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Restoring neglected coastal land in Indonesia

Through farmer field schools, saline fields are being restored to productivity (© Oxfam)
Through farmer field schools, saline fields are being restored to productivity
© Oxfam

Located 600 metres from the ocean, Pitusunggu village in South Sulawesi province, Indonesia, was always prone to salt water intrusion. But the establishment of shrimp ponds by villagers in 1993, and the resulting groundwater pumping to provide freshwater for the shrimps, significantly increased soil salinity, causing 15 hectares of land devoted to rice cultivation to be abandoned.

No longer able to grow food for their families, women farmers like Halmia were particularly affected and, forced to find alternative sources of income, she became a casual labourer for the shrimp farms. To enable the community to farm saline soil and improve the efficiency and sustainability of aquaculture, the Mangrove Action Project (MAP), an Oxfam partner, established coastal farmer field schools.

Taking action

"As long as shrimp farms continue to collect water for irrigation from groundwater pumping, salt water intrusion will continue to happen," explains Aloysius Suratin from Oxfam Indonesia. So through the coastal farmer field schools, shrimp farmers are being encouraged to raise Java tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus) instead. More adaptable to increasing water salinity, the tilapia should enable farmers to raise the productivity of their ponds despite the continuing pumping of groundwater.

Shrimp farmers are being encouraged to raise fish which are more adaptable to increasing water salinity (© Oxfam)
Shrimp farmers are being encouraged to raise fish which are more adaptable to increasing water salinity
© Oxfam

In December 2010, Halmia joined Tunas Harapan - the coastal farmer field school in her village. "I learnt a better way to prepare land for rice using organic fertilisers, and that spacing the seedlings reduced competition, making them grow better. I also got to know that there are seeds that can be grown in salty land and was really keen to try them," Halmia says.

Bred by the Agriculture Technology Development Board in Maros district, the local salt tolerant seed variety - Banyuasin - was provided to the 25 group members. Together with MAP, they tested the seed using organic compost, which they had made, and compared it with traditional rice seed. "Growing two plots with different types of seeds was an approach to help the participants learn from their direct experience," says Suratin. In the field school the farmers were also taught to identify insects and manage them using natural predators. "Now we know that not every insect in our rice field is a pest," Halmia states. "There are insects that benefit the crop because they are the natural enemy and keep the insect population under control."

Eight weeks after planting, the group harvested the rice: the yield of the tolerant variety was over twice that of the traditional variety."We are happy because we can prove that we are able to grow rice again," Halmia enthuses. The group members have now begun implementing the lessons they have learnt on their own land and harvested their first crop in March 2011.

Looking to the future

The project has taught farmers how to prepare saline land for rice (© Oxfam)
The project has taught farmers how to prepare saline land for rice
© Oxfam

Dependent on rain-fed agriculture, the main challenge is the climate. From March 2010 to March 2011, the area was hit by La Niña, which resulted in heavy rainfall, and after June 2011 it has been predicted that the area will experience drought. "A lack of water will likely ensure that seed production fails," Suratin explains. So the village elders plan to ask the district government for support in providing irrigation infrastructure for the fish ponds and rice fields that will not require groundwater pumping to avoid further saline intrusion. Subsurface drainage is one option that is currently being considered. "Oxfam is supporting local partners and women to engage with the district government to encourage them to allocate funds and technical support to help communities with this problem," Suratin adds.

In addition to the challenge of drought, the yield of salt tolerant rice - while better than non-tolerant varieties in saline soil - is still lower than the national average. To address this, MAP will link farmer groups with the national seed research institution to encourage them to breed better quality seeds. "With higher yielding seeds, rice production will contribute significantly to household consumption, but farmers also need to diversify their cropping by growing maize and soybean so they have a food source all year round," Suratin adds. "MAP is also working on raising incomes by helping farmers access markets."

"Growing salt tolerant rice has not only enabled the women and vulnerable farmers to produce their staple food again," Suratin explains, "but it also brings hope for a better livelihood in the future." The project is already working in 13 villages with 100 farmers, but with help from the district agricultural agencies, by 2015 the farmer field school technique will be implemented in 64 villages where crop production has been limited by salinity through seawater intrusion and inappropriate management of coastal resources.

Written by: Aloysius Suratin, Oxfam Indonesia

Date published: June 2011


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