikri for just two years at the time of the earthquake — meant his family could rebuild in the face of disaster.

“My house was destroyed but I had the money to rebuild. Now I have a concrete house, and workshop,” he says, outside his modest shop in Santan village. “My life has changed a lot. When I joined Apikri my luck changed. I got a big order from Oxfam to make maracas and I was busy. I used the money to get married and support my family. Now I send my products all over the world.

“When we started, we were one family working at this. Now there are eight other families who are busy producing coconut shell crafts.

“My dream [is] that this village is busy, that everybody can earn an income from this business.”