How Fakfak farmers bring food closer to home during a pandemic

Ahya Heremba (right) and his son (middle)

In recent years, traditional farmers in Fakfak, West Papua, have become heavily dependent on rice produced in other regions. In the face of a pandemic, they begin to prepare for potential shortages, diversifying their farm and coming back to the crops their parents used to grow.

Ahya Heremba, 55, has spent decades specializing in growing and harvesting nutmeg as a traditional farmer in Patimburak village, Fakfak District, West Papua. However, Ahya and his fellow farmers are starting to imagine a different future amid the current Covid-19 pandemic, which is predicted to disrupt the food supply chain.

In Fakfak, a small disruption in the food supply chain could have a significant effect, forcing the locals to adapt their lifestyle for a while.

In the 1980s, when Ahya worked in Mamberamo, the helicopters supplying logistics were unable to reach the region, cutting off the distribution of staple foods like rice.

“The 25 staffers at my company were instructed to process and eat sago in Mamberamo Regency for a week,” said Ahya.

Now, in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, rice becomes more vulnerable to disruptions and the locals begin to prepare for potential food shortages.

Rice isn’t always the most important food crop for people in Fakfak. In the 1970s, rice was barely consumed by the locals even though it was already available. For many, rice was rather costly — the price ranged from Rp 25,000 to Rp 50,000 per kilogram. Villagers would buy some rice only when they had some money left, Ahya recalled, and they had to travel to get to a store in the downtown Kokas. Only the haves, such as officials and civil servants, could afford rice for their usual consumption.

On the other hand, what regular people ate every day was sago, which would be processed into various dishes, such as papeda or sago congee, roasted sago, and sinole. Ahya said that his grandfather used to grow sago palms in the nearby tropical forest and his father would help harvest the mature trunk. It took around three days to process and cook the harvests of one sago palm.

However, things have changed now. In recent years, most of the villagers have become more dependent on rice produced outside their villages/district. Rice has now replaced sago and cassava, becoming the only staple grain in Fakfak. And the farmers, who specialize in collecting nutmeg seeds and mace, are no longer invested in growing food crops like sago like their parents once did.

Mambunibuni Market in Kokas District is a Saturday barter market where villagers come to get staples.

The heavy reliance on rice and a distinct lack of crop diversity might expose the village to food insecurity, especially if the pandemic lasts long enough to wreak havoc on food production and distribution.

“If the pandemic disrupts the rice distribution to Fakfak, then we must return to native staple foods that we used to consume in the past,” Ahya said, citing sago, cassava, sweet potatoes, and caladium. He added that these edible plants are easily found in the forests — some of which exist in the forest naturally and some of which are cultivated by the local farmers.

Farmers with some spare land can grow other food crops like banana plants and sago palms, but they might struggle to achieve high productivity, said village head Ridwan Patiran of Pangwadar, Fakfak, explaining the similar struggle that his villagers have to face in a pandemic.

“Sago can only be harvested during certain seasons only,” Ridwan said. “And the harvest is carried out by manual labor, meaning the traditional farmers harvest only a relatively small amount of crops compared to those using agricultural equipment.”

For now, villagers still can access food supplies from outside Fakfak. However, the pandemic might last longer than a year and the potential disruption in the food supply chain is already causing increased worries about hunger. Ridwan has called for diversified farming, citing that Fakfak regent has issued a decree urging the local communities to grow food crops. (Due to the large-scale social restrictions, the information had not been quickly and widely disseminated.)

In an effort to create resilience and flexibility among the traditional farmers, local governments have provided stimulus packages to help local communities diversify their crops.

The farmers, many of which specialize in nutmeg production, are attempting to diversify their food systems more diverse, growing various staple crops like sago, sweet potatoes, and bananas.

At Mambunibuni Market, villagers can get cassava, sweet potato, areca nut, as well as fish and other sea animals.

In Pangwadar village, for example, the Rp 200 million budget for village development was quickly converted into social assistance funds for the unprivileged families, in the forms of cash transfers (BLT) and staple food packages. The regional agriculture office also distributed about 300 cassava seedlings as a solution for the potential food shortage.

Ahya said that the local people have a lot of ingredient substitutes for other basic staples. Cooking oil, for instance, can be substituted with coconut oil; white sugar with cane sugar; table salt with sea salt; and the vegetables bought from the market with the vegetables that grow in forests, such genemo, gede, and paku-paku or vegetable ferns.

Among the challenges is the lack of agricultural facilities. In Pangwadar village, the farmers have some spare land but they haven’t built any fence to protect crops from wild boars. But as soon as the fence is installed, the locals can begin growing their new crops.

Ridwan wished that the farmers can adequately prepare for an uncertain future due to the pandemic. “I hope the cash transfers will be utilized wisely,” said Ridwan. “They can use the money as the capital to cultivate food crops and buy a boat engine so they can sell their harvests and catch fish if one day they run out of money.”