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The hard truth about climate change in east Indonesia

Its not about science, it’s about livelihoods and mindsets

Today I’ve been in the south of Dompu District on the Indonesian Island of Sumbawa, talking with farmers who are keen to grow fruit and vegetables (horticulture). The traditional farming systems in this part of Indonesia are based around corn, cattle and rice production. Farming in this part of the world is hard work. There is a long dry season between about May and October, and right now eyes are constantly looking skywards in the expectation of rain.

The image here is the landscape today. Dry, dusty, and more tragically, full of evidence of forest clearance and erosion. The government encourages corn production, and farmers can only expand their production by planting hill slopes; the flat land is fully developed. But first they must clear the virgin forest. Corn will be planted on these cleared slopes as soon as the rains come.

Soil on these slopes is thin and fragile. Farmers might grow two crops of corn before there is nothing left. The long-term return on investment is pretty poor. Farmers also realise that farming this land is not good for the environment. They realise that cleared hill slopes will cause run off and flooding during the rainy season. They are quick to complain when their irrigation dams fill with sediment, but corn makes them money (especially when there is seemingly unlimited hill slopes to clear): leaving the forest in place does not. This is fairly basic economics.

To make matters worse, in response to growing demand for beef in cities like Jakarta farmers here are raising more cattle,. This is completely at odds with the idea that to halt rampant global warming we should all eat less, or no, beef. Corn and beef production in east Indonesia is not helping us respond to the scary predictions for climate change released this week by the IPCC.

So what can we do?

One might say ‘protect the forests?’ Well, they already are, and logging is illegal, so this deterrent is not working. Instead, farmers livelihoods need to be considered, and farming systems that provide diversified income promoted.

The IFSCA project in this part of Indonesia is helping farmers grow tree legumes (leucaena) which is a guaranteed feed source through the dry season. IFSCA is encouraging farmers to plant leucaena on cleared hill slopes as a more profitable crop than corn. Feed can be cut, carried and sold to cattle farmers during times of high feed demand such as during the dry season. Leucaena grows as a tree, and is a legume, so there are great soil conservation benefits.

Cattle benefit from this system. They grow more efficiently and this reduces net greenhouse gas emissions compared with animals with a poor diet. Their dung and urine can be collected and composted or bio-digested for fertiliser or cooking gas, offsetting fertiliser and fuel inputs.

This system is a step towards the rehabilitation of the cleared slopes, and towards the eventual restoration of forests. Cropping the trees, which can grow for more than 20 years, is much less destructive than clearing land for perhaps two crops of poor-yielding corn. Erosion is decreased, limiting the catastrophic effects of flooding during intense climate-change related storms.

What I’m describing here is a shift in mindset of the farmers to an understanding that forested hill slopes support their livelihoods with stable and diversified income. The next idea being developed is planting horticultural crops between the rows of leucaena. I was in south Dompu today talking with farmers about dragonfruit. This is a high-value cash crop that needs a certain amount of shading to grow. Perhaps leucana and dragonfruit could be a synergistic partnership, leading to climate smart integrated agriculture and horticulture systems in east Indonesia?

Once farmers reach a level of sustainable, diversified and profitable farming, perhaps they will turn their attention away from clearing forested hills for very short-term profits. I’m keen to find out…..

Leucana stand on a dryland hill slope

Cattle fattening shed where a leucaena-based diet can be formulated during the dry season

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