Low tide allows the white sand to stretch out from the beach to the nearest of Temeak Hamlet’s Pulau Tiga, or Three Islands. Amak Rohani, amak being a term of reference for older males in Lombok, sits facing this view in his beruga, or gazebo, before his simple house. The man is fasting, and the afternoon is searing hot, but his face lights up as he relates the story of beras hutan, or forest rice, that he used to cultivate in Tanjung Ringgit, a cape about 80 kilometers southeast of Lombok Island’s and West Nusa Tenggara’s main city, Mataram.
The 55-year-old starts by telling my friend Shirley and me about what he cultivates in the protected forest area of Tanjung Ringgit. Rohani, who has been in Temeak for over 40 years, tends his corn, sweet potato, long bean, papaya, peanut, komak, lebui, and chili plantations when he is not out fishing. In the past, the people of Tanjung Ringgit would share their surplus crops after every harvest. This practice has stopped since the area became arid and the cost of planting started to exceed the earnings made from selling the produce.
“I used to plant forest rice too, the kind that has hair on their stalks. I stopped because the many boars, water buffaloes, and monkeys in the area ruined my rice field,” Rohani says, adding that he obtained the forest rice seeds from Central Lombok.
“It was about 10 years ago that I stopped cultivating it. We usually planted the seeds half a month before the rainy season began. Harvest would come about six months afterward. We also planted chili along the [field's] dikes. After the chili plants died, the remains can be used to rejuvenate the soil,” Rohani says. “Forest rice tastes really good, and the grains are really white.”
Rohani’s children had no interest in helping the man in the field, let alone encouraging the man to continue planting forest rice. He says they all went to the city to study or to work. So who is this “we” Rohani kept referring to?
“Go to Embung Pesiak Hamlet,” he says. “People there used to plant forest rice too.”
There is a group of houses in Embung Pesiak, still in Tanjung Ringgit, where the inhabitants are one big family. There are Amak Muhsan and Amak Jumadi, both in their 60s, 42-year-old Amak Eliza, and Amak Muhsan’s mother who cannot tell how old she is. The family moved here from Sakre, East Lombok, in the ’80s when the afforestation of the area required many workers, triggering a wave of migration from other parts of the island. Unfortunately, many who came decided to stay without permit, and they ended up cutting down the trees they had planted to open plantation grounds.
“In ’99 I returned from working in Malaysia and saw that the man in charge of overseeing the HKM [hutan kemasyarakatan, or community forestry] program — he was from Central Lombok — had planted forest rice, as well as chili,” Muhsan says.
He imitated what the man was doing, but his forest rice field only lasted for two cycles. He did not use any chemicals for the rice and the chili, but other farmers all around had been using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides for their corn fields. “The soil became bad,” he says.
Muhsan admits to have resorted to chemicals for his corn field, although not so much for the heirloom species of jagung ketan. “We plant the ketan corn for our own consumption, and the hybrid corn for sale. The ketan corn will not taste as sweet if you fertilize it with chemicals, but I do use herbicides.”
Shirley and I have grown this sudden obsession with the forest rice after separately spending times with a couple from Byron Bay, Australia, who started the nation’s seedsavers network and foundation. They have been traveling around the world for the purpose of saving heirloom, open-pollinated seeds and raising awareness of how important they are. It happens that the couple, Michel Fanton and Judith Ann Fanton, are in Tanjung Ringgit to do the same.
“We’re thinking about people in Lombok to regain, to find again, their seed common, all the different varieties and species that made up their food in the past,” Michel says in a thick French accent as we drive to Keruak Market to make a video (get ready to see me featured in it in a future post).
“So today we’ll be looking at a bio-cultural [state], because the plant is not just to feed, or to clothe if it’s a fibre, but it’s also to nourish a tradition,” he says.
According to Michel, plants feed not only the body, but also the soul — the need for the continuity of a culture. His words remind me of the time I went to Wangongira Village in North Halmahera, where the people relied on a rice species growing in a river to tell whether or not their future crops would thrive. The rice species has been under threat from tourism and a public water works project. Read the full story here.
According to Michel, it is when hybrid varieties become introduced that the need to use chemicals arise. Hybrid food plants can produce a lot more crops, but at the expense of needing much fertilizer and being fragile to pests and wild shrubs.
Judith, or Jude as she is usually called, says that they have expertise in working with communities similar in lifestyle with those in Lombok. “Like in the Pacific, where the people live in very similar standard with grass huts and self-sufficiency in food and all their crops,” she says.
She claims to be able to bring their experience, especially on food quality and food security, to help ensure that the local population improve their diet. The local people, according to her, make some bad food habits by eating too much sugary, fatty, salty, and processed food. There are food insecurity problems in Tanjung Ringgit because of the challenging climate and poor soil.
“We would try and help them find solutions for their herbicide, pesticide, other biocide habits through organic methods of growing. With our expertise in looking for local varieties, we would help make some kind of plan to preserve that, or to find them in the whole of Jerowaro [sub-district] to bring those varieties in to Tanjung Ringgit,” she says.
Jude adds that any agriculture needs to be done in a biodiverse system of mixed fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, spices, and flowers — like in a forest, which is their template for a garden. In short, she is talking about permaculture principles. But I should leave writing about permaculture for another post.
Shirley and I has not been successful in our attempt to find forest rice in Ringgit Cape. But we do have information about their exact whereabouts on the island. We hope to one day make an expedition to Central Lombok to continue our hunt for the forest rice. For now we are really glad to have met Michel and Jude, who have enlightened us on the importance of saving local plant varieties.
Find out more about their network and foundation at seedsavers.net.