With the recent natural disasters, the mood in Indonesia was low-key before the arrival of President Obama last week. Images of the destruction caused by Mount Merapi dominated the news and over 250 people are now known to have died following the eruptions. In recent days the volcano’s activity has lessened and exclusion zones to the north and west have been reduced from 12 to 6 miles, allowing some families to return. Locals are finding their homes and farms covered in thick ash and their crops destroyed. The elder of one village, Jati, has warned “many don’t have anything to eat”.
But it isn’t only farmers around Mount Merapi who have lost their crops this season in Java. The head of the farmer’s cooperative on the island has warned that the ongoing rains caused by the El Nino effect have left many farming communities struggling. In a normal season, farmers in this part of Indonesia could expect to produce around 6 million tonnes of rice per hectare of land. But this year, most have produced only around 2.5 million tonnes. The wet season, which usually lasts from November to March, has barely halted and many paddy fields are flooded. Farmers have been unable to harvest their crops and for the first time in three years, the country has had to import rice.
Since 2007, the Indonesian government has spearheaded a growth of 15 per cent in the country’s rice production, to around 36 million tonnes. But the domestic yield could be much lower this year. Nearly 60 per cent of the country’s poorest people are farmers and low harvests will have an immediate effect on the most vulnerable in society. Rice is also the staple food in Indonesia. To boost food security for the population of around 250 million people, the government is trying to encourage more diversification, promoting other crops such as corn and wheat. The reliance of Indonesian consumers on rice makes the country particularly vulnerable to increases in global prices if domestic shortages continue.
And ongoing shortages are looking likely, with meteorologists predicting even more rain over the next few months, a forecast which brings little comfort to the people of Indonesia. Therefore, President Obama’s visit last week proved a welcome distraction. The President hailed Indonesia’s achievements in showing how democracy can further development and highlighted the diversity of the country, with “hundreds of languages and people from scores of regions and ethnic groups”. Mr Obama said that growing up in such a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society helped him “appreciate the humanity of all people”. Mr Obama was greeted warmly by his hosts, though unfortunately he did nothing to promote the government’s message about the country’s reliance on rice. To the delight of his listeners, Mr Obama spoke of his love for Indonesian food, especially of ‘nasi goreng’ and ‘basko’, a local dish of fried rice and meatballs.