Erratic weather has exacerbated food insecurity in one of Indonesia's driest regions, leaving farmers and families hoping for the best as October's planting season approaches.
"I have a feeling this year we will be OK," Maria Talan, 63, an elder in the remote village of Noenoni, in the district of West Timor (TTS), told IRIN, already looking forward to next April's harvest.
Talan's optimism comes on the heels of severe and unexpected flooding in 2010 that washed out her village's one harvest and left people at times filling their plates with leaves and seeds.
Although Nusa Tengarra Timor (NTT) province is notoriously dry, with only four months of rain a year, the government estimates 80 percent of the 4.5 million people toil away on often rocky, unfertile plots to survive, with little other industry to generate an income.
"The condition of the land is a problem, but last year we had extreme weather in October at planting time and the corn harvest, our main crop, failed," said Antonius Efi, an activist for Yakibu, a local organization promoting the rights of women and children in Kefamenanu, the capital of North Central Timor (TTU), the district neighbouring TTS.
According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), ongoing deforestation, a leading cause of flooding, is largely to blame for the rainfall fluctuation that TTS and TTU residents describe. NTT province has one of the highest concentrations of deforestation in Indonesia, according to the report.
The availability of food is a constant issue in these districts in the mostly undeveloped eastern province where an estimated 30 percent live below the poverty line on an average income of US$280 a year.
More than half of all children younger than five are underweight and stunted, according to the Nutrition Security and Food Security report on NTT in 2010.
The flooding only made matters worse.
Failed crops and variable weather conditions hit people in remote villages such as those around Kefamenanu hardest, researchers suspect, but empirical evidence is still scarce, according to Emmanuel Skoufias, lead economist at the World Bank's Poverty Reduction and Equity unit in Washington, DC. His research team recently released one of the first reports on the impact of rainfall fluctuation in rural Indonesia.
There is no paved road to Noenoni and most of its 3,000 residents rely on their bare feet for transport along the steep and winding rocky path to the river and beyond. When food is scarce, there is little locals can do to improve reserves besides gather what they can find.
Photo: Natalie Bailey/IRIN
|Food insecurity is chronic in Nusa Tenggara Timor|
That lack of access to and availability of food, cornerstones of how food security is determined, have prompted organizations such as Oxfam to brand NTT a top priority for disaster preparedness projects, bracing the communities for weather fluctuations and crop failure by establishing irrigation systems and alternative means of income.
"But when we came into the area the people asked, 'We've already faced not having food, so why are you talking about it now?'," said Ofridus Krispinianus, programme manager with Oxfam's local partner, Community Association to Help Disaster Preparedness and Response, in Kupang.
He noted that while drought is a regular occurrence, last year's flood was a new phenomenon.
The women of Noenoni say they can conjure meals from papaya leaves and tamarind seeds when there is nothing else, and, at times, resort to a poisonous bean, known locally as arbila hutan, which must be boiled 12 times to detoxify.
In Oeperigi, 50km into neighbouring TTU, the people stick to rice seasoned with salt or chili once or twice a day, made available through a government rations programme that does not reach Noenoni.
Kornelia Pantola, 32, has witnessed many changes in Oeperigi throughout her life - they have electricity now, for instance - but access to more than just rice has always been a problem, she said.
In contrast to government food programmes providing rice subsidies, World Vision is cultivating a home gardening project, which will soon implement hydroponic techniques in an attempt to address the lack of water and rocky earth.
"Maybe it is not the solution, but it is a start," said nutrition specialist Sri Wulansari, for World Vision in Kupang.
Such a diet, lacking in nutrients, results in high rates of stunting, illness and malnutrition.
Stunting is a nationwide problem, affecting 35.6 percent of all Indonesians; however, more than half, 58.4 percent, of the people in NTT are stunted, according to 2010 estimates by the Ministry of Health.