Farmers in East Flores no longer rely on cocoa to fulfill their basic needs. The youth are raising awareness, advocating adaptation to climate change.

Smiling bitterly, 72-year-old Yuliana Wadan Leba who is also the sole provider of her family, spoke of how increasingly difficult it was to depend on her some quarter of a hectare cacao plantation as a source of livelihood.

“Nature is no longer friendly to us. As you saw earlier, the cacao in the plantation are swarming with helopeltis,” sighed Leba, referring to the bug also known as tea mosquito, that sucks cocoa fruits dry.

The bugs have also attacked crops in other cacao plantations in Hokeng Jaya village in the sub-district of Wulanggitang in East Flores in the Eastern Lesser Sunda Islands.

A visit to the one-hectare cocoa plantation of Bapak Nyo, as Petrus Pedo Corebima (68) is better known in his village, on September 30, 2022, showed plenty of fruits which appeared to have dried up or had cracked and shriveled skin, the tell tales of helopeltis attacks.

Yuono, an observer and also a cocoa researcher, said in his 2015 article titled Cacao Fruit Pest Control that helopelthis could results in a drop in cacao productivity by up to 60 percent.

Sacita and Naim in their journal — Attack Level of Helopeltis and Cocoa Pod Borrer on Several Fertilization Doses on Cocoa — published in 2021 said that besides Helopeltis, cacao in Indonesia was also facing another major pest, the cacao pod borer (Conopomorpha cramerella). Both could inflict large losses to cacao farmers.

Helopeltis attacks young fruits and shoots, perforating them with its proboscis, sucking out the liquid in the plant’s cells. When inserting its proboscis, the tea mosquito also secretes a substance that is also poisonous to the living tissues around it.

On ripe cacao fruit, the damage caused by the tea mosquito starts with the appearance of light brown concave spots that later turn darker, while on young cacao fruit, the infection cracks the skin and shrivels the fruit, hindering the development of its beans inside.

The cacao pod borer will lay eggs inside the fruit. The larvae will eat up the flesh and skin of the cacao pod while also making the beans inside glued to each other, making them difficult to separate. The beans also are not only smaller than usual but also blackish.

Externally, fruits attacked by the pod borer display paler color, and later show green and yellow or red and orange stripes. The fruit also do not make any noise when shaken and when cut open, the beans are black and fused together.

Leba said that the tea mosquito pest began to affect cocoa plants in Hokeng around 2011 and has since continued to plague cocoa plantations in the area,

In 1998, Leba, Bapak Nyo and Karolus Karang, (65) another farmer from Hokeng, were trained on cacao cultivation by Yayasan Ayu Tani Mandiri, a local non-governmental organization (NGO) in East Flores.  

They also became cacao farming cadres and with the knowledge they obtained from the courses they formed Tobe Laga, a cacao farmer group in their village in 2000. 

Cacao harvests were bountiful between 2000 and 2010, allowing farmers in Hokeng and other villages in Wulanggitang to build houses and pay for the education of their children.

Cacao plantations covered up to 1,222 hectares, or 23.7 percent of the surface of the East Flores district. These lands used to be planted with food crops such as rice, maize, yam, banana and peanuts, to meet the need of villagers.

The soil in Wulanggitang is much more fertile than those in other sub-districts in East Flores and each family initially allotted a quarter of a hectares of their land to plant cacao. But gradually, cacao then replaced those other food crops in the region.

The problem faced by cacao in East Flores forced Leba to plant rice and maize again in land she possesses in her home village of Riang Baring in the neighboring sub-district of Ile Bura, some 35 kilometers away from Hokeng Jaya. 

“I had to plant non-irrigated rice and maize because I could no longer rely on cacao beans to get money to buy rice,” said Leba.

Poor awareness about climate change

Both Bapak Nyo and Karang admitted that at the time they knew nothing about climate change.

“When our cacao fruits and beans were damaged we heard from Thomas from Ayu Tani that this was an impact of climate change,” said Karang.

Thomas Uran, the director of Ayu Tani Mandiri said that one of the factors for the attacks of pests in the region was the unpredictability of the rainy and dry seasons.

Densi Kleden, the head of the East Flores Plantation office, echoed Uran and added that the pest that was attacking crops across East Flores also due to bad sanitation in the farmer’s fields.

“I have observed two factors, first because of the bad field sanitation — where all commodity crops are being planted on the same land and second, is the matter of climate change, the rainy season has now become difficult to predict, sometimes arriving earlier, sometimes late,” Kleden said. 

Nila Wardani, a researcher with the Lampung province Agency for Agricultural Technology Studies, in her paper on climate change and its impact on pest attacks (2016) said that climate change contributed to the exploding population of certain pest or their extinction.

Her research found that climate directly influence the bio ecology of the bugs with drastic climate change disrupting their breeding process.

 “While we used to be able to harvest 20-30 kilograms in a week, we can only get 5-7 kilogram per week now. And the cacao beans are not good, many of them are damaged,” Bapak Nyo said.

By September 2022, his plantation only yielded less than 100 kilograms and he hopes that the district authority accords more attention to the plight of the cacao farmers.

Gabriel Molik Tolok, a Hokeng Jaya village official said that he is still gathering data on the production of cacao beans and thus did not yet have valid data concerning the total volume of cacao beans harvested.

“I am worried that cacao here (in Hokeng) would one day disappear because of the threats of climate change,” Bapak Nyo said.

Yovita Yasintha Bolly who heads the Agro-technology Study Program at the Agriculture Faculty of Nusa Nipa Maumere University said that rain intensity in Wulanggitang has increased compared to other areas in East Flores and this was behind the prevalence of the tea mosquitos and pod borers.

 “Regarding the condition in Wulanggitang, the intensity of rain is the most influential factor behind the helopeltis attack. This type of bugs like environments with low sun exposure so that in rainy seasons the low intensity of the sun is leading to higher pest attacks,” Bolly said.

She added that during the dry season, this type of crop pest would attack plants in the morning and late afternoon while during most of the daytime they would just hide in dark corners or under leaves, adding that it’s important to prune the crops in both rainy and dry seasons.

The East Flores Statistics Office, quoting the district’s meteorology agency data said that between 2000 and 2001 Wulanggitang saw an annual average of 78 days of rain while between 2011 and 2021 the figure rose to between 115 and 181 days. 

Information on climate change remains limited

Awareness about the impacts of climate change on the production of cacao beans remains low among cacao farmers in East Flores.

Cacao farmers like Yustinus Kia (44), Robertus Bala (29), Paulina Mongan (67), and Yasinta Udo (58), have no knowledge that the attacks of the pod borers and the tea mosquitos were on the rise because of climate change.

“We are resigned to accept the current conditions,” said Kia.

Both the tea mosquitos and pod borers have now attacked all cacao crops in East Flores and even in the whole province of Eastern Lesser Sunda Islands, Uran pointed out.

Uran underlined that communication of information on climate change to farmers remains very limited and the government’s efforts to build the capacity of farmers and farmers groups so far remained focused on cultivation only.

Authority in East Flores and NGOs in the district need to build and strengthen the capacity of farmers to adapt better to climate change.

As a local NGO activist who has worked with farmers since the 90s, Uran admitted that farmers, including cacao farmers, were among the hardest hit by climate change.

Farmers were also among the hardest hit by the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic which began to spread in Indonesia in march 2020. 

Restrictions on movements of people prevented brokers and buyers to come to weigh and buy the cocoa beans while regulations were also issued prohibiting people from leaving the district to sell their beans.

The voice of youth in climate change campaigns

In the face of the challenges faced by cacao farmers, Uran and the network of local NGOs focused on environment and food issues, enlisted the help of the young generation to campaign and encourage actions to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

 “We thought there must be a common step that involves youths in each village. They can actively work from the lowest levels such as the neighborhood, the hamlet or villages up to the level of the district, to talk about the climate change issues,” Uran said.

There are currently 20 such youth with a diverse background such as teachers, infant health cadres and farmers in Wulanggitang and are called local champions.

These local champions are actively providing input related to policies in East Flores to push officials and policy makers to include climate change issues in their regional development plans.

“It is not only cocoa that is affected as we have seen in the plantation, but also cashew fruits,” said Shindy Soge, 30, a local champion from Hewa village in Wulanggitang.

Soge and her friends have initiated a number of good practices following ideas resulting from their six-month field observations from the village level to the district level.

 “Together, we have already made a lot of actions starting from introduction and encouraging the planting of local food crops, the conservation of water sources, a waste-conscious movement, all that at the policy advocacy level from villages up to the district, to save people’s commodity crops,” she added.

Other female local champion, Rosalia Onan (36) and Wilson Corebima (30), said that one particular joint advocacy had yielded result in the form of sustainable food program.

Addressing food and stunting issues

The Hokeng Jaya village authority has a launched a family empowerment initiative that also covers a program for sustainable food.

Hokeng Jaya Village chief, Gabriel Bala Namang said that the program for sustainable food seeks to meet food needs in the form of vegetables and organic fruits that have to be planted in each house yard and fields.

The village authority distributes free vegetable seeds and polybags to the 360 families in that village.

In Klatanlo village — formerly part of Hokeng Jaya village but became a village of its own in 2010 — the administration made it mandatory for villagers to also consume sorghum.

Klatanlo village chief Petrus Muda Kurang, made it obligatory for each family in the village to buy sorghum flour produced from the village’s own field that covers some one hectare.

“In the face of climate change which has caused a drop in the yields of cacao commodity, the main local source of revenues to buy rice, we see the opportunity for planting the village’s land plot with sorghum,” Kurang said.

Kurang says that besides meeting the food needs of villagers, the sorghum flour produced by the village and sold to villagers has helped in reducing stunting. in the area. By October 2022, only seven cases of stunting were recorded in the village.

Masni Bedanaen, the acting head of the Wulanggitang polyclinic said that an evaluation conducted in November 2022 showed that from the 65 infants in Kaltanlo, only six had stunted growth. The figure for the previous year was 12 stunting cases.

Bedanaen says other villages in Wulanggitang should follow suit as it’s proven to be effective in addressing stunting.

Until December 2022 there is not yet data on stunting for each village in Wulanggitang but the sub-district health center said that with the exception of Klatanlo, the other 10 villages in Wulanggitang tend to show fluctuating number of stunting cases. Klantalo on the other hand, has experienced a continues drop in cases.

There were 238 cases of stunting among the 1,042 infants in the sub-district in 2020. In 2021 the figures were 276 cases of stunting among 1,011 infants while in 2022 there were 206 cases of stunting among the 1,008 infants there.

Government program and financial assistance

Laurensius Boro Kereta, Head of Government and Human Development at the East Flores Office for Regional Planning, Development, and R&D on November 16 said that his office had received inputs from a number of NGOs and youth regarding climate change issues.

He said that one of program of the East Flores District Administration – safeguarding local farmers’ crops – is in line with the Regional Mid-term Development Planning for 2017-2022 that sought to safeguard people’s crops in the district.

Between 2019 and the end of 2022, the administration has allotted Rp303,618,000 in funds to support the handling of pests in agricultural land or plantations crop, including the provision of chemical insecticides, and support for the operations of officials in this sector.

“Concerning budget, we can say that there has always been a financial support for food and climate change matters, even though in limited amount because they have to be adjusted to the financial condition of the region,” Kereta said.  

Melkior Koli Baran from the Social Studies and Development Foundation (YPPS) which focuses on food and climate change in East Flores said that the national climate change targets should be considered in the planning at the region’s level.

“This is still very low in our region. This is what must be advocated, that it be considered in the main plan. Last year, we gave an input when the Regional Development Plan was being prepared so, it may already start to be included but the concept for adaptation and mitigation actions must still be further detailed,” Baran said.

He added that advocacy is everyone’s responsibility so that the development in East Flores can be climate-resilient and sustainable in the future.

Activists and a number of NGOs in East Flores continue to push for regional development plan to take into consideration the issues of food and climate change impacts.

They also continue to conduct campaigns and advocacy at the village level about the impacts of climate change and what anticipatory actions are needed.

Advocacy by farmer groups are also conducted at the sub-district and district level so that the authorities’ work plan includes efforts to improve local cacao crops.

“This collective action started from the lowest level and we are continuing all good practices that have been done in relation to climate change,” said Soge who is also a temporary teacher at the State Senior School 1 in Wulanggitang.

Leba, Bapak Nyo, Karang, and a number of cacao farmers as well as local motivators all aired the hopes that the East Flores district administration continues to accord attention to programs that safeguards the people’s crops, including cacao.

 “The programs should be held every month or every three months, involving many competent parties,” Bapak Nyo said.

This story is produced with support from the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalitsts (SIEJ) and Ekuatorial, and was first published by EkoraNTT on 4 January 2023.

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