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Church, govt offer food to starving people in Indonesia's Papua

At least 23 people have died due to starvation in the Christian-majority region since August

A government official from the Ministry of Social Affairs is seen with children in Yahukimo Regency, Papua while distributing aid to hungry residents, in collaboration with church groups.

A government official from the Ministry of Social Affairs is seen with children in Yahukimo Regency, Papua while distributing aid to hungry residents, in collaboration with church groups. (Photo supplied)

Published: October 27, 2023 11:19 AM GMT

Updated: October 27, 2023 12:07 PM GMT

Church groups in Indonesia’s Christian-majority Papua region joined the government to provide food aid to hundreds of indigenous people hit by famine because of crop failure.

In collaboration with church groups, food aid has been sent through 17 flights to the worst affected Amuma, Panggema, and Anggruk districts since Oct. 21, the Ministry of Social Affairs said in an Oct. 26 statement. 

The Yahukimo Regency in the Papua Mountain province has declared an emergency from Oct. 21 to Nov. 1 after 23 people died of starvation in the province.

The crop failure is attributed to a combination of hailstorms, severe frost and drought linked to the global El Niño phenomenon, which started to impact Indonesia in June, according to a report by Save the Children. 

Reverend Leonora Balubun from the Gospel Christian Church (GKI) of Papua said she delivered food aid to Panggema and Anggruk districts and returned on Oct. 26.

“There are about 500 people in two areas. Their staple food is sweet potatoes. However, they experienced crop failure due to heavy rain since last month," she told UCA News on Oct. 27.

“The condition became worse after landslides damaged their houses. They are now taking refuge in safe neighboring villages, some in refugee camps," she said.

She said their church received requests for help from 30 villages in Yahukimo Regency.

"But currently we have only been able to reach two villages, not the rest yet," she said.

She said her church received an allocation of 60 tons of aid from the Ministry of Social Affairs in the form of basic necessities, such as rice, packaged food, sugar and blankets.

She said the distribution of aid was "very challenging" because the areas are located in the mountains and can only be accessed by plane and the airports are small.

"We had to rent a small plane with a round trip cost of 74,000,000 rupiah (US$4,645) from Sentani, Jayapura, while the goods we could bring were also limited," she said.

She said the church had also allocated a budget to help distribute aid.

"On October 30, we will go to the location again to identify other urgent assistance,” she said, adding that they would still discuss the long-term assistance that could be provided.

Vice President Ma'aruf Amin in a statement on Oct. 25 said the government will prepare a long-term plan to ensure that the staple food stock of the Yahukimo community remains safe throughout the year.

Death due to starvation is not new in Papua. In August, six people reportedly died of starvation in Puncak Regency, Central Papua Province.

Last year, in Lanny Jaya Regency, three people reportedly died, triggered by a drought that caused crops.

Yuliana Langowuyo, executive director of the Franciscans’ Secretariat for Justice and Peace noted that the government's response only occurs when there is a case that triggers attention, "but there is no sustainable effort.”

She said that the priority should be opening access to inland areas, creating appropriate policies to support the production of local crops by the community, and providing health services when people face hunger.

“We hope that no one will die due to malnutrition and hunger in the land of Papua. This is an ironic situation because people die on land that is rich in potential natural resources," she told UCA News.

Meanwhile, Franky Samperante, a local activist, said that repeated famines in Papua are evidence of violations of the right to food and nutrition of society by the state.

"Fulfillment of the right to food should ensure the nutritional quality of available food and guarantee people's freedom to use food systems that are culturally appropriate and the potential of local resources," he said.

He said in finding solutions to this issue, the government also needs to “take into account the socio-cultural and geographical characteristics and conditions of the Papuans.”

Indonesia annexed the easternmost region in the 1960s at the end of Dutch colonial rule. Indonesian rule has triggered a long-running insurgency for independence and a military crackdown that claimed hundreds of lives and displaced thousands.

Despite being mineral-rich, Papua is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions of Indonesia.

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