Community Gardens Nourish Asmat Children

By Gisela Swaragita / THE JAKARTA POST

Agats, Papua

Cream of the crop: A woman in Cumnew village in Akat district, Asmat, rinses dirt of water spinach she harvested from a community garden. Adopting the practice of growing vegetables has seen a more diverse range of food included in the diets of Asmat children, helping prevent malnutrition.

Under the supervision of local churches and the government, residents of Akat district in Asmat region, Papua, have planted vegetables in their  house yards and on cleared land. The crops have enriched their diet, which was mainly based on wild tuberous roots and game.

Chatolic priest Vesto Fransiskus Benediktus Labi Maing, the local supervisor of the program, said the people of Akat district had a long history of being hunter-gatherers, surviving on fish, wild boar, sago and taro for centuries.

The district, located on peatland around an hour boat ride from Agats, the capital district of Asmat regency, is home to an estimated 3,000 people living in 11 villages. Vesto said many of the resident’s livelihoods depend on natural resources and that they spend the majority of the year living nomadically in the jungle. The nomads only return to village to celebrate Christmas, Easter and Independence Day.

“The first time I came here as a frater (brother) in the late 1990s, the only vegetables they ate were cassava leaves and wild water spinach that they collected from the jungle,” he said during an interview in Agats after a monitoring visit on Sunday, Sept. 23.

During his early missionary days in Akat, he realized that among the hunter-gatherers there were several people who had cultivated their lands using simple agricultural techniques for family consumption.

“Because I was born into a farmer’s family in flores, I felt like it as my calling to help them develop their farming to increase production,” he said.

In 2016, Vesto helped the residents of Ayam village in Akat to clear some land and organize community gardens. Now the gardening programs have expanded to Cumnew, Waw, Bayiw Pinam and Jewes villages, which are all within Akat district.

In march, the program was picked up by an initiative called Landasan, a joint program for human development between the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) and the Australian Embassy.

George Corputty, a program manager of Landasan, said the organic gardening program started by Vesto had saved the cildren of Akat from the malnutrition disaster that killed almost 80 children in Asmat region in early 2018.

“The data from the local public health center (Puskesmas) showed that there were no malnourished children in Akat district. When we saw that they had vegetable garden centers, we though that it might have been what saved them,” George said. He also said that the peatlands in Akat became and advantage for gardening in the regency, as most settlements in Asmat were built on muddy shores or among mangroves.

George said Landasan has since then helped the village by supplying seeds, gardening tools and profesional training.

Vesto said the five villages now cultivated various green vegetables besides water spinach such as yard-long beans, red and green spinach, and Chinese cabbage. The district also become one of the main suppliers of green vegetables in Asmat. The vegetables are all cultivated using organic methods without chemical pesticides or fertilizers.

“We can only use natural fertilizers so that it won’t pollute the water and the land. The lives of the people here depend on the natural eco system,” George said.

Vesto added that the gardeners used to obtain natural fertilizers from wild chicken nests in the jungle.

Vivi Yulaswati, the director of poverty eradication at Bappenas, said the initiative had been effective in ensuring the children in Asmat had more diverse food in their diets.

“Nutrition is a concern for the government, because the data shows that stunting has increased recently despite being successfully lowered in 2013,” she said. She went on to say that studies had proven that vegetables gardening centers were not an effective way to solve mass malnutrition.

Astrid Kartika, the human development unit manager at the Australian Embassy, said adopting gardening practices helped children stay in their villages and go to school, instead of being taken into the jungles by their parents to live as nomads.

“We do not want to change their culture as nomads, we do not have the rights to do that,” she said. “However when the kids are at school, it is easier to give them immunizations to prevent out breaks like the measles disaster that happened in early 2018.”

Source: The Jakarta Post

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