Opinion

Famine, drought, malnutrition:
Defining and fighting hunger

Jonatan Lassa, Banda Aceh, Aceh

One of the hottest controversies in Indonesia today is the news about famine in Sikka district, East Nusa Tenggara, where about 60,000 thousand people are at risk of starvation. One central government official, after visiting villages in the area, explained that there was no famine, arguing that the case was not a true famine such as in African countries. On the other hand, the district governments, religious leaders and NGOs claim that there is indeed a famine. While the media advocates through pictures, showing that a famine is occurring there.

While from the local perspective, the community explained it very straightforwardly: they experienced the double shock of a sudden fall in the price of cacao, while at the same time pest attacks led to harvest failures. Consequently, the people experienced an income shock affecting their access to abundant food available at the local markets. The only buffer stocks, we are told by the media, are the famine foods locally known as Putak, made of palm leaves and wild tubers.

These conflicting views show huge gaps in understanding Indonesian modern ""famine"" and food insecurity determinants. Some local NGOs blame monoculture agriculture as the underlying cause, as people (facilitated by the state a few years ago) experienced a livelihood change that led to the dependency on a commodity such as cacao that is prone to price fluctuations and pest attacks.

Famine should be seen as both a slow developing disaster and a process. Its occurrences differ very much from earthquakes and other natural disasters. The direct translation of famine to Bahasa Indonesian is ""kelaparan"", which conveys an element of food shortages and severe hunger but not necessarily starvation.

Devereux (1993) argues about Western views of famine, which also have been adopted by the Indonesian government to some degree, I presume, as ""a crisis of mass starvation"" which entails three interacting conditions: food shortages, severe hunger and excess mortality. This definition was used by both central and provincial officials to argue that there is no famine in Sikka, and what is happening there is not the same as ""African famine"".

I would rather use Walker's (1989) definition of famine as ""a social-economic process which causes the accelerated destitution of the most vulnerable, marginal and least powerful groups in a community, to a point where they can no longer, as a group, maintain a sustainable livelihood. Ultimately, the process leads to the inability of individual to acquire sufficient food to sustain life"". The bottom line here is that famine is a ""process and not an event"".

The challenge is how to capture local food systems with the existing tools of food insecurity monitoring and famine early warning? Many parties have developed food insecurity and famine indicators in Indonesia. To mention just two: the Agricultural Development Office (Bimas Pertanian) and the World Food Program's Food Insecurity Atlas (FIA). The FIA, however, proved unable to provide an early warning for today's Sikka food insecurity.

The State Logistics Agency's food balance sheet cannot capture food insecurity at the micro-level. Two years ago, the Forum for Disaster Preparedness and Response (FKPB) developed a model called ""Food and Livelihood Monitoring Systems"". This conceptual model is very powerful as it helps portray the real conditions as it uses a livelihood approach to food insecurity and famine early warning. However, it does not work due to a lack of regular monitoring because of no funding support, apart from a lack of communications with stakeholders.

Given that East Nusa Tenggara is one of the driest regions in Indonesia, it is obviously prone to drought. El-Nino Southern Oscillation-based droughts are increasing in terms of magnitude and frequency due to global climate change. The associated risks are lack of rainfall, water shortages, production failures, pests and disease, malaria, diarrhea and cholera, in which the combinations of such risks might lead to sporadic starvation and malnutrition.

However, drought is not the same as famine. Drought is a natural phenomenon which provides indications of potential threats to food security that may lead, though not necessarily, to famine. So far the government has used a hit-and-run approach to tackling the problem of chronic food insecurity. This is not a new criticism of the government, of course. However, I would recommend the government have a drought management strategy at the national level to be imposed in semi-arid and drought-prone areas.

At the macro-level, the implications of food insecurity make it clear that Indonesia is facing the risk of nutritional insecurity, where thousands of children might trapped in severe malnutrition and experience a high mortality rate. An independent study showed that 14 percent of infants here experience low birth weights as a result of maternal malnutrition. On average, 16 percent of women aged 15-49 are suffering from a chronic energy deficiency. In 2003, 27.5 percent of children under the age of five in Indonesia were moderately to severely underweight.

One thing that I am sure of is that poor and marginal groups are the most prone to famine as they have the least human, social, financial and physical capital. The government should have an instrument of protection for citizen as part of its fundamental commitment to fulfill the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which was ratified by the Indonesian government after the 2004 tsunami.

Indeed, Food Security Regulation No. 68/2002 mentions the state's obligation to ensure food supplies and food stocks, to prevent and intervene in food insecurity (including food aid for the poor and price controls), and the roles of local governments and society in the elimination of famine and the assurance of food security.

Now is the time for the government to tackle both famine and food insecurity problems not according to the ""old-fashioned model"". Otherwise they should be called ""famine lovers"" for institutionally failing to develop a sustainable solution to food problems after 60 years of independence. The ""famine lovers"" might also include all the ""relief-addicted"" stakeholders, be it international NGOs, local NGOs or those in the UN who are pro-status quo.

Learning from the case of Sikka, be it a famine or a food crisis, the government should have a strong drought management strategy that is linked with food security monitoring, followed by annual contingency planning for relief intervention in drought-prone regions. Now is also the time for the government to enforce its own regulations on the protection of its citizens.

The writer is coordinator of the HIVOS Aceh Program. He can be reached at j.lassa@hivos.or.id.

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.