Wednesday, September 30, 1998

Indonesia faces dire rice problem

The Nation, September 30, 1998, Wednesday

The shortage of rice is getting very serious in Indonesia as even farmers scrounge for their staple food. Andreas Harsono writes.

Prior to the ongoing economic crisis, Warsan used to run a small business, producing and selling furniture from his wooden house in the little village of Klampok, 320 kilometres southeast of Jakarta.

''Now a piece of this six-centimetre-thick foam is 60,000 rupiah. It was only 15,000 rupiah last year,'' said Warsan, taking a piece of blue upholstery material out of his workshop.

Unable to resist the pressure, the carpenter, who uses only one name, finally had to close down his business six months ago and even sold his house to pay his bank charges.

''Nobody cares to buy furniture any more. Their top priority is buying rice,'' said Warsan's wife, Chodiah, who joined her husband in an interview on Sept 19 holding her youngest daughter.

The difficulties of the Warsans are a worrying example of many Indonesian families whose breadwinners have lost their jobs and have trouble feeding their children.

Warsan and Chodiah have six children, whose ages range from 19 years to the 13-month-old infant. Their eldest, a daughter recently gave birth to their first grandchild.

''Most of the time, I have to go into debt to buy our daily rice. We eat only rice and vegetables. I don't remember the last time we ate meat,'' said the 40-year-old Chodiah, who suffers from acute tuberculosis but has no money for intensive medication.

Warsan is a freelance carpenter now. He mends broken furniture or takes part-time work in a big furniture shop, earning between 6,000 and 7,000 rupiah a day, just enough to buy three kilogrammes of rice.

''Sometimes he brings no money home, but sometimes we can still buy 500 rupiah worth of bones to make a tiny bowl of soup for the baby,'' said Chodiah, adding that her family's diet has changed from vegetables to tempe soybean cake.

The food problem began with the depreciation of the Indonesian rupiah, which weakened from 2,300 to the US dollar in July last year to around 10,000 this month. Consequently Indonesia has had to to increase the domestic price of rice, which has quadrupled from 800 rupiah per kilogramme last year to between 2,500 and 3,000 this month.

Government agencies predict that 15 million of Indonesia's 200 million people are having difficulty buying rice and widespread looting of rice warehouses and paddy fields have taken place in some parts of the country.

Minister of Food Distribution A M Saefuddin said the calculation of rice stocks was based on the assumption that with a monthly rice consumption of 11 kg per person, the total need for 200 million people would be about 2.2 million tonnes per month.

The government imported some from Thailand, Pakistan and the United States, but Saefuddin said many people were hoarding their rice stocks because of price uncertainty.

''Shortages of food are especially acute off the island of Java. There are people who can't get access to rice any more,'' said Jeffrey Winters, professor of political economy at Northwestern University in Illinois.

Winters added that Indonesia, once proclaimed self-sufficient in rice production, was now the world's largest importer of rice. ''That's very expensive for Indonesia at a time when the rupiah is very, very weak,'' he said.

In a bid to help poor families, the worst victims of this crisis, the Indonesian government has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to finance a scheme by which poor families can buy heavily subsidised rice. Each poor family is given a coupon for 10 kg of rice a month at 1,000 rupiah a kilogramme.

''But there are families who cannot afford 10,000 rupiah a month to buy rice. They're the poorest of the poor,'' said social worker Edy Purwanto of the Klampok-based Emanuel Hospital.

Quoting statistical measures from the Indonesian Family Planning Agency, Purwanto said a person is considered poor who among other things cannot afford to consume 300 grammes of rice a day.

This makes the Warsans -- two parents, one son-in-law, six children and one grandchild -- poor, as they cannot afford three kilogrammes of rice every day.

By this standard, Purwanto said, between 17 and 25 per cent of families in Klampok were categorised as poor before the crisis. Now around 70 per cent are, including the newly poor Warsans.

The impacts on many villagers is devastating. Many parents have taken their children out of school. Around 6,000 children have reportedly dropped out this semester, almost half the school-age children in the district. Crime has increased. Several villagers admit that they spend the night in their paddy fields in case of theft. Stories abound in the district of paddy being stolen from fields and rice from bowls.

''We're still fortunate that our children do not complain much. Children eat anything if they're hungry,'' said Chodiah, mentioning that only one of her six children still goes to school. The others have dropped out.

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