May 25, 2017 Last Updated 4:12 AM, May 24, 2017

Anticipating the future

Published: Feb 02, 2017

 Yunita T. Winarto, Kees (C.J) Stigter (†) and Rhino Ariefiansyah

‘It is like magic, the prediction came true,’ said one farmer about the seasonal scenario that he had received from an agrometeorologist. Farmers usually cannot forecast future rainfall except by referring to their traditional calendar and past experience. Elderly farmers use traditional calendars like the ‘Pranata mangsa’, from Java, and ‘Warigé’, from Lombok, to help them make decisions about when and what to plant. However, some farmers in Indramayu, West Java, now realise that they need new scientific knowledge to help them adapt to changes in the climate. 

These days, the start of the rainy season is uncertain, with the chance of a ‘false start’. A false start is when there is some rainfall at the end of the dry season, followed by a number of consecutive dry days. The rainwater is therefore not sufficient for farmers to start their planting. These days, farmers might also experience sudden, high levels of rainfall and flooding, continuous rain in the dry season, or a prolonged drought. But with the help of seasonal scenarios, farmers can now foresee what is going to happen in the near future and make decisions accordingly, or so the scientists thought. 

In April 2015, before the year’s rainy season had ended, the farmers in Indramayu received a forecast that the coming dry season would be very dry, and that the next rainy season of 2015/2016 would be late, with a slow start. The scenario for the coming three months was prepared by an agrometeorologist in the Netherlands and translated and circulated via mobile phone to a group of farmers in Indramayu and East Lombok by some Indonesian anthropologists. The farmers were grateful for these seasonal scenarios, but only some were able to respond in an appropriate manner. Others, who did not have the support of their village, saw their crops fail. 

Learning to anticipate

Since 2009, Indonesian anthropologists, a Dutch agrometeorologist and farmers in Gunung Kidul, Indramayu, and East Lombok have developed on-site learning centres called Science Field Shops (SFSs). The aim is to help farmers understand the implications of particular rainfall patterns for their fields and plants. The SFSs are designed to help improve farmers’ ability to anticipate the weather, and to make appropriate yet flexible decisions for the next planting season. 

SFSs use an ‘extension approach’ based on a dialogical knowledge exchange among farmers themselves, between farmers and scientists, and with extension workers. Conventionally, extension workers convey the government’s requirements to farmers in a top-down way. The new approach transfers the scientific knowledge of agrometeorology and seasonal scenarios for operational use to farmers. Farmers are required to carry out daily observations of rainfall and agro-ecosystems, document and analyse their findings, and discuss them at the SFSs. They learn how to relate the rainfall patterns to the condition of their fields and the growth of their plants. Through this process, farmers have come to call themselves ‘rainfall observers’, for they are active learners in the exchange.

Every month, the agrometeorologist, assisted by the Indonesian anthropologists, sends seasonal predictions for the coming three months to the farmers who have joined the SFSs and formed local Rainfall Observers Clubs. By receiving those scenarios and enriching their knowledge, farmers are able to anticipate the future, so as to be better prepared for unusual climate conditions.  

However, the seasonal forecast in April 2015 made the farmers anxious. They feared their crops would fail due to the probable long drought from the beginning of the dry season until at least the end of the year. It was particularly worrisome for those whose fields depended on rainfall as their main source of water. Water supply has always been an issue, even during normal dry seasons. But now the seasonal forecast predicted that something worse was coming. 

The anxiety was understandable. The farmers were going to face one of the worst droughts they had ever experienced due to one of the strongest El Niño events ever recorded. El Niño  events originate in the Pacific Ocean and for Indonesia result in long dry periods. El Niño events happen with or without climate change, and climate changes are much longer-term than El Niño events, but the increasing variability of El Niño events has been induced by climate change. As they approached the 2015 dry season, farmers responded in different ways, with diverse outcomes.

It takes a village

The seasonal prediction was received by the rainfall observer farmers in Nunuk village in the south-east of Indramayu. They interpreted the prediction to mean that the dry season would come sooner than usual, and be preceded by a gradual decrease of rainfall. The village head, Adi, who is also a member of the Rainfall Observers Club, decided that the village should develop a strategy to save their harvests. Adi called a meeting prior to the dry season planting and invited the rainfall observers of his village as well as all the other farmers. 

At the meeting, they discussed and decided on the most effective strategies for the forthcoming dry season planting. They took into consideration the timing of the flight of the white rice stem-borer moths and the full moon. A collective agreement was thus reached to prepare the schedule for making the nursery beds and for tilling the soil, and to plant a special variety of rice that matures early.  By the time the plants reached the generative stage, there was no more rain. Long periods of dry followed. Fortunately, however, the underground water wells were still available. As a result, nobody experienced harvest failure. Instead, they were able to produce normal yields of around 5 to 6 tons per hectare.  

Water reservoirs 

Similarly, Darso, a farmer from another village in Indramayu, successfully produced a yield of 12.5 tons per hectare in the midst of the harvest failures faced by many of his fellow farmers. Besides having planted a new variety of rice, he claimed to have benefited from a reservoir in his area, Situ Bolang. Not only did he have enough water throughout the season, but also he was able to carry out intermittent irrigation or bursat. He flooded his field for up to seven days. Then he drained the water and left the soil exposed to the sun and air for several days before re-flooding the field. This practice had been introduced at the SFSs. It provides aerobic conditions for the plants to grow better. The aerobic condition helps reduce methane emissions while sustaining yields and reducing costs such as the cost of fuel used to pump water from the reservoir. Moreover, the drought reduced pest infestations and diseases, which helped increase yield.  The availability of water resources in the form of local water reservoirs was also a great advantage for farmers in East Lombok. These farmers cultivated tobacco in the dry season of 2015. Tobacco does not need much water. In fact, a lack of rain helps tobacco to grow well. Judicious watering of the plants was possible due to the embung, which are local water reservoirs that form a part of household property inherited from parents. Embung cannot be separated from the rice fields which are called bangket in the local Sasak language. They are like husband and wife, or embung-bangket. 

In general, in 2015 the yields of tobacco were higher than in 2014 despite the harsh drought. The higher yields were probably due to the availability of water, in controlled amounts, and low rainfall and low humidity, which are not favourable for pests and diseases.

Local water reservoir (embung) in East Lombok - Credit: Yunita T Winarto, 2015

Adapting with new crops

Interpreting the seasonal predictions, some rainfall observers in Indramayu anticipated that the fallow period of 2015 would be a long one, with a late start to the rainy season. They did not want to just wait for the rainy season without any income. Some farmers thought of the kinds of crops that could withstand drought. Based on their experience, two farmers, Karso and Usup, decided to plant mung beans in their fallowed clay fields, full of ‘drought cracks’. Wita decided to plant spinach. The mung beans in Usup’s field, which has always been treated with organic fertilisers, grew well. Karso’s decision to grow mung beans was followed by his neighbours, and became a model for his neighbours to follow. 

Mung-bean crops in the fallowed rice fields of 2015 - Credit: Aria S. Handoko

For one kilogram of mung beans, Karso and his fellow farmers could earn as much as Rp12,000. Karso, Usup and Wita were thus able to make a profit during this long dry period, when other farmers were suffering. The other farmers were not prepared for the drought as they had not been exposed to the agrometeorological knowledge shared through the SFSs. 

A lone observer

But knowledge alone is not sufficient. There was a massive harvest failure in the 2015 dry season. In Indramayu, approximately 2,806 hectares of rice fields failed in the dry season of 2015. A large area was left un-harvested by the farmers on the north coast of Indramayu. After flowering, no more rain fell and the plants slowly died. One rainfall observer, Candra, a farmer facilitator of the Indramayu Rainfall Observers Club, who had received the seasonal forecast, experienced the same fate as his fellow farmers, with no crops harvested. 

Candra’s dried-off paddy in his field - Credit: Aria S. Handoko, 2015

Rice fields in that area are supposed to receive water from irrigation, but in reality, the irrigation water seldom reaches this area. Candra understood quite well that the more suitable cropping pattern for this area is ‘paddy followed by two seasons of secondary crops’ and not ‘three times planting paddy’ as recommended by the government to increase rice productivity. He knew in advance of the ‘very probable risk’ of planting paddy in the dry season without enough water. So why did he continue to plant paddy?

Candra is the sole rainfall observer in his village. None of the other farmers in his village received an early warning from anyone about the very probable dry conditions. Also, they were not used to cultivating other crops. ‘Facing the risk of harvest failure in the dry season is not unusual for farmers in this area. It has been like that for a long time,’ argued Candra. 

However, Candra was not in a position to influence the village authorities to find a better solution. Since other farmers kept planting rice, he followed his neighbours. By mid-June, rain was not falling and Candra and his neighbours looked for underground wells, but these attempts failed. A total harvest failure was the result.

Surviving climate change

With the increasing irregularity of extreme climate events such as El Niño, farmers are no longer able to survive by relying solely on their traditional knowledge. But supplementing this with scientific knowledge, such as the seasonal predictions provided by scientists, is not enough. To survive in the changing environment, farmers need more than awareness of environmental conditions. They need to establish agrometeorological and other learning habits that will enable them to anticipate future risks and find their own solutions that are suitable to local conditions. In the absence of any timely and appropriate government warning system and knowledge transfer, farmers will continue to risk facing harvest failures, especially when they are not supported by their fellow farmers. 

Yunita T. Winarto (yunita.winarto@gmail.com) is a Professor at the Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Indonesia and the coordinator of the research cluster on Response Farming to Climate Change of the Center for Anthropological Studies, FISIP-UI.

Kees (C.J.) Stigter was an agrometeorologist from Agromet Vision, the Netherlands, Indonesia, and Africa, who had been collaborating with the anthropologists from UI since 2008. He passed away on 20 May 2016 after falling ill while facilitating an SFS session in Indramayu.

Rhino Ariefiansyah (rhino.ariefiansyah@gmail.com) is a Lecturer at the Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Indonesia, and a visual anthropologist/researcher in the research cluster on Response Farming to Climate Change at the Center for Anthropological Studies, FISIP-UI.


Inside Indonesia 127: Jan-Mar 2017

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