Brother Yohanes Kedang shows off some of the crops harvested by the Mandobo people from Indonesia's Papua province as he tries to help the indigenous group transition from nomadic hunters to farmers. (Photo courtesy of the Brothers of St. Mary Immaculate)
For decades the lives of Blandina Ukurop's family — and the rest of the people of the Mandobo tribe in Kemangi village in Papua's district of Merauke, depended on hunting wild animals, fishing and growing cassava.
However, as the population increased and forest lands were converted to plantations, their traditional way of life was threatened with extinction.
The mostly Catholic Mandobo people have historically lived as nomads, but the loss of their land forced many to settle, including the residents of Kemangi. Villagers are mostly unschooled and survive off the land.
"My husband spends most of his time hunting and fishing, but they do not bring much results," says Ukurop. From such activities, her family earned about US$3-$5 a week, which was not enough to feed the entire family.
"It is not even enough to buy rice," says Ukurop.
Prices on commodities tend to be much higher in Papua than in other parts of Indonesia due to its remoteness. This has left indigenous groups like the Mandobo vulnerable to poverty and malnutrition as corporate plantations encroach on their land and eliminate their traditional way of life.
"To be honest we had nothing, unschooled, and no knowledge at all," says village resident Aleksia Nginggon, 53.
For many years tribal members had hoped that someone could come and help improve their lives.
That opportunity came nearly three years ago when Brother Yohanes Kedang of the Brothers of St. Mary Immaculate visited the village and taught them modern organic farming techniques.
Villagers in Kemangi have shifted to planting rice to meet daily needs, moving away from hunting. (Photo by Eman Riberu)
Mothers of Papua
"After meeting with them for hours, I found that they had no food," Brother Kedang recalls from their first meeting. "They had not eaten anything because they had no money to buy rice."
"It moved me to do something, immediately," he says.
Within a few weeks, he gathered dozens of women villagers and formed the group, "Mothers of Papua." He taught them how to create organic fertilizer and pesticides, and how to use their small yards to grow vegetables.
As part of the pilot project, the group managed two hectares of land owned by the community, half for vegetables and half for rice.
Early last year the group planted carrots, collard greens, cabbage, eggplant, kale, spinach, beans, tomatoes, peppers, sweetcorn and cucumber.
In October 2015, they opened the rice field.
"They were completely happy with the results of both vegetables and rice," Brother Kedang says.
They have since rotated through several crops of vegetables, selling their surplus to markets as far away as Merauke city, some 30 kilometers from the village.
Half of the profit is shared with village families, while half is kept for the group, which is named after St. Francis of Assisi.
"This group has slowly changed my family's income," says Ukurop, who now earns about US$15 a week.
"This is more than enough for me and my family," she said.
Ukurop also received 20 kilograms of rice from the group's first harvest.
"Now we don't worry about rice," she says, adding that the cash normally allocated to buy rice is kept for other needs, including the children's education.
Ndinggo said the group recently used some of its profits to purchase pigs, an important animal for the village's economy as its waste can be a main component for organic fertilizer and once fully grown can fetch about US$300 in Papuan markets. Pork also is the favored source of protein during cultural festivals and weddings, villagers say.
Kemangi village women harvest vegetables to be sold at a local market. (Photo by Eman Riberu)
Lack of farming tools
Brother Kedang notes the group now controls about five hectares of land, which they manage by hand with simple farming tools as they lack modern equipment.
He said the project has grown so quickly that the mother's group recruited local youth to give them a hand.
"Our main obstacle now is shortage of agricultural equipment and irrigation systems," he says.
"This should be where local authorities step in to help," he says hopefully.