Indonesia: Famine kills over 50 in Papua

from Paras Indonesia
Published on 09 Dec 2005
The government is sending emergency food and medical supplies to Papua province after reports that at least 55 people have starved to death there over the past month.
Another 117 people are said to be seriously ill as a result of the food shortage in seven of the 14 subdistricts of jungle-covered Yahukimo regency, which is located in the remote center of the resource-rich but underdeveloped province.

Officials said villagers in the mountainous area had planted their crops late this year because they were busy with district activities and had enjoyed an abundance of jungle fruits the previous season.

There was no elaboration on the nature of the "district activities", but Yahukimo was among the many Indonesian regencies that held district elections earlier this year. Yahukimo's election took place on June 28, but a revote was taken on August 2 due to bitter rancor among the four rival candidates, who had regularly mobilized the masses to stage shows of support.

Yahukimo regent Ones Pahebol said about 15,000 people in the regency have since October been without stocks of sweet potato tubers, the staple of food in the province, and there is no other food due to the late planting of crops. The regency's main crops are sweet potato, cassava, taro and sago.

Social Affairs Minister Bachtiar Chamsyah said the food shortage was not due to drought but to heavy rainfall, which had caused sweet potato tubers to rot in the saturated soil.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Friday (7/12/05) ordered newly appointed Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Aburizal Bakrie to visit the area and ensure that locals are provided with enough food and medicine to survive.

The president also instructed Bakrie and Home Affairs Minister Muhammad Maruf to investigate why the tragedy happened and to ensure that other parts of Papua are not at risk of famine.

He said it would be unforgivable if the deaths had been caused by officials neglecting their duty.

Parliament Speaker Blames Local Leaders

House of Representatives speaker Agung Laksono said the deaths were caused by the negligence of local leaders.

"In my capacity as House speaker, I herewith express my disappointment over the death of over 50 famine victims because of the negligence of their leaders," he was quoted as saying by state news agency Antara.

"This case of starvation in Papua is very regrettable, as scores of people have died. It should have been detected early," he was quoted as saying by detikcom online news portal.

"This incident proves the lower networks are not strong. Why was there no process in place until the people were dead? Perhaps our lower apparatus did not report it to their superiors," he said.

He said the Social Affairs Ministry must take immediate action in coordination with Bakrie to overcome the famine and implement an early warning system to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

Laksono said the government should improve infrastructure in the area so the villagers will no longer be isolated and susceptible to protracted food shortages.

He said it is understandable when communities are hit by natural disasters such as floods, whereas undetected famine must be due to mistakes in the government's infrastructure programs.

Aid On The Way

The villages hit by the famine are apparently only accessible by airplanes and helicopters.

Chamsyah said the Social Affairs Ministry had already sent five tons of rice to Yahukimo by helicopter from the provincial capital Jayapura. "Eight more tons of rice will be dispatched soon," he was quoted as saying by Antara.

He said his ministry keeps a reserve stock of at least 50 tons of rice in warehouses in every province of the country to help people in times of disaster. He expressed surprise that Papua's provincial government had been too slow to help the victims of the food shortage.

The minister said he had telephoned Yahukimo regent Ones Pahebol and asked him to explain the problem. "I asked him why he had only just now informed me. He replied, 'communication here is difficult sir'."

Chamsyah told Pahebol that he should have contacted Papua's governor to immediately obtain rice from the warehouse of the Social Affairs Office in Jayapura. "So it's unnecessary to request permission from here [the Social Affairs Ministry]," he said.

He said the ministry has initially ordered a total of 30 tons of rice to be sent to Yahukimo, with 8 tons coming from Jakarta and the remaining 22 from the warehouse in Jayapura.

The Social Affairs Ministry's disaster management head Andi Hanindito said that because rice is not a staple food of people in the affected area, 3 tons of sweet potato stocks worth Rp24 million would also be sent from Jayapura.

He said aid to be sent from Jakarta would include 5,000 cartons of instant noodles, 2,000 tins of sardines, 2,000 bottles of sweet soy sauce, 2,000 bottles of chili sauce, 250 bottles of cooking oil and 5,000 sarongs.

The aid would be flown on a Hercules transport plane from Jakarta to Papua's Wamena airfield on Saturday and then taken by helicopter to the neighboring regency of Yahukimo, he added.

Hanindito said other food aid and medical supplies were being sent from Merauke on the province's southern coast.

The World Food Program office in Jakarta has said it is ready to provide assistance if requested to do so.

Brief Background

Yahukimo does not sound like a typical Indonesian or Papuan name. That's because it's an acronym, taken from the names of the four ethnic groups in the regency: the Yali, Hubla, Kimyal and Momuna.

Formerly part of neighboring Jayawijaya regency, Yahukimo was one of 14 new regencies created in Papua under Law 26/2002. It was formally established a year later.

The regency is about 90% covered by jungle and very under-developed in terms of infrastructure and public health and education facilities. Malaria is said to be a common problem.

Almost 90% of the regency's workforce is involved in agriculture, which accounts for about 55% of the local economy.

Awards & Punishment

Ironically, Yudhoyono on Friday presided over a National Food Resilience Awards ceremony at the State Palace in Jakarta.

The president said he had mixed feelings during the ceremony. One the one hand, he said, he was happy and grateful to meet and confer awards upon those who had been of meritorious service in building national food resilience. But on the other hand, he felt sad because food shortages and deadly famines were still occurring in certain parts of the country.

"I cannot accept it if there is negligence on our part that causes famine. A food problem is a serious matter," he said.

Yudhoyono said he had ordered Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyantono to consider developing "rice barns" in regions prone to food shortages. He also instructed the minister to coordinate with governors and district heads in overcoming food problems.

He said government officials found to have been responsible for failing to prevent the famine would be punished. "We will punish them if they are proven to have neglected their people," he said.

"I ask that this problem be overcome. We must save our brothers [in Papua]," he added.

Yudhoyono said he had summoned Bakrie at 11.30pm Thursday after being informed of the famine. "I have ordered the coordinating minister for people's welfare to go to Papua immediately."

He expressed concern that government officials had failed to detect and deal with the food shortage before people began starving to death. "There are village, subdistrict, district and provincial chiefs, but where were they when something bad happened?"

He said local government officials must regularly obtain first-hand information on conditions and continually monitor developments in their respective areas. They should also know the problems that occur in their areas and forge ties with their people, he added.

People's Consultative Assembly speaker Hidayat Nurwahid said the Papua famine presents Bakrie, one of the country's most prominent tycoons, with a good opportunity to prove he is worthy of being coordinating minister of people's welfare.

Critics have claimed Bakrie is the wrong man for the job because he has devoted much of his life to personal business interests and has little empathy for the people.

"The government must go directly to the area. This is an opportunity for the coordinating minister for people's welfare, as a politician and a tycoon, to prove that he's right for the position," Nurwahid was quoted as saying by detikcom.

"It's very ironic that in our country, which is healthy, prosperous and very rich, there are some communities dying from starvation. What's most important is the supervision of the regional government. How could this humanitarian tragedy have happened?" he said.

He said the government should learn from the tragedy that regional budgets ought to be devoted to improving the welfare of the people, rather than being squandered on expenses linked to the interests of the bureaucracy.

Despite Papua's abundant natural resources, the province is one of the poorest in Indonesia, with about 40% of people living below the poverty line.

The government has said Papua Governor Jacobus Perviddya Solossa and his deputy Constant Karma could soon be replaced but denied the move was related to the famine. A nice picture of the governor and details of his biodata can be seen at the Papua government's website.