Trade and industry, International relations, Food & water | Asia, Southeast Asia

5 June 2020

In the wake of the pandemic crisis, Australia needs to look to the unique struggles of its developing neighbours, and do what it can to help, John McCarthy writes.

In early May, Serambi, a local newspaper in Aceh, interviewed a fish trader. “Unsold fish are piling up in the market”, the trader said. After the onset of COVID-19, many Indonesian households cut back on fish, the main source of protein across Indonesia’s 15,000 islands. The fish trader had been forced to dump 400 kilograms of tuna after the fish began to rot.

Roads, building projects, and mining sites shut down. Cash income fell. Fish and vegetable traders reduced their visits to villages. With less money to spend, people turned to cheap, less nutritious food. For the poor, cutting back on protein is a way to make ends meet. Yet, it leads to poor nutrition and stunting, and it is a sign of nutritional insecurity.

Indonesia has faced a tsunami of issues raised by COVID-19. Infected migrant labourers returned from overseas, and newly unemployed urban workers arrived in their villages, bringing the virus home.

Prices dropped precipitously for farmers who cannot get their goods to market. With some countries in the region cutting back on rice exports and with global value chains disrupted, a fear of rice shortages haunts the news. The COVID-19 shutdown has affected supply chains and the ability of the poor to buy food.

An overstretched government has responded with a suite of social protection measures. While those enlisted in social programs access benefits, there are gaps in safety nets. Some households receive as little as 600,000 rupiah a month, around $60, for food needs. Villagers rely on family and neighbourhood networks in time of need, and village governments are trying to funnel help to those falling through the cracks.

More on this: Indonesia must do more to tackle the coronavirus crisis

According to the World Bank ‘Over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history. This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time.’

But poverty statistics have never told the whole story. Sociologists describe a situation where poor rural people neither find secure livelihoods through work in the labour market nor through farming. They label this a ‘truncated transition’, a kind of stagnation where rural people are unable to transition from rural penury into secure paid labour.

Yet, during our research in Indonesia we found many rural people progressed in a paradoxical fashion. Farming households combine agriculture with work in non-farm sectors. As they diversify, poor households buy motorbikes and a mobile phone, often on credit. They use money from off-farm work to pay for school needs or even to fix their house.

As families do this, in statistical terms the welfare of household improves. Yet new patterns of consumption affect how they eat. Facing periods of scarcity each year, poor villagers may make wicked choices between buying fish or paying school fees, fixing their roof, or buying a cow.

Health statistics tell us that around 30.8 per cent of Indonesian children remain undernourished or stunted. With so many loosing much of their cash income, this statistic will worsen with Covid-19.  And it’s not just Indonesia: stunting rates (low height in children – a key indicator of chronic malnutrition) are even higher in other countries in Australia’s region: 50 per cent of children in Papua New Guinea are stunted.

More on this: Switch expenditure for sustained food security

Our research suggests that high rates of stunting prior to COVID-19 coincided with falling poverty rates because large numbers of people moved sideways. So many households got by, even improving their houses, and sending their children to school, while they continued to cut back on protein during part of the year.

COVID-19 represents an uncomfortable reset for the optimistic view of the global south. Recent progress occurred during the ‘Great Acceleration’, a period of surging growth rates underpinned by cheap fossil fuels. It created feedback loops that intensify anthropogenic climate change.

Too often it involved the overexploitation of resources including fisheries over application of pesticides and fertilizers, exposing ecological fragilities that may well wash away the gains of recent decade.

As the virus hits, its effects cut deeper into the lives of those who gained least from inequitable economies and labour markets. Mining, logging, overfishing and land grabbing have taken their toll. In the COVID-19 world, as cash from off-farm work has dried up, rural people have become more vulnerable, especially with a fluctuating climate.

But farming households who grow and forage from nature may be able to weather the storm. Rendered vulnerable by their precarious foothold in markets, and with no subsidy from nature, informal workers, those dependent on labour and commodity markets, landless labourers and the urban unemployed are less fortunate. They return to family in their villages or seek support from an overstretched safety net. But how many people can these production systems support?

Now we are learning the fragile future bequeathed from decades spent pursuing unsustainable growth trajectories. The COVID-19 crisis brings into focus two questions that will hang over this century.

First, how can we find a new way to live with and off a shifting state of nature? Second, how can we patch up broken ecologies and food systems, supporting vulnerable rural food producers while finding smarter ways to meet the nutritional needs of urban people?

Social security systems and budgets are stretched, but now is the time for development programs and researchers to re-engage with the problems of Australia’s near neighbours.

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