Beatrix: Adapting to Severe Drought and Extreme Weather in East Nusa Tenggara

Beatrix Rika, a local farmer

Faced with a long drought and extreme weather in East Nusa Tenggara, farmer facilitator Beatrix Rika has urged local farmers in her village to go organic, which appears to be the only feasible solution to help reduce the risk of crop failure and adapt to a changing climate.

Farming is a way of life in Bhera Village, Mego District, Sikka Regency, East Nusa Tenggara, where growing crops remains an enduring tradition. In the past, villagers used to do traditional farming, namely swidden agriculture, and now they have shifted to the permanent cultivation. Almost all residents of Bhera Village grow corn and rice.

“About 90 percent of the people here are farmers,” said Beatrix Rika, a local farmer.

Agricultural activities are becoming tougher in a changing climate. Rainfall decreases and drought gets worse over time. Local farmers rely on rainwater for their rice field irrigation systems. When the rainy season arrives late, farmers have to postpone their farming activities, which will stall the harvest.

The local people used to know when they had to plant rice. Farmers started their activities in the rainy season, from October to April. However, climate change has led to erratic rainfall patterns.

“Now we don’t know when the rainy season will come, and the farmers are confused,” Beatrix said. “The river discharge has decreased, and this has a huge impact on crop yields.”

The village’s drought is exacerbated by the decreasing number of sand and rocks in the nearby river, the source of irrigation water. Sometimes villagers illegally mine the sand and stones from riverbeds for construction materials for roads or houses, making the river more vulnerable to drought and causing losses to local agricultural industries.

Moreover, the farms are infected with crop diseases that cause widespread crop failure and pose a threat to the village’s food security.

According to Beatrix, crop failure is caused by dangerous farm chemicals. Villagers who had lived outside the island and returned to their hometowns introduced chemical pesticides and fertilizers to local farmers. These new agricultural chemical inputs were quickly gaining popularity in the community for their instant results in eliminating pests and accelerating plant growth.

In the long run, however, it will do more harm than good. These agrochemicals lead to land degradation, ultimately lowering the yields.

“The farmers have become too lazy to use organic pesticides and fertilizers,” explained Beatrix, who is also a member of a farmer cadre in her village. “When we asked them to use organic fertilizers by fermenting straw, they laughed.”

Beatrix Rika, a local farmer

Although local residents understand that climate change is happening and have experienced crop failures from drought and erratic weather patterns, not many residents have accepted the solutions offered by Beatrix and her fellow farmer cadres, let alone implementing them.

Switching to organic isn’t as simple as it sounds. Organic farming takes up more time, and few farmers have the luxury to do that. Many of them try to make ends meet by taking blue-labor jobs, like construction workers or farmworkers.

But without active interventions, climate change can exceed local farmers’ ability to adjust to potential damage.

East Nusa Tenggara has been a dry region for a long time, and the locals are accustomed to living with the short rainy seasons. Now climate change makes the challenges more difficult with extreme events, like drought, floods, widespread pest infestation and crop diseases, and erratic weather patterns.

Farmers aren’t well-equipped to adapt to climate change. On the other hand, government programs aiming to improve food security doesn’t seem to go in line with the real conditions on the field. The government program, for instance, provides chemical fertilizers that can damage soil quality and decrease crop yields. The problem, if not addressed immediately, will get worse, causing more frequent crop failures and food shortages.

Through local farmer groups, Beatrix and other farmer facilitators are attempting to persuade and teach the local farmers to their farming practices. Although it is still difficult to convince residents to stop using agricultural chemicals, Beatrix still believes that organic farming is the best way to reduce the risk of crop failures and adapt to the prolonged drought.

In addition, her village is trying to diversify its crop production. The residents are encouraged to plant not only rice and corn but also cocoa, candlenut, bananas, and various types of vegetables.