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High Food Prices Hit Small Indonesian Town Hard

View a slide show from Marunda, Indonesia:

The NewsHour’s global health team is in Indonesia shooting a series that will air in July. One of the topics the team is covering is the global hike in food prices and what it means for the world’s poorest.

If you want to see how rising global food prices are affecting real people, follow the long dusty road to the small fishing village of Marunda, Indonesia.

Some 350 families live here, in this town on the northern tip of the Jakarta coast, sandwiched between a new government flood canal and a large industrial zone. It is a barren place. Lush mangrove swamps once covered the area, but today there are no trees, no vegetation, and the smell of fish and sewage is overpowering in the hot sun.

The people of Marunda have been living there illegally for decades — the land is owned by the government, and the residents live with the constant threat that they could be displaced at any time.

At sunrise on a recent morning, Tiarom, a 34-year-old fisherman who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name, returned home after eleven hours at sea without catching a single fish. It has been a tough year for this third generation Marunda fisherman who has a wife and three young children. As he quietly and methodically repaired his fishing nets on shore, Tiarom explained that until three or four years ago, he made around $20 to $30 day catching sea catfish near shore.

But now he and other fishermen in the area believe civilian and industrial pollution has killed many of the fish in Jakarta Bay. Tiarom says if he is lucky, he makes around $4 a day from his increasingly meager catches.

That’s a big problem for the family because as their income declines, prices for staple food items in Indonesia, as in many parts of the world, are going up due in large part to weather conditions and rising gas prices.

“Two years ago, my wife needed 30,000 rupiah a day [$3.50] to buy our food for the day, now she needs 60,000 to 70,000 to buy a wholesome meal [$7 to $8],” Tiarom said.

When Tiarom’s wife, Siti Marwiyah, learned he hadn’t caught a single fish, she headed to the village market with the small amount of money they had left from the previous catch. She bought several fish and some greens for about $1.15, a small amount of food she would pair with rice to feed her family for the rest of the day. As Siti looked over other items at the market she couldn’t afford, she explained that her family usually eats only two meals a day now, and sometimes not at all.

Siti lists off the foods that have gone up in price over the past twelve months. She says a slice of tempe, a soy product, that cost about US $0.11 last year is now at $0.34. A liter of rice was $0.52 last year and now it is up to $0.70. The family has also cut back on chicken, milk, and eggs over the past year.

“Those things have become a luxury for us,” she said.

For a family living already on the margins, and spending around 80 to 90 percent of their income on food, those seemingly small price increases translate into hard decisions.

Tiarom and Siti are most concerned about how their diminished diet is impacting their two daughters and their son.

“My husband cries sometimes because he can’t buy chicken for our children,” Siti said. “When they don’t have enough to eat, they ask me for money to buy unhealthy snacks. I’m worried they will have stomach problems.”

Rising food prices do seem to be having an effect on the health of children in Marunda, according to community midwife Sari Hapsari. She says she’s seeing more babies and children who are under the acceptable weight range for their age.

“When children don’t get enough to eat, they are generally weaker,” she explained. “And if there’s an epidemic in the community it is much easier for them to get sick.”

Mida Saragih works for an Indonesian nonprofit called Kiara, which stands for The People’s Coalition for Fisheries Justice. She has spent a lot of time with the people in Marunda and is worried about the overall well-being of the community as it confronts multiple challenges.

“The food price crisis is coming at the same time as an ecological crisis and a fishing crisis,” according to Mida.

Kiara’s work in Marunda is supported by OxFam International, which has released several reports recently on rising food prices around the world. According to a statement by Executive Director Jeremy Hobbs, “Our diets are changing fast and for too many people it is a change for the worse. Huge numbers of people, especially in the world’s poorest countries, are cutting back on the quantity or quality of the food they eat because of rising food prices.”

At the end of the day, Tiarom and Siti were sitting outside their home with a neighbor discussing the need for more government assistance to their community. When asked what his family would be eating for dinner that evening, Tiarom replied, “probably just leftover rice.”

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