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From Laboratory to Farmers' Fields: Drought in Nusa Tengara Timor, Indonesia

Last modified June 15, 2010 08:15

From an opening address to an Australia-Indonesia Agriculture and Food Security Workshop (8-9 June 2010, Canberra) by Prof. James J. Fox, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra: “From Laboratory to Farmers’ Fields: Perspectives on Food Security”.

Let me begin by noting the threat to food security that has occurred in eastern Indonesia – in the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT), which is the closest Indonesian province to Australia. In terms of most indicators, the province of NTT is the poorest of Indonesia’s provinces. Its population has now passed 4.5 million. Over 85% of the population is engaged in primary production, either farming, fishing or livestock raising. Nearly a quarter of the population (23% as of last year) is classified as falling below the poverty line. This year inevitably that number will rise.

Despite its reliance on farming, NTT is considered a marginal agricultural area when compared to Java, Bali, South Sulawesi, or Sumatra. Its cropping systems are largely rain-dependent. Unfortunately, the province as a whole suffers from irregular rainfall. The most important of its dry-land crops is maize, whose single harvest determines most farmers’ fate for the year. Yet there is no telling from year to year how the province will fare. In most years, harvests in some areas may be successful, particularly those at the westernmost end of the province; while in other areas, there may be crop failure – and sometimes serious crop failure.

This year it seems, however, that the rains failed across a wide area of the province. Every island and most parts of every island, including many upland areas, have lost the maize crop that should have been harvested in March and April. Rice where it is possible to grow is also largely a rain-dependent crop and this year, it too appears to have fared badly.

The worst affected areas are in the outer arc of the province (……). Every year in NTT there occurs a period of food shortage before the maize harvest. This period is referred to locally as the ‘ordinary hunger period’, but when the rains fail, as they have this year, the region enters what is called ‘an extraordinary hunger period’. This year many areas of NTT will see an extraordinary hunger period that will extend until at least next March. The Indonesian government is already involved in distributing substantial quantities of food aid to the most affected areas and this will have to continue until next year. This is a solution for the present but not for a food secure future.

There can be no single solution to all of the province’s problems but a range of possibilities exist. Australian farm dams, for example, have proven to be particularly successful in west Timor. Cropping systems in conjunction with Leucaena (Indonesian: lamtoro) planting have also proven to be effective. Leucaena has also provided feed for cattle in Timor. Since the psyllid (Heteropsylla cubana) infestations of the 1980s, local lamtoro has recovered and been added to by various psyllid-resistant varieties of leucaena, several of which were developed in Australia.

One can also take an historical perspective on patterns of livelihoods that can be related to current discussions in this workshop. For several decades now, the local government has promoted increased maize production but maize is particularly vulnerable to drought and is more likely to fail if the rains are inadequate. Previous cropping systems were based on a mix of crops; sorghum was, once, more prominent as a food crop as were particularly legume crops. These sources of resilience have now diminished. It is thus sorghum and legume research that could be most useful for future food security.

One might add as well that all of the successful new cultivars, particularly of cassava, sweet potato and maize, that have been extensively trialled and are now being distributed under the ACIAR-led ‘Seeds of Life’ Project in East Timor would be suitable for introduction throughout NTT. The Project also highlights the value of providing poor farmers with timely, high quality, locally-multiplied seed.

Edited by Kees Stigter (14/6/’10)

I refer in the above context also to the contribution “On farm testing of designs of new cropping systems will serve Indonesian farmersunder our topic of “Needs for agrometeorological solutions to farming problems” of 16 January 2007.

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