Papua series: Money in the farms

Gentle handling: A vanilla farmer pinches vanilla pods to help pollination. Farmers in Serui, Yapen Islands regency, Papua, are starting to cultivate vanilla for export to Europe and the US. (JP/ Prodita Sabarini)

Returning to the land may be one way to improve food security and welfare in Papua. The Jakarta Post’s Prodita Sabarini was recently among a group of journalists invited by the Britsh NGO Oxfam to examine a few of their programs in Serui and Jayawijaya regencies in Papua. Below is her report.

Seth Jenggo Mora sits under vanilla vines in Serui, a town in Yapen Island off the northern coast of Papua that resembles a bird’s neck. He sings a Yawaunat tribe song about the perils of leaving one’s home. “If I leave and return to my village/what will I have there?” he sings. “If we go abroad, when will we become a man?”

His red lips and teeth, reddened from chewing betel nuts for more than half a century, formed a smile as he finished his song. From Yapen where Serui lie to hamlets in the central mountains of Jayawijaya, traditional songs hold a deep meaning in Papuan culture. When reporters and NGO workers visited a village in Piramid district of Jayawijaya regency, Papuan men greeted visitors with tearful alments expressing their gratefulness of having guests from faraway places.

The song that Seth sung has relevance in today’s Papua, where urbanization has taken some of the young away from the rural areas to the big cities, leaving the traditional farms neglected.

As indigenous Papuans trail behind in education and economic power compared to migrants from Sulawesi, Java, or Sumatra, some young people who live in the cities end up turning to petty crimes or prostitution.

A large number of residents have contracted HIV, sending the number of infected people to the roof. According to the Health Ministry, Papua has the highest number of HIV infections in Indonesia, recording 7,572 cases between 1987 and 2012.

The Central Statistics Agency (BPS) said that urbanization in Papua has increased by 3.76 percent between 2000 and 2010, when 25.96 percent of the population, or 735,629 people, lived in cities, compared to 22.2 percent a decade before.

In Papua, more than 70 percent of the people live from farming. Taking extractive industries out of the equation, agriculture contributed 25.74 percent to Papua’s gross domestic regional product (GDRP) in 2012.

The mining industry in the resource-rich province contributed 46.52 percent to Papua’s GDRP in 2012, but absorption of local workers has been low. In 2010, only 26,747 people, mostly migrants, worked in extractive industries. In Timika, more than 70 percent of the population are migrants, according to the 2010 census.

As agriculture holds an important role in the lives of indigenous Papuans, developing the local economy by empowering farmers might help realize their basic rights for sustainable livelihood, according to Rio Pangemanan from Oxfam, which has a number of programs involving farmers in Papua.

Farmers and NGO workers in Papua report that a change of eating habits, with the introduction of rice as staple food from Java and with the government programs of rice for the poor, has jeopardized the self subsistence of villages and the livelihoods of young people in Papua.

Jayawijaya Agriculture Agency head Paulus Sarira said that five years ago, 94 percent of the population consumed sweet potatoes as their main staple. “Now only around 16 percent of the people consume sweet potatoes. Some have turned to eating rice,” he told a seminar on food security in Wamena early this month.

Chris Manuputty, the special assistant to the Jayawijaya regent for governance and social welfare, said that the unchecked change of eating habits from sweet potatoes to rice might lead to a food crisis in Wamena in the coming years.

Petrus Wenda, 70, a farmer from Yonggime, a hamlet in Piramid district in Jayawijaya, is one of the local farmers who mourn the loss of young people from his village. In his sweet potato farm in the Baliem Valley of Jayawijaya, Petrus told visiting reporters that sweet potatoes were part of his culture. Small framed, Petrus became animated in telling the story of the benefits of sweet potatoes, or hipere in the local language.

He stepped back and jumped over an irrigation ditch to better express his feelings. His voice became louder and his movements became more animated. “See my right arm? I can defeat five men with this,” he said while stretching his right arm. “See my left arm? I can defeat five more with this,” he said, reaching out his hand. Petrus then stretched his right leg and said “I can kick with this”, displaying how hipere made him strong and healthy. “Rice tastes good but it makes your stomach ill,” he said.

There is a reason why Petrus is so passionate about sweet potatoes. According to him and other elders, the introduction of rice has made young people leave the villages for the city to earn money so they can buy rice instead of preparing their land for the women to grow sweet potatoes.

“A lot of young people go to the city and become robbers. They live there [in cities] and they end up dead,” Petrus said. “Now young people don’t want to plant sweet potatoes. All of them think they can make money in the city. In fact, the money is here,” Petrus said.

The Jakarta Post | Reportage | Wed, March 27 2013

Paper Edition | Page: 8

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