Slippery slopes of tobacco, 27/01/10

 


Tobacco leaves, fetching high prices ranging from Rp 20,000 to Rp 100,000, have transformed Temanggung regency into a tobacco-producing center, with many local farmers — who have lived in the mountains for generations — eking a living out of this crop.

As a result, the slopes of the regency’s Mount Sindoro, Mount Sumbing and Mount Prau have gradually been deforested, with locals continuously reclaiming forestland for tobacco plantations. Temanggung Regent Hasyim Afandi has acknowledged the very rapid pace of erosion on these three slopes.

“Based on a survey conducted by the Natural Disaster Study Center of Gadjah Mada University, these slopes are losing 60 tons of earth per hectare a year.”

 

In his student days at Gadjah Mada University, he had already warned that unless the erosion was promptly halted, within 20 years the Sindoro,Sumbing and Prau slopes would become barren like Yogyakarta’s Gunung Kidul zone.

“We have since then become more aware of the need for all to participate in rescuing our environment together. We never stop explaining the dangers of erosion to the local population,” Hasyim said.

Signs of soil degradation were apparent as the slopes, which should have been green with perennial plants, but instead were stripped of their thick foliage.

The green-hue in the dry season came from seasonal tobacco plants, which were harvested in September and October.

When the rainy season peaked from December to March, rainwater gushed down the mountains carrying tons of earth, causing uncontrollable erosion with no large trees around to absorb the flow.

Head of the Central Java Plantations Office Siswanto indicated his office had attempted to prevent the erosion by growing the red-flower kaliandra, a tree-plant most compatible with mountainous areas.

“But when the kaliandra trees grow big, farmers cut them down for firewood without replanting them.

The greening efforts to stop erosion thus failed.

“We finally asked locals to grow coffee, which can produce beans of high value and prevent erosion,” he said. 

He explained to farmers that a hectare of land grown with 1,000 coffee plants would produce Rp 14 million in harvest value, while farmers could still retain their tobacco with coffee as an alternative, thus earning them double income.

Buyanto, a farmer from Tlahap village, Kledung district, Temanggung, said his had two sources of income as a result of intercropping.

“I’ve grown coffee since 2001. Now I have three harvests a year, as do most other farmers here. In June-July we harvest coffee, in August-September tobacco and two months later corn. We have never harvested coffee before,” he said.

Getting tobacco growers to acknowledge the danger of erosion and change their farming habits was quite a challenge.

“We rejected the coffee suggestion at first, because tobacco doesn’t grow as much in the shade [of other trees]. But the Temanggung Plantations Office pointed out the hazards of continuous erosion, which decreases soil fertility and cause the loss of productive land.

So, erosion-curbing and crop-yielding trees should be grown. We finally chose coffee,” said Wonati, another farmer.

According to Wonati, local farmers took  long time to believe coffee would be as profitable as tobacco.

In the end, they turned to coffee when cigarette companies’ tobacco purchases started decreasing in the period of 2002-2005.

Siswanto said his office provided Arabica coffee seedlings suitable for land 900 meters above sea level such as the slopes of Mt. Sindoro, Mt. Sumbing and Mt. Prau.

“Most farmers used to dump our coffee seedlings and had no knowledge of Arabica’s economic worth.

But after three years of planting and yielding coffee, they became aware that a kilogram of coffee costs Rp 3,500 and coffee beans Rp 22,000,” he said.

Central Java’s coffee plantations cover 35,430 hectares, comprising 30,650 hectares of Robusta coffee and 4,780 hectares of Arabica coffee. Of the total coffee area, 16,250 hectares are located on the slopes of Sindoro, Sumbing and Prau.

Chairman of the Indonesian Coffee Exporters Association (AEKI), Central Java chapter, Theng Hong Sioe, commonly called Soso, said coffee production in the province had reached 24,000 to 25,000 tons a year. Around 16,000 tons of the output is exported to Japan, America and European countries. Dry Robusta coffee beans with a 13 percent water content cost between Rp 12,750 and Rp 13,500 per kilogram, and Arabica coffee above Rp 20,000 per kilogram.

“Central Java has only four active exporters: PT Java Agro exports 3,000 tons a year, PT Taman Delta 5,000 tons, PT Djasa Djasa 1,000 tons, and PT Perkebunan Nusantara IX. Two other coffee exporters are located in Salatiga and Semarang, but are not very active,” Soso said.

In his view, the majority of coffee growers in Central Java are already aware of the need to process their harvests into good quality coffee.

Regional coffee trading is also expanding. Coffee from East Java and West Java is sold to Central Java and vice versa. One can also find several major ground coffee producers in Central Java such as Tugu Luwak.

Central Java Governor Bibit Waluyo welcomed the farmers’ readiness to grow coffee to help overcome erosion.

“If we love our environment, nature will also love us. Grow coffee in order to prevent erosion. Keep trying if you want more. Use your farm dikes first and after they bear fruits, try it in your plantations for more production,” he told farmers.

Bibit added the governor and regent would be striving to promote the welfare of regional people.

“If the erosion continues, what will our future generations inherit from this land? Let’s conserve the environment together to make the soil fertile and bless us all.”

This crop also helps farmers when the weather deteriorates as an impact of global warming.

“In June rain keeps falling and tobacco can’t be grown. So farmers should indeed think of planting other crops to ensure harvests the whole year,” Bibit concluded.