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Living on the edge

By Sri Wahyu Endah
The worst drought in living memory led to widespread famine for the people of Irian Jaya in 1997. Previously unknown diseases, such as malaria, higher-than-normal temperatures, and sporadic fighting further aggravated the situation. Immediate action was required to avert an even greater catastrophe.

In village after village it was the same story, as a Red Cross team made its way through the drought-stricken regions of the central mountains of Irian Jaya to assess the situation and bring assistance.

“In some of the places we visited, more than half the children were suffering from malnutrition and there was nothing left to eat,” said Dr Ferenc Mayer, the ICRC’s regional delegate in Jakarta, after returning from an evaluation mission carried out with the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) in November 1997. “It was the final stage of famine and people had already started to die.”

Early warning signals had come out of the isolated village of Alama that the health and food situation was bad and deteriorating fast. Alama is a tiny settlement of 261 inhabitants situated at an altitude of 1,000 metres. It consists of an airstrip, an army outpost and a few houses, lost in the middle of the primary forest.

Access to food had been severely hampered, as the people of Alama had fled to the jungle in 1996 to escape clashes between Indonesian security forces and members of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), a group seeking independence from Indonesia. The following year, the Indonesian army gathered the population out of the forest and made them go back to their former settlements, just as it had done with many other villages in the region who had sought refuge from the violence in the jungle. Their fields were now a 24-hour walk away and the crops they yielded, apart from being nutritionally insufficient, were more or less exhausted. Of the 82 children living in Alama, 37 were suffering from severe malnutrition.



No means of coping

Though the yearly “rainy season” usually extends from May to October, most areas in Irian Jaya had not seen rain for months — a condition for which the weather phenomenon “El Niño” was mostly to blame. A vast region and more than 400,000 people were affected.

“The sweet potatoes we planted in August were a complete failure,” one man from the village of Ngeselema told the visiting evaluation team. “Unless something is done to help, the people are all going to die within the next two months.

Most of the people of Irian Jaya are subsistence farmers, relying on sweet potatoes for 90 per cent of their energy intake. The sweet potato has a very high yield (up to 40 tonnes per hectare per year) and it can be cultivated up to an altitude of 3,500 metres, allowing the population to settle out of the range of malaria-bearing mosquitoes. The sweet potato is also essential because it is used for the partial feeding of pigs, which are traditionally the only source of social, political and economic power (see box).

However, such mono-cropping renders the local farmers highly dependent and extremely vulnerable to any problem concerning that crop. Furthermore, since climatic conditions in the region are generally favourable, the people had not been forced to develop strong coping mechanisms — and those they did have were not sufficient to withstand the magnitude and duration of this particular drought.

Joint action

The critical situation prompted the ICRC, together with the PMI, to conduct surveys and start relief operations in the most-affected regions: the southern part of the central mountains (Mimika regency) and the southern part of the Baliem valley (Jayawijaya regency).

The people of Irian Jaya live in scattered settlements, often at high altitudes in dense jungle, with a
total absence of roads and other basic infrastructure. Other than walking for days in the jungle, helicopters were the sole means of reaching the people in need. Today, apart from some missionaries and the Indonesian branch of World Vision, the Red Cross is the only agency which can reach the affected population.

The ICRC-PMI team made daily helicopter flights to distribute rice, high-energy biscuits, green peas, cooking oil and salt to around 18,000 people in 19 villages scattered around the Mimika regency. At the same time, in order to help the local people regain self-sufficiency, distributions were made of sweet potato vines, as well as corn, peanut, bean and cabbage seeds.

Besides food, the team provided medical assistance and evacuated people with critical health conditions to hospitals in the towns of Tembagapura and Timika. Health delegates gave on-the-spot treatment to seriously ill patients, while malaria victims were either treated individually or at the community level. In some villages the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases was brought down from 80 per cent to 15 per cent.

Alongside its own health programme, the Red Cross cooperated with the local government health office by giving training courses in basic health care for nurses and health workers from villages covered by the assistance programme. It was hoped that the skills would be brought back to the villages and used for the benefit of others. A malaria-control training course was also designed for village entomology workers with the main aim of finding and destroying mosquito breeding sites.


Where the pig is king

The pig holds a very important place in Papuan culture, to the point where in times of scarcity it comes into competition with man for a share of the sweet potato crop. The only source of capital, generally in the form of shell money, is successful pig breeding.

The pig is fully domesticated, taken care of by the women and owned by the men of the village. The women feed the piglets from six weeks old, twice daily, with chewed, cooked sweet potatoes and let them sleep in their homes. The pigs become highly dependent on their environment, both emotionally and physiologically as a result of this special treatment. The women are reimbursed for their work at the slaughter and sale of the pigs. For the men, pigs mean wealth, as well as political power. The most successful pig breeders are those who may acquire authority within the community.


Further needs

From the end of February 1998, the Red Cross turned its attention to the south of the Baliem valley, where previously the government had been distributing assistance. Many villages had received virtually no relief supplies since December –— only some sporadic food drops.

Two ICRC-PMI teams with helicopters assessed 25 villages and brought food to them, as well as to a number that were not individually assessed. “What we (did was) to fly to a number of villages and settlements with food and medicines and assess the situation. The next day, (we flew) back and delivered what was needed and then carried on to new areas to assess the situation there,” explains Iyang Sukandar, Head of the Disaster Relief Division at the Indonesian Red Cross.

Here, the Red Cross operation was carried out in coordination with World Vision Indonesia and the Netherlands Reformed Church, both of which provided the food, while the logistics for the distribution from Wamena warehouse to villages with an airstrip was taken care of by the Missionary Aviation Fellowship.

So far, it seems that these efforts have paid off. However, to prevent this catastrophe from recurring, the full force of the Movement has been mobilized. The ICRC is supporting a programme of the International Federation and the PMI to strengthen the local branches’ disaster preparedness and response abilities. Hopefully, this will bring some relief to people caught between an internal conflict and global climate changes.

Sri Wahyu Endah
Sri Wahyu Endah is an information delegate for the ICRC’s regional delegation in Jakarta.

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