Bitter Harvest: Cheap Imports Hurt Small Farmers in Indonesia

Feature | 10 July 2014

Indonesia's economic liberalization has brought prosperity to many citizens, but those whose livelihoods are affected by cheap imports face dwindling incomes.

Six times a year, Wani Hayati Solehin plants a fresh onion crop, spending $2,500, but making less than half that amount when she sells her produce. Sitting cross-legged on one corner of a dusty rug in her sparsely furnished living room, she says she struggles to feed her family.

The 41-year-old mother of three owns just half a hectare of land at Bojong Village on the island of Java. Falling onion prices due to competition from foreign imports means she sinks deeper into debt every year. She lacks the land and the know-how to switch to profitable crops, so she just prays for prices to rise.

"Last year we did not even buy new clothes for the children for Eid. Buying clothes is a luxury."

- Wani Hayati Solehin, 41, onion farmer and mother of three

Above her, on the wall, is a black and gold tapestry of Mecca. It is the focal point of the room and helps Wani, a devout Muslim, keep going during tough times. "We accept what we are given," she says. "Maybe this is a trial from God."

But her prayers have gone unanswered for years now. As Indonesia's economy liberalizes, many citizens are growing wealthier. Wani is among those who have not yet benefi ted, and she wonders whether or not life will ever get a little easier.

Wani's lot presents the flipside of globalization. While consumers enjoy cheaper onions and other food items, small producers like Wani are left stranded - unable to compete with such low prices yet usually incapable of switching livelihoods.

Imported onions cost $0.50 a kilo, half the amount local farmers need to break even. Smaller, locally grown onions like the ones Wani produces can't compete with larger, cheaper varieties from overseas. She spends $15,000 a year to plant her crops, but makes only $7,200 at the market. Add to this the rising cost of raw materials like seeds, fertilizer, and insecticide, all of which make life on the land increasingly unsustainable for some farmers.

Wani's two eldest children have finished high school, but she cannot afford to send them to university. She makes ends meet day to day through self-imposed austerity measures.

"Last year we did not even buy new clothes for the children for Eid. Buying clothes is a luxury." Wani wants more attention to be paid to the poor, many of whom are disadvantaged by global economic dynamics they often don't comprehend. Governments face pressure to liberalize their economies on one side and protests from voters like Wani on the other.

Wani, however, hasn't lost hope. In fact, she believes that one day her family will enjoy a better life in a prosperous Indonesia. "Onion farming is the only thing I know," she says, glancing at the Mecca tapestry. "I have no choice but to continue doing this. I will keep trying to send my children to university. I pray their future will be better than mine."

This article was originally published under the title, Bitter Harvest, in the April 2013 edition of Development Asia magazine.