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Health and gender related impacts of climate change in eastern Indonesia

Research project Climate change has become a problem that now affects most parts of the world. It can have severe implications for health, such as spreading the range of infectious disease, or it can seriously impact on social structures, by, for instance, reinforcing gender unequal divisions of labour. Field data shows that swidden agriculturalists in eastern Indonesia are experiencing dramatic changes in climate, and that this had had noticeable repercussions on their socio-economic situation. Despite the felt effects of climate change, not all adaptation measures are successfully received in the field.

This project investigates local impacts of and adaptations to climate change on the island of Flores, eastern Indonesia, with specific focus on health and gender issues. The project takes a socio-historical perspective and builds on social anthropological fieldwork carried out in 2009-2011. A short period of fieldwork in March-April 2014 will add to the ethnographic data and promote a better understanding of a) the nature of the present socio-economic situation in the study area, and b) local gender relations and notions and understandings of climate change. The aim is for the collected body of data to guide the design and launching of a locally adapted culture sensitive information campaign in collaboration with local key actors, and ultimately inform the design and implementation of local adaptive strategies and policies. Targeting women in particular in the information campaign might be a strategic advantage, since women in this area have proved to occupy a fairly flexible position that has, and still is, allowing for socio-economic and cultural change. The results from the field will allow for an evaluation of the applicability of this method. A positive result will have concrete implications for the population in this area and, with a few modifications, this approach might be transferrable to other geographic, socio-economic and cultural areas as well. This is one constructive step towards creating a more fruitful communication between, on the one hand, researchers, NGOs, policy makers, medical teams, and so forth, and, on the other hand, the local communities with which they engage. The original value of the method is to acknowledge the views and beliefs held by local communities and finding ways in which to circumvent miscommunication, which has a bearing on all types of cross-cultural interaction.

Project overview

Project period:

2013-09-02 2015-08-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Epidemiology and Global Health, Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine

Research area

Gender studies, Public health and health care science

Project description

This project builds on social anthropological research on social structure, family and kinship on the island of Flores, Indonesia. Fifteen months of fieldwork was conducted in rural Flores in 2009-2011. The study was based chiefly on participant observation and semi-/unstructured interviews, and further added to by archival research and an analysis of birth and marriage records.
Flores is a lush, mountainous island of volcanic origin situated in eastern Indonesia at 08°35’S, 121°00’E. There are a number of active volcanoes and a high degree of seismic activity in the area. Rainfall is mainly limited to the rainy season, roughly between December and March, and varies greatly depending on the topography, ca. 750–1,500 mm/year. A large proportion of the population on Flores relies on swidden agriculture as the main source of subsistence, but fishing also plays an important role along the coasts. The staple foods are rice and maize. Cash crops, such as cassava, papaya, coconut and mango, also make occasional complements to the diet, as do wild tubers and other forest foods. In the mountains, animal husbandry is largely limited to ritual needs, featuring pigs, goats and chickens for blood sacrifice. Alongside Christianity in the mountains (mainly Catholicism) and Islam along the coasts, traditional beliefs and practices (adat) are still strongly upheld throughout Flores. A common theme in several Indonesian cosmologies is the legend of the Rice Maiden; a human girl who sacrificed herself to create new seeds that could feed the whole of humanity. Until this day, farmers on Flores see rice, maize and other cultivates as the literal flesh and/or blood of the Rice Maiden. Sowing, harvesting and cooking/eating thus become cult actions rather than mere necessities. While it is the Rice Maiden who is believed to bring the yield to the swiddens, the cosmology of the East Flores administrative regency, at least, maintains that rain and other natural occurrences are ultimately given to the people by the High Deity. Ritual and (blood) sacrifice are required to feed the Deity, so as to remain in the Deity’s favour. Through ritual and (blood) sacrifice, the living can thus influence the local weather and climatic conditions. Since the spread of the world religions on Flores, however, the High Deity has become increasingly associated with God or Allah, and more and more detached from adat. Today, ritual and (blood) sacrifice are mainly aimed at the ancestors, who are believed to stand in direct contact with the High Deity. Rainfall and other natural occurrences are therefore said to be given by the ancestors.
Flores today
The international discourse on climate change and global warming is well-known on Flores from radio and television reports. A frequent comment is that this is a serious problem, and that dramatic changes have occurred in local climate as well over the last century. Traditionally, the local agricultural calendar was able to identify several stages of rain, wind and heat, to mention a few, and predict their onset, offset and intensity fairly accurately. Today this calendar is virtually useless. The rains are often too heavy, too late or too early, and strong winds and droughts have contributed to increasing the frequency of failed or poor yields. This has had particularly severe repercussions in the mountains, where the soils only sustain one harvest per year. Swiddens, which originally measured c.3 ha, have now become unsustainable and thus reduced to 1–1.5 ha. This has been concordant with a number of socio-cultural developments, partly caused by climate, partly due to various governmental decrees, Dutch colonial influences, the spread of formal schooling and Catholic mission (in the mountains): a reduced household size (the household being responsible for working the swidden belonging to the house), a new settlement pattern (i.e. village settlement rather than scattered houses on the swiddens), new house types (the traditional structures now serving as barns), and so forth. It is possible that urbanization, alongside changes in temperature, have come to influence the prevalence of dengue and malaria, which are significant causes of morbidity and mortality in this area. In spite of this, not everyone agrees that climate change and global warming are having repercussions in the East Flores regency; local conditions are, after all, given by the ancestors and can be influenced through ritual and prayer. Natural disasters, failed or poor yields, illness and sometimes death are blamed on ignorance of the traditional ways and failure to perform ritual. Ritual and prayer, therefore, remain the main strategies for coping with the difficulties faced.
Central analytical question
How could adaptive strategies be designed and successfully implemented on Flores? The venture seems to stand and fall with the question of communication and respect. More than one informant has expressed a dislike of co-operation with official representatives, who “criticize the local lifestyle and beliefs” and who try to bring about change without taking into regard the views and wishes of the people. The only way to circumvent this dilemma is by addressing the problems of climate change and adaptation in the terms of the people who are de facto affected by this. There are already indications that locally arisen adaptations have brought about various degrees of rupture with tradition, but that they nonetheless are beginning to become socially accepted, since they are necessary for survival. The effects of the new climatic conditions are, for instance, being tackled by means of building small barriers in the swiddens, so as to check erosion. This is not looked lightly upon by the elders, who claim that one must observe the traditions that regulate the activities of the agricultural year and the settings of these activities. Another example relates to the need to seek out outer sources of income, for purchasing extra food and various goods and medications, and for paying school fees and public transportation, to mention a few. Typically, men would undertake paid employment while women looked after the house and swidden, as the cultural context places the men in the role of family provider. In recent years, however, there has been a noticeable broadening of the female sphere of activities. Today, many women work in much the same areas as the men, to complement the family economy. Women are in addition the sole producers of baskets and fabrics, and they are responsible for selling their products and the household’s cash crops at the local markets. An increasing number of women are also taking up positions as housemaids abroad, so as to be able to sustain their families back home. This places these women in the role of family providers and is in direct conflict with the socially and religiously appropriate gender roles and gender specific work chores, and traditional ideas about household, family and marriage. New conditions, however, eventually do push the limits of culturally appropriate behaviour, sometimes in unexpected ways, and this presents a very interesting window of entry for affecting future development. Women are now being forced to take on new roles and responsibilities as their immediate society is going through a series of very rapid social, material and environmental changes. Initiatives that are concerned with adaptations to climate change might thus gain a larger and more concrete impact if they are aimed specifically at women, as is already done in the context of promoting reproductive health throughout Flores.
Research outcomes
Local knowledge and tradition are two very important bases for adaptation, although they are not always sufficient in a long-term perspective. Taking a social anthropological perspective, this project will try and propose sustainable strategies that acknowledge local tradition and beliefs but which emphasize the importance of climatic and environmental data, data on health issues and agricultural strategies, socio-economic factors, gender equality and human rights. This will be practically accomplished through interviews and participant observatory studies of the social and environmental context, and through collaborations with key local actors in the area and with external actors. Since the project in its essence is a multidisciplinary ambition, researchers from the following institutions have also been approached for putative future collaborations: CIFOR, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), University of Oxford, Universitas Nusa Cendana (Indonesia), Universitas Indonesia, Universitas Gajah Mada (Indonesia) and Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta (Indonesia). The additional body of knowledge and the expertise tied thereto will greatly enrich the current research and help bring the envisaged, concrete adaptation measures one step closer to realization. The concrete outcomes of the project is the design and implementation of a locally adapted culture sensitive information campaign in collaboration with local actors, specifically aimed at women (field action), a follow-up on the impacts of the information campaign (if any) (field action), the design and implementation of locally adapted culture sensitive adaptive strategies in collaboration with local actors [policy implications?] (paper, field action), an in-depth case-study (papers), various seminars and perhaps also teaching (field action) and multimedia dissemination of the results.
Latest update: 2018-06-20