Since part one of this series, coronavirus cases around the world have risen to close 5 million. 94 percent of Fortune 1000 companies are facing disrupted supply chains. At the roots of many of these supply chains are farmers.
And while health is the primary concern from this pandemic, hunger and food security are right up there. About 135 million peoplewere already teetering on the edge of hunger before the coronavirus struck. The virus now threatens to push them over the edge.
According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), there are similarities between our current situation and the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Back then, labour shortages and disruptions in agricultural supply chains meant that many farmers in already risky countries like Liberia couldn’t grow or sell their crops. What little that could be grown and sold were hit by movement restrictions and closing markets. Shortages of goods led to higher commodity prices. Higher prices and lower income – the perfect maelstrom to break the proverbial horses back; leaving people without a most basic necessity – food.
And core to food security is the resilience of farmers. In this second in a series of articles, we look at how some of our teams are continuing to fight for farmers and their wellbeing, given the spectre of COVID-19.
“Facing this pandemic, farmers stay strong,” said Earthworm’s Yulia Hardini. “All their lives, they have dealt with changes. Even when everything seems uncertain, perseverance keeps them moving.”
Many of the farmers we work with plant oil palm. But the markets for palm oil are unstable, she said.
While the Indonesian government hasn’t imposed national restrictions on movement within the country, regional restrictions apply depending on the state. The government has instead been promoting social distancing and personal hygiene.
Deeply entrenched in farming communities, our teams in North Sumatra, Riau and West Kalimantan are continuing to coach farmers one-on-one while keeping an appropriate physical distance. However, workshops and large meetings have been rescheduled to adhere to a government ban on gatherings.
“Some farmers in Riau sell watermelon during Ramadhan,” said Lala Amiroeddin, who leads our farmer work in Indonesia. “But since COVID, there's restrictions in crossing regional borders – meaning farmers have to lower prices even though they may not break even.”
But farmers aren’t the only ones feeling the pain of movement restrictions. As commercial flights and inter-state travel are restricted until June 1, our field team can’t return home to their families. This is especially painful as we are now in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a time that is normally spent with family.
"I've given up (trying to find way home to Java), because all the roads are closed,” said Kasmujiono from our field team. “Even if we could go home, returning to the field would be difficult. So we'll just focus on our field work, while still looking for opportunities out of this situation."
It’s stressful not being able to go home, said field officer Rozikin. Both Kasmujiono and Rozikin have wives and children waiting for them back home.
“My family still has hope that I can come home,” Rozikin said. “But for now, I’ve yielded to the situation.”
Like other parts of the world, our teams in Ivory Coast are experiencing the pangs of COVID-19. Field activities in Soubré have stopped until June and teams in Abidjan – the epicentre of the virus in Ivory Coast – have decided to work from home. In-person meetings have been replaced by Skype, so that we stay connected to each other.
In Soubré, where our farmer work is concentrated, there has been one COVID-19 case to date. The quarantine and gasoline shortages are affecting farmers’ access to markets, meaning less income. But they are still trying to survive by finding alternative income and starting tree nurseries.
“We are now at home, analysing the impact of our previous field activities,” said Stéphane Yoboué from our field team. “However, farmers phone us when they have a concern. We try to fix their problems through the phone.”
We are also trying to stay connected with our partners on the ground through a WhatsApp group, said Eléonore N’Gbesso, who leads the farmer work in Ivory Coast. This group includes palm oil company staff, farmer cooperative managers, field officers and farmers.
“The idea is to keep in touch and share information with everyone in the supply chain,” she said.
We are also exploring ways to launch a WhatsApp radio station to reach out to rural people who may have intermittent internet connections, said Gerome Tokpa, our country head in Ivory Coast.
“Through this, we plan to share audio clips or publish short videos on social media,” he said. “It also allows us to produce content that is easily downloadable and can reach many rural people.”
With our field office temporarily closed and gatherings postponed until after movement restrictions are lifted in June, our team in Sabah is reaching out through WhatsApp, as well as telephone calls to older farmers who don’t use WhatsApp.
Since 2017, the field team has created WhatsApp groups to link farmers to each other, as well as other actors that can help them – like the Sabah Wildlife Department and MPOB (Malaysian Palm Oil Board). Now, more than ever, these groups are helping share important information such as government aid, tips on health and safety, and ways to supplement income.
Through WhatsApp groups and phone calls, the team is also supporting its community volunteer group. The group has gotten permission from local authorities to continue monitoring elephant movement around plantations during the lockdown period.
“Because of the crisis, many farmers are starting to think about their food and income security,” said Dehya Mahadin from our field team in Beluran district. “Some are planting crops like cassava, corn and other vegetables. Others are building swiftlet bird houses, as demand from China for edible bird’s nests is increasing thanks to its perceived health benefits.”
Together with MPOB, the field team have helped about 200 farmers apply for government cash aid meant to ease the burden of low income groups. The team also helped farmers get travel permissions. This allows them safe passage through police blockades when travelling to palm oil mills to sell their palm fruit.
“I always advise farmers to be patient during this challenging time and fight COVID-19 until the situation goes back to normal,” said field officer Lakarim Lanika. “I also remind them that they are entrepreneurs.”