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Farmers Face Challenges of Climate Change in Indonesia PDF Print E-mail

The Jakarta Globe, November 18, 2009, Emmy Fitri

 Farmer Kamsari Turahim, from Santing, Indramayu in West Java, said he could no longer rely on the traditional patterns of rice cultivation because the rain was now much less predictable and the dry seasons lasted longer than ever. 

For Kamsari, the old ways of working, where farmers planted their seedlings in mid-November and harvested the crop after about 115 days, are no longer the norm. 

Over the last three years, Kamsari said, farmers in his village have seen crops fail because downpours occurred in the middle of the rice season and the rainwater soaked the young plants, devastating the farmers’ hope for a decent return on their seasonal Rp 3 million ($320) investment. 

“For three seasons we’ve been forced to harvest earlier than normal, which means we’ve been getting a poor quality of rice. Our income has decreased by more than 50 percent,” he said. 

In an effort to be better able to predict the changing weather, the farmers are combining their own knowledge and skills with modern technology. 

The farmers came up with a simple method to measure rainwater volume. They took some used tin cans, each the size of an average bucket, nailed them to wooden rods and placed them in the middle of their paddy fields. 

The cans have to be placed in the open, with no trees or other structures nearby,” Kamsari said of his humble invention, which he affectionately calls “teknologi kaleng,” or “tin-can technology.” 

By using the cans, farmers can more accurately keep track of rain patterns, which gives them early warning signs of possible flooding. 

The Netherlands government has also chipped in, supplying the Indramayu farmers with sensors to measure soil humidity. 

The farmers started using the sensors in early October, placing them in 50 locations around the paddy fields, covering a total area of 200 square meters. 

“Getting the right measurements for the weather, soil humidity and the rainwater volume gives us a better idea of the best time to begin planting,” Kamsari said. 

The World Bank, in a 2007 report titled “Indonesia and Climate Change: Current Status and Policies,” said that the country is vulnerable to climate change, which impacts mainly through prolonged droughts and unseasonal heavy downpours and floods. 

The report said that global warming could increase temperatures and shorten yet intensify the rainy season. 

These conditions, according to the report, could lead to changes in water supply and soil moisture, which would negatively impact agriculture and therefore food security.
Climate change is also likely to reduce soil fertility by 2 percent to 8 percent, resulting in fluctuating rice yields, it said. 

Global warming will also cause sea levels to rise, the report said, inundating productive coastal zones and reducing farming in these communities. 

Be a Free-Range Chicken 

The government, according to Gatot Irianto, the head of research and development at the Agriculture Ministry, has anticipated the impacts of climate change in the agricultural sector by, in the case of rice crops, preparing rice species better able to resist abnormal weather patterns. 

The ministry has introduced at least three species of paddy that can survive at least a week of flooding. “Ideally the paddy should be able to tolerate more than a week as it sometimes takes weeks for the water to recede,” Gatot said. 

But most important, he said, farmers must have a “healthy” attitude toward changes that are often beyond their control. He praised the efforts of the Indramayu farmers who are trying to cope with the shifting conditions by using their simple invention. 

“Don’t be a broiler chicken, be an ayam kampung [free-range chicken],” he said, explaining that ayam kampung are fighters and survivors. “Broiler chickens, on the other hand, are handfed and find it hard to adjust to new environments.” 

Gatot said that compared to farmers in Africa, Indonesian farmers were lucky. He cited the 900 millimeters of rain Indonesia received each year, “enough water to irrigate the rice fields, unlike Tunisia, which only gets 300 millimeters per year.” 

He was speaking at a recent workshop on “people and adaptation to climate change,” which was jointly organized by the Civil Society Forum for Climate Justice and Oxfam. 

One of the problems with climate change, Gatot said, is that it can’t be generalized because its impacts are unique in each region. Farmers in regions that get more rain than before need to plant rice that is resistant to floods, while in regions that experience longer dry spells than in the past, rainwater catchments have to be constructed. 

“We can’t use the same theories on weather and planting that our ancestors used because things are changing,” he said.
“It’s better to rely on technologies, if there are any, or other innovations, both big and small.” 

Though farmers have been urged to leave behind farming traditions that date back centuries, Gatot said his office was trying to put together a database of best practices from “local geniuses,” which may be able to be replicated in other areas. 

As an example, he cited the “subak,” or Balinese traditional irrigation system. 

“The Balinese irrigation system is a good example,” Gatot said. “It is integrated with their social and cultural systems.” 

Despite the challenges, Gatot remains optimistic, saying that if urbanites continue eating rice three times a day, “farmers can still work and still hope.” 

“I have long believed that one thing is certain about climate change — everything becomes uncertain. And it is us who need to adjust to the new conditions.”
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