Making an impact in the Mentawai

By Connor Eck

Over a decade ago a devastating tsunami hit the Mentawai islands. The worst affected area was South Pagai, where approximately 2,900 people with living standards already amongst the lowest nationally, were forced to relocate inland away from the coast and abandon their traditional livelihood as a fishing community.

The new area had very little infrastructure and sustainable livelihood opportunities were scarce, forcing community members to return to their old coastal villages to gather or farm food. Parents took their children on these long walking journeys which could take multiple days, contributing to the persistent underweight status of children under five, along with a loss of community resilience.

To combat this, SurfAid established food security and nutrition programmes that focused on agriculture-based economic development and income generating projects. Pak Pilmar is a member of a SurfAid supported farmers group in the Mentawai and until recently, a reluctant farmer.

“I no longer want to plant chili. It is going to fail all over again!” Sweat covered Pak Pilmar’s face as he shared his frustration with SurfAid’s Community Development Officer, Buteli Nazara. Pak Pilmar’s body wore the fatigue that comes with days of working in the field under the direct sun. Buteli patiently listened to his concerns as he explained why he didn’t want to take part in the programme in the upcoming season. Through their discussion, he learned that Pak Pilmar had missed some essential steps in the planting process, resulting in a failed crop.

Buteli encouraged him to try again and provided assurance that the SurfAid team would be there to support him. Beginning with sessions on how to cultivate the land, trainings would also introduce proper permaculture techniques, and based on SurfAid’s accompaniment approach, guidance and monitoring would continue through the harvest.

Chili is one of the primary commodities that is introduced through SurfAid’s Katuerukat program in the Mentawai. Chili harvesting can significantly improve the economy by establishing a sustainable, long term income generating opportunity. At present, most chili stock is shipped over from the neighboring community of Padang. The 12-hour ferry ride makes the product cost prohibitive and generally of low quality. Incorporating chili farming presents an immediate opportunity for sustainable income generation by growing and selling locally.

The economic opportunity was strong and feeling empowered by SurfAid’s support, Pak Pilmar agreed to try his hand at a chili harvest one more time. Along with his wife, Bu Dorasaher, they hand planted a crop of 150 chili seeds and put trust in their newly learned skills.

Four months have passed since that first visit and the deep red of the chili skin dominates the once green field. Pak Pilmar planted hope along with every seed and has been rewarded for his efforts. “My hands shook at the first touch of the chili with its bold red color attached to the standing-tall stem. 150 stems turned into 31kg of fresh chili from our first harvest. Now we can have extra income of IDR 1,300,000 (AUD $127/USD $87) just from our first harvest!” The soft voice of his wife Bu Dorasaher followed with further excitement, “I used to think that it would never work!”

This amount might not seem much for many people, but in most of SurfAid’s programme areas, the communities are subsiding on levels equivalent to less than a dollar a day. For Pak Pilmar and his family, this economic opportunity translates to regular access to healthy food and even the option of education for his children. “I am going to expand the chili space up to 1000 chili stems. It is like expanding my dream for my family by 1000 times!”

It has been years since the SurfAid Community stepped in to help after the devastating tsunami in the Mentawai. The needs may have changed, but with your help, we are keeping our promise and doing everything we can to support and #NeverForgetTheLocals. Please consider making an end of year donation to help support our Mother and Child Health programmes in surf communities around the world. Thank you for helping make the dreams of Pak Pilmar and so many others like him, come true.

In the US:
Erin Miserlis,
Everywhere else:
Doug Lees,