Cycle of Nutrition in Siberut*

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“I often wonder how biscuits are made. I know how to make other food. In fact, all food that we eat, we make it with our own hand. That’s how it is here. But, these biscuits puzzled me, I have no idea how to make one,” said Teu Taloy.

We’d recently visited Teu Taloy at his hamlet in Ugai, Siberut, Indonesia, during Christmas and New Year festivity. Our morning routine includes sitting together in front of uma, the traditional house, while eating biscuits with a cup of tea. As common as it may be, situated in context, this morning routine is a special moment. In mountainous Ugai, biscuit is a privilege. It signifies special occasion. Industrial food that needs to be purchased is unlikely to be seen in other time of the year, as people here self-provided their daily food.

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on our way to ugai

In this remote island best known for its internationally acclaimed surfing spots, pristine nature, rich biodiversity, and the “authenticity” of the “indigenous” people, locals eat sagoo, yam, sweet potato, and banana that are abundant and cultivated in their own family-farm. They also eat self-reared chicken and pig. Sometimes they caught fishes from the shore and shrimp from the river. Nature also provide them with endless fruit supply during each fruit season, such as mango, rambutan, durian, langsat, and cempedak.

Although Siberut is a remote area, the native Mentawaian people are proud that there’s no lacking of food. Family farming is the key to self-sufficiency of food and nutrition for most Mentawaian. But, it is not just family farming. It is family farming with essential elements not to be left out.

The first key element is the availability of huge land for food cultivation. Unlike other overpopulated areas in Indonesia, Siberut provide more than sufficient land for family farming. On average, each person in Siberut benefitted from 9 km square of land. No wonder, there is no need for food storage because sagoo and yam are abundant and can be collected at any time from the land. Food that is consumed directly from nature with less processing, or perhaps what is known as “organic food” in other places, are providing higher nutrition than highly processed food.

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making sagoo

Second, they consume staple food that is suited to Siberut ecological landscape. Most land for cultivation in Siberut are swamp areas. Sagoo, the staple food for Mentawaian, is perfect to be grown in this type of landscape. It does not need special treatment. 15-20% of land in Siberut is utilised to grow sagoo. One sagoo tree around 6-9 years could produce 300-400 kg sagoo and feed one family for 60-90 days. Sagoo contains high level of carbohydrate and protein with low fat. It can be stored as long as possible, hence one sagoo tree can be processed altogether at once and the production could be directly consumed for 2-3 months, reducing the need of labour to process the food at each serving time. Sagoo can be used for human as well as cattle consumption, and all parts of sagoo tree is useful, not only for food, but also for making rooftop, etc. No wonder, in Mentawaian mythology, sagoo is the most important plant and it also has social function as an item for paying dowries or gifts.

Third, food security is closely linked with the custom of how family is rooted in their homeland and organized with consideration to their mode of production. The basis for primary food production is nucleus family farming, consisted of one father, one mother, and 3-9 children. Their farm depended on the labour of family members. For subsistence purpose, there is an ethic of food sharing in between members of extended family. It is common and allowed to grab food from the yard of their extended family, as long as it is for their own consumption.

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sea protein

The situation is different for family farms in other parts of Indonesia, who could not sustain from their land, migrate to other places, have difficulties in obtaining land, become farm labour and not having the social protection of an extended family network. In Siberut, on average, food production is more than sufficient for subsistence consumption. Hence, Mentawaian in general does not farm intensively and this could free their labour to collect fish or shrimp for additional nutrition.

Fourth, family farming does not mean that they are not engaged with the market. Since the seventies they have already combined commercial and food crops in their cultivation. But, engaging in market is not an imperative for family farm. Their farm for daily food provision such as sagoo and yam are distinct from the area for hard-crops or pumonean. Hence cash crop does not interfere with the area of staple food crops. Yet, usually for additional new farm, after the male open a farm, the female would plant banana and yam. Only after harvesting staple food crops would they cultivate fruit crops or commercial crops on that land. They also consider the combination of temporal and spatial factors when deciding which plant to cultivate.


Looking through their lenses, Mentawaian family farming guaranteed sufficient nutrition for the people. Nevertheless, it is problematic for the mainstream way of thinking that calculates nutritional sufficiency based on one food serving unit. Other significant factor such as food sovereignty, etc are not being included in this calculation.

In Siberut, you would not find one serving unit of food containing carbohydrate, vegetable, animal protein, and fruits. But it hardly means Mentawaian are lacking in nutrition. Mentawaian fulfill their nutrition intake in the basis of an agricultural cycle. For example, they regularly eat fruits during fruit season, as the fruits are abundant at its peak. During social festivities, they will hunt pigs or slaughter their self-reared pigs and share it with the extended family, making every member gets their animal protein necessities fulfilled. On a daily basis, they eat sagoo, yam and banana for energy.

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extended family at uma

Being incongruent with the mainstream thinking of nutritional fulfillment brings real consequences to Mentawaian. The government who tried to adapt them into the “proper” way of fulfilling nutrition has been doing intervention to uproot them into resettlement areas. It creates dispute in land entitlement between Mentawaian groups and it also significantly reduce the frequency of people’s visit to their farm. In some cases, as the resettlement areas are limited in size, this program separates the extended family as they no longer live closely to each other. It divorced the people from one formative element of food security.

The government also obliged Mentawaian to choose a formal religion in Indonesia. This makes them further being uprooted from their traditional religion, forcing them to slowly abandon traditional rituals that are used to be the moment for them to share animal protein with extended family members. The government also preferred to provide rice than sagoo while the ecological landscape in Mentawai could not support self-sufficiency in rice. It could be concluded that the government perception in seeing the Mentawaian way of family farming and nutritional fulfillment is very much distant with how the Mentawaian operates.

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the experiment of planting wet rice on peat swamp

With regard to each different context, family farming is not to be romanticised. It can work to fulfill nutritional intake in certain situation, but not always. When it is equipped with basic essential elements such as land availability, self-sufficient provision of food that suits the ecological landscape, the way society is socially organised, and the “unimperativeness” of market in their mode of production, Mentawaian case is a living proof that family farming works wonders for nutritional fulfillment. Family farming would face difficult situation when the land is lacking, the crops are not sustainable, the community is uprooted and the market has become an imperative, making farmers have to sell their labour just in order to survive.

Another important point is how we view nutritional fulfillment. Instead of trying to understand the grounded way of how Mentawaian operates to fulfill their nutrition with regard to their social and ecological context, and instead of trying to convert the mainstream perception in calculating nutrition, the government insisted on converting the Mentawaian way into the “proper”, “valid”, and acceptable norm of nutritional fulfillment. This fact really left us wonder why the former is often more difficult to do.

*a creative collaboration with Darmanto ❤

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