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Another virus brings suffering to Indonesian farmers

Amid the Covid pandemic, pig breeders are left struggling as African Swine Fever decimates their livestock

Another virus brings suffering to Indonesian farmers

A pig pen in Datak in Idonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province lies empty after the pigs in them were infected with African Swine Fever and died. (Photo supplied by Father Benediktus Jaya)

Fabianus Jema’s world has fallen apart since all his 13 pigs began dying in November last year.

"They suddenly died one by one in their cages," said the 45-year-old farmer from Datak on the predominantly Catholic island of Flores in East Nusa Tenggara province.

He was told by local officials that this was due to African Swine Fever (ASF), a virus that began to infect pigs in several Indonesian regions earlier last year.

Jema says he has been left devastated as he was to use the pigs to pay for the education of his third daughter, who is studying agriculture at the Indonesia Catholic University of St. Paul in the province’s Manggarai district.

"I don't know what can be done to pay for her course now," said the father of five.
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Jema says he raises pigs solely to get additional income to send his children to school as his usual farmer’s income is not enough.

"My eldest son finished studying in Bali last year. That was paid for by selling pigs,” he said.

The same misfortune also befell Kanisius Kabut, 46, whose two children are studying in Bali and in Kupang.

"I'm at a loss as to how I can now help with their studies," said the father of six, who lost all 40 of his pigs.

Reports of pigs dying in Flores are increasing, although there are no official figures about the deaths from the government.

However, according to Father Benediktus Jaya, parish priest at St. Teresa of Calcutta Church in Datak, 4,535 pigs have died in the locality, which is equivalent to a loss of around 7 billion rupiah (US$508,000).

Father Jaya said almost all families in his parish raise pigs with an average of 20 pigs per family.

He said that he and subdistrict authorities have set up a committee tasked with conducting outreach programs to prevent the spread of the virus and look at ways to help families who have suffered losses.

The ASF virus started to infect pigs on Flores in June last year, with the first case being detected in Sikka district.

At the end of 2019, the virus was only reported to have hit pigs in North Sumatra province, killing 48,000.

Meanwhile, in East Nusa Tenggara province as a whole, more than 24,000 pigs have died.

The Animal Husbandry and Animal Health Department at the Ministry of Agriculture says the government has issued alerts about the virus since the outbreak first appeared in China in September 2018.

It said not much can be done to prevent the virus as there is no vaccine against it. The disease is a grave threat to the 8.5 million pig population in Indonesia, the department says.

Joe Saragih, a veterinarian and lecturer at the University of Nusa Cendana in Kupang, said the virus can spread quickly because pork products are everywhere in the region and it cannot be ascertained whether they contain the virus or not.

"The government has banned pigs and pork products from being taken out of infected areas, but this rule is not easy to enforce,” he told UCA News.

He said the way pigs are raised in Indonesia doesn’t help either.

"Villagers have not been well educated on how to prevent the spread of the virus," he said. "It is still common to give leftovers to pigs, including pork that might be infected.” 

A vaccine has not been found, so one thing that can be done is biosecurity through routinely cleaning pens and strictly controlling pig feed. "That can be done by educating the public," he said.

Yohanis Fransiskus Lema, a member of parliament, has raised the swine fever issue in the province several times with the Ministry of Agriculture as there have been no significant efforts made by the government to deal with it.

"Officials from the ministry went to Flores to conduct an inspection. However, they only sprayed disinfectant,” he told UCA News.

He said the government must accelerate efforts to create a vaccine to help breeders.

"This problem does not seem to get much attention because pigs are not bred on mass scale unlike cows or chicken. However, it is the government's responsibility to find a solution,” the Catholic legislator said.

While it is not certain whether the virus can be controlled, farmers like Jema said they still don't know what to do about their children’s education.

"The situation is very difficult, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic. To do something else is very difficult,” he said.

As for Kabut, he was thinking about taking a more drastic measure.

"Maybe I will be forced to sell my farmland. I still hope that my two children can finish college." 

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