The secret garden: what saved 400 lives in Indonesia’s Rote Island?

Largely women-led, establishment of 8 gardens prevented Rote’s “hungry season” from turning into famine. But these were no ordinary gardens.

Rote is a parched, remote island, only 500 km northwest of the Australian coast. It’s drier compared to other Indonesian islands and often abandoned by rain between November and March to give rise to the annual Musim Lapar or the “hungry season”.

While Rote’s harsh climate is partly responsible, the question remains why an island of under a 100,000 people is going hungry. This is not starvation or hunger like we see in African nations per say, explains Indigo Foundation, a community development organisation based in Australia that operates in Rote. This hunger is due to food shortage and it happens every year.

Indigo
In 2015, Indigo Foundation submitted and won $10,000 grant money as part of Australian Ethical’s annual initiative to contribute 10% of yearly pre-tax profits to charitable organisations as Community Grants. This grant was injected into a project in Rote starting November last year. After a year, Australian Ethical caught up with Indigo and received a progress report of the project that revealed startling results.

The grant supported 8 cooperative gardens in Western Rote. A group of inspirational women took matters into their own hands and purchased seeds, gardening tools, fertilizer, water tanks, pumps and began work. Indigo Foundation assisted them with technical support through a local partner called Lua Lemba. A pilot garden funded by Indigo Foundation earlier had already proven that the model was sustainable. But the overarching command of this garden to drastically transform lives only unfolded hereafter.

In less than a year, each garden could feed and provide a small income to eight extended families, in total – 400 people. The income was then used to build toilets but more importantly, set up a community bank. The bank distributed profits on a two-year rotation to the women and their families. The same women who until recently starved themselves to feed their families and keep children at school. They are now equipped with confidence instead to start planning small enterprise initiatives.

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The most endearing aspect of this project lies in its community-driven nature. All people involved volunteer both their time and labour to help build these gardens. A Liaison Officer at the Lua Lemba actually described the gardens as “a second home for the kids, who play and help their parents every afternoon” growing fresh vegetables like tomatoes, onions, beans and corns. And then came the drought.

The wet season in Rote, otherwise drier, was practically non-existent this year. Rivers ran dry, water sources futile and food shortage started to spread at an alarming pace. There was no rain and it meant that the initial planting of seeds was delayed and later stunted because the rain did not come at all. Majority of the seed stock was exhausted.

No progress ever comes without hurdles and the story of the gardens in Rote is no exception. The lessons were learnt the hard way here. In the duration of the grant period, locations of two gardens were changed in the absence of a water source and lack of rainfall. Then funding was used to build better water infrastructure and also to replenish food supplies.  And then it rained.

In June, an unseasonal and unexpected bout of rain flourished the gardens to provide sustenance to 55 families across the 8 gardens. There is a visible impact seen in the health and wellbeing of the families involved and the secret of the gardens is not contained any longer, drawing attention from adjoining communities. The meals have changed too. Once where sourcing of rice and salt was considered luxury, there is now a growing expectation of vegetables to be picked from the gardens and be included as a staple item during meal times. The Liaison Officer from Lua Lemba, Hibri observed that the transformation in the children was most evident, like they were “children from another place…”.

Interested in applying for a grant in 2017? Join our interest list but also check out winners of the 2016 Community Grants here.

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