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High number of malnourished children in the east of Indonesia

2010 has been a testing year for Indonesia, particularly the last few months. At the end of October, a tsunami hit the southern Mentawai islands, killing hundreds and creating nearly 12,000 displaced people. In the same week Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s most volatile volcano, began its eruptions, leading to the deaths of over 250 people and creating 60,000 refugees. Throughout the recent months, heavy rains caused by the El Nino effect have also caused widespread flooding across the island of Java, damaging rice crops.

Despite the recent disasters, the Indonesian government remains upbeat about the country’s prospects as a whole. A senior minister reported today that the economy had performed better than expected in 2010, with a predicted growth of 6 per cent and expected growth of 6.5 per cent in 2011. Such forecasts are certainly in line with past performance, since Indonesia has seen consistent growth since the 1970s. The minister expected per capita income to be around 3,000 dollars by the end of the year, which is above the government’s target.

But despite the wealth created by the Indonesian economy and a general abundance of food, some parts of the country’s vast archipelago still remain extremely poor and vulnerable. In the eastern province of Nusa Tenggara Timur, officials report a worryingly high incidence of malnutrition among young children. Here, the rural population of 4.5 million is spread over 50 different islands and the average income of people in this part of Indonesia is a mere 265 dollars per year.

However, the poor health of young children in the province is not generally because of a scarcity of food. According to the government’s latest Food Security and Vulnerability reports (2003-2007), rice and maize harvests across the region have grown steadily. However, education in the region is poor and access to health services is limited. This means that local women are often illiterate and have little knowledge about healthy eating. They tend to feed their families on diets which are not diversified enough to provide all the nutrients necessary for healthy growth. A recent study suggests that poor nutrition has lead to nearly half of children under five in the province being chronically malnourished, with one fifth acutely so.

Locals are able to grow vegetables such as pumpkin and fruits like cassava and banana, but many rural farmers choose to concentrate on the staples of rice and maize. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health in the region admits that for too long officials have “ignored health promotion”. Currently, there are only 7 trained nutritionists across 286 health clinics in the region. The government has recently introduced a program to distribute fortified biscuits in 11 districts of the province. These biscuits will be distributed to malnourished children through the health centres. However, one worker in the region believes further education among rural communities is essential if programs like this one are to work, since many mothers do not recognise their children are malnourished and so will not bring them to the clinics. Until parents “see malnutrition as a problem”, rates of undernourished and stunted youngsters will remain high in a country where the economy is in robust health.

Laurinda Luffman signature