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Indonesians Face Austerity From Food Shortages

by Kafil Yamin

Monitor article on Indonesian food shortage
(IPS) WEST JAVA -- Long before President B.J. Habibie urged Indonesian Muslims to observe more frequent fasting in order to help conserve rice, many Indonesians have cut down on their food intake.

In Indramayu, in the southern coast of West Java, for instance, people have reduced their consumption of rice. A small family which used to consume an average 1.5 kgs of rice a day is now eating only one kg of the staple.

This self-imposed restraint has altered the pattern of consumption. Residents of Indramayu still have three meals a day but one is now taken without rice.

One might conclude that there is a serious rice shortage in this Indonesian village. But such is not the case, residents say. In fact, they point to the abundant stocks of rice in the market, where only a few buyers are visible.

"We reduce rice consumption not because of the absence of rice. Stocks are there, but we can hardly afford it," Hamidin, a farmer, told IPS.

He said before the financial crisis struck, the price of rice was hardly a problem for him and his fellow farmers because they had their own harvest. But the drought and other factors changed all that. "Our paddy plants were attacked by disease. Paddy borer has ruined our harvest," he sighed, adding that most of his small paddy field of about one half-acre was damaged.

Mujan, another farmer, managed to get only very little rice from his paddy field. He has no choice but to buy from the market, where the price of the commodity has been rising.

Malnutrition among children is obvious
With the price of rice at about 15 U.S. cents per kilogram, he could only afford to buy 10 kilograms or so. "This amount is enough for only one week. Since we don't know where to get money for the week next, we save the rice by reducing daily consumption," he said.

Indramayu is one of the country's rice centers, with annual production of 630,000 tons. In times of poor harvest, it normally gets supply from neighboring areas like Majalengka, Sumedang, Pamanukan and Subang.

But this time, rice coming from outside Indramayu is so expensive, a result of a decline in the national output due mainly to the effects of drought and disease.

"So what is really happening is not a food crisis, but purchasing power crisis," said Ridono Aidad, vice regent of Indramayu.

A.M. Syaefuddin, the food minister, put it this way: "If you happen to see people lying on the street starving, it's not because there is no food, but because he or she cannot afford to buy food."

While admitting that the national rice production is on a decline, he said a shipment of 500,000 tons from Japan and a similar amount from China would augment local supply.

Nobody in Indramayu has died of starvation, though malnutrition among children is obvious. In Indramayu as in other place like Gunungkidul in Central Java and Tasikmalaya in West Java, people have substituted dried cassava for rice.

One prime commodity in short supply is cooking oil and the lack of it has prompted villagers to resort to broiling and roasting. "If we get fish, we roast it," said one resident. "People in the neighborhood cook fish without cooking oil."

In some villages, families produce their own cooking oil. "Three coconuts can produce one medium-size bottle of cooking oil. Not too bad isn't it?" said one housewife.

Indeed, the crisis is bringing out people's resourcefulness.

In Bandung regency, villagers agreed to put up a "city barn" where families who are better off are asked to set aside small amounts of essential goods -- rice, cooking oil, sugar, flour, soybean -- from their own supply to be distributed to those who have hardly any.

The massive rioting, looting and arson in May in which the ethnic Chinese were the main target had destroyed the national food distribution network which Chinese merchants controlled.

In the absence of the Chinese traders, who are being coaxed to return home and rebuild the distribution network, the government is trying to set up village cooperatives to do the job. Subsidized rice, flour, sugar are channeled through village cooperatives for sale to the community.

The results are not very encouraging. It is widely known that village cooperatives lack good management and capable human resources and are prone to corruption. Instead of distributing the basic commodities to the needy, the goods end up elsewhere.

"I am relieved that government has appointed cooperatives to channel basic commodities. But I am disappointed that each time I go to the cooperative for cooking oil or rice, they say the stocks have run out," said one resident.

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Albion Monitor July 27, 1998 (

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