Oxfam and IDS are starting work on Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility, a 4 year project combining qualitative and quantitative methods to track the human impact in communities in 10 countries, building on the methodology behind our 2011 report, Living on a Spike. Richard King at Oxfam and Naomi Hossain at IDS are running the project. Here, Naomi (right) reports back on one research trip to the rubber tappers of Indonesia.
I’m just back from South Kalimantan, part of Indonesian Borneo, where the idea that future food prices are likely to be jump even higher because of extreme weather events feels very real. Climate, energy, food and global economic crisis all feature in an alarming combination of volatilities. In the Banjarese community where IDS/Oxfam partners SMERU have been researching the social impacts of crisis since 2009, most people are rubber tappers. The past year has been particularly up-and-down, mainly down, even by the elastic standards of rubber producers.
We went to see one family, where the newly-single mother and household head – call her Siti – panicked when she saw us. ‘I’ve already paid’, she said. ‘I’ve paid for this month’. She thought we were debt collectors and was already behind on her first (I suspect also last) instalment for her new motorbike, easily the most popular means of getting about Indonesia. Siti needed it because she had recently shed her violent unfaithful husband, and was looking after four children on the wages of a rubber tapper (her working hours are 2am till 10am, when the rubber is fresh and the weather is cool).
The wages of rubber tappers are well down on last year, mostly because rubber prices have been affected by the double dip in the global economy, but partly due to the unusually dry season. Sofian told us he and his wife Fatiyah were earning 2.25 million (about US$ 240) rupiah per month this time last year; now they were getting 600,000 to 700,000 (US$ 63-73), depending on quality and quantity of their rubber. That is for two adults putting in a shared 7 hour shift between 4 and 9am, 6 days a week.
But as the price of rubber has sunk, the price of most food has steadily risen. People still eat rice in the same quantities or mix it with noodles – work is physical and they need the energy – but have cut down on fish. And, presumably because of the soybean crisis in the US, the high protein staple of the poor, tempe (soybean cake), has doubled in price. As the motorcycle grocer explained as he sped off, the price is the same, so he halves quantities.
Focus groups told another story. Their main problem, they tell us, is water. Some people think it is deforestation that has caused the water problems in Kalimantan, but in this part of Banjar, people point to the growing presence of the coal-mines. A popular community development programme (PNPM) devised a water pump project in an area with a water source, only to find that by the time it was installed, the water had disappeared, sunk without a trace, as the coal-mines dug deeper into the earth. The mining company has bought up lots of local land, at cheap but still attractive prices, so many local people no longer farm their own land. But they are also too poor to get the education they need to work for the mining companies as drivers or mechanics. It’s all lose-lose here, at least until the rubber price picks up or food prices go down again.
Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. This piece first appeared on the IDS team website.