Maria Loretha: Cham­pi­oning Sorghum, Flores's Crop of Hope

Sorghum is a gluten-free and nu­tri­ent-rich crop that can re­place rice in times of need. It is drought-re­sis­tant and grows where the soil can­not pro­duce vegetables.

Indonesia Expat - - CONTENTS - Text and im­ages by Grace Suse­tyo Grace Suse­tyo is a Jakarta- based free­lance jour­nal­ist. Hav­ing re­cently com­pleted a Mas­ter of Devel­op­ment Stud­ies, Grace’s re­search fo­cused on in­dige­nous iden­tity and so­cial cap­i­tal in West Pa­pua.

Cruis­ing down the coastal roads

of Laran­tuka, it is im­pos­si­ble not to no­tice an air of prayer in the sweet whis­pers of the sea waves. It is dif­fi­cult to forget the sights and sounds of icon- stud­ded flower gar­dens, Sta­tions of the Cross, and chapels where Hail Marys are chanted in Por­tuguese. Ev­ery Easter week­end, the Se­m­ana Santa pro­ces­sions draw thou­sands of for­eign and In­done­sian pil­grims to this his­tor­i­cal East­ern Flores town.

It is rather ironic how this green Catholic oa­sis can re­sem­ble a desert when it comes to agri­cul­tural life. Toil­ing on “soily rocks” (not rocky soil, the lo­cals cor­rected me) with scarce wa­ter sup­ply, farm­ers in East­ern Flores are no strangers to ad­ver­si­ties like crop fail­ure and famine.

It takes real brav­ery to aban­don a com­fort­able city life that a le­gal ca­reer can pro­vide, and be­come a farmer in East Flores. Dur­ing the South­east Asian mon­e­tary cri­sis in 1997, Maria Loretha and her fam­ily left Malang in East Java to live in Pa­jinian, her hus­band’s vil­lage in Laran­tuka’s neigh­bour­ing is­land of Adonara – ad­min­is­tra­tively part of East Flores. Today, 48-year- old Loretha is best known as “Mama Sorghum,” a cham­pion of East Flores’s for­got­ten won­der crop.

Orig­i­nally a Kanay­atn Dayak-woman from West Kal­i­man­tan, Loretha came to East Flores as a 28-yearold mother with a Bach­e­lor of Law and no ex­pe­ri­ence in agri­cul­ture. Grow­ing brown rice and legumes in her hus­band’s arid plot was a daunt­ing mis­sion.

But through her per­sis­tence in em­brac­ing the chal­lenge, Loretha dis­cov­ered how life- giv­ing East Flores’s des­o­late land­scapes can be. To un­leash that nat­u­ral po­ten­tial, it takes a mind that’s open to learn­ing how the land works, and agri­cul­tural strate­gies that cater to the land’s char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Un­like in Java, grow­ing wet rice fields in East Flores is ex­cru­ci­at­ingly dif­fi­cult. But East Flores yields a di­verse as­sort­ment of nu­tri­tious crops: sorghum, bar­ley, mil­let, maize and plan­tain. Re­garded as “in­fe­rior,” th­ese crops are usu­ally grown as an­i­mal fod­der and back- up sta­ples in an­tic­i­pa­tion of rice scarcity in the dry sea­son.

The greater chal­lenge to grow­ing crops is chang­ing mind­sets shaped by decades of gov­ern­ment poli­cies push­ing for the ex­pan­sion of masspro­duc­ing rice fields, and the cul­tural sham­ing that per­ceive eaters of “in­fe­rior crops” as “poverty- stricken.”

Loretha fondly re­mem­bers her first en­counter with the hum­ble sorghum in 2007. As a token of grat­i­tude, Maria He­lan – a fi­nan­cially strug­gling widow Loretha took care of – cooked for her a tra­di­tional sorghum dish with grated co­conut. De­lighted by the nov­elty, Loretha spent the com­ing years in search of na­tive sorghum seeds and ad­vo­cat­ing a sorghum re­vival among East Flores farm­ers.

Loretha later learned that sorghum is versatile, gluten free, high in pro­tein and fi­bre, and tends to be more fill­ing than rice. Men’s Fit­ness named it among “Five Healthy Whole Grains You’ve Never Heard Of.” The Guardian dubbed it “the new won­der grain” that quinoa lovers should watch out for.

“Sorghum was not widely grown as a do­mes­tic crop in 2007. Back then it grew in the wild,” re­called Loretha. “Since the 1970s, East Flores has been in­vaded with com­mer­cially bred seeds of rice and maize. Wet rice field-based agri­cul­ture was en­forced through­out the Suharto era. But the gov­ern­ment also sup­ported farm­ers with fund­ing and post- har­vest tools, as well as cam­paigns pro­mot­ing white rice as ‘healthy food.’”

Ev­i­dently, East Flores does not have the wet­lands to sup­port Jakarta’s mis­lead­ing “healthy rice” pro­pa­ganda. “Once In­done­sia runs out of healthy wet­lands, we be­come de­pen­dent on im­ported rice from Viet­nam and Cam­bo­dia,” said Loretha. And yet many In­done­sians would rather go into debt to have white rice for din­ner, rather than eat read­ily avail­able nu­tri­tious ‘an­i­mal fod­der’ like sorghum or maize. Liko­tu­den – an hour’s drive from Laran­tuka on main­land Flores – is one of those arid vil­lages where the soil is too poor to grow most vegetables, and rice crop fail­ure hap­pens fre­quently. How­ever, two prized su­per­foods thrive there: the drought-re­sis­tant sorghum and the highly nu­tri­tious moringa.

Since 2007, Loretha has been work­ing with Ke­hati Foun­da­tion and the Dio­cese of Laran­tuka to as­sist farm­ers in Liko­tu­den to or­gan­i­cally do­mes­ti­cate th­ese lo­cal su­per­foods. Com­mu­ni­ties are en­cour­aged to adopt sorghum as their pri­mary daily sta­ple rather than as backup food dur­ing famines. The sorghum ini­tia­tive has since ex­panded to Adonara, Lem­bata, Ende, West Flores and East Sumba.

“This ini­tia­tive has also been a great op­por­tu­nity to re­vive lo­cal agri­cul­tural nar­ra­tives,” added Loretha. The East Flores folk­lore of Ema Hingi Nogo Gunu tells of a woman who sac­ri­ficed her life to feed her seven broth­ers dur­ing a famine. Ema Hingi Nogo Gunu’s blood trans­formed into maize, her in­testines into bar­ley, her flesh into dry rice pad­dies and her bones into sorghum.

“The agri­cul­tural phi­los­o­phy of

East Flores lay­ered in­ter­crop­ping is em­bed­ded in this folk­lore,” ex­plained Loretha. Taro and bar­ley are grown in the out­er­most layer, fol­lowed by maize and dry rice pad­dies. “Like the seven broth­ers of Ema Hingi Nogo Gunu, th­ese crops serve as the guardians of the sorghum. They’re grown in the in­ner­most layer, most pro­tected from pests such as boars and birds.”

Loretha’s vi­sion earned her the Wash­ing­ton DC-based Ashoka So­cial En­trepreneur­ship Global Fel­low­ship in 2013.

“To cham­pion sorghum is to sup­port the gov­ern­ment’s fight against mal­nu­tri­tion and to pro­vide hope for bet­ter liveli­hoods for ru­ral In­done­sians,” said Loretha. “It spells hope for des­o­late-look­ing lands that could in fact yield sorghum to feed many. It spells hope for women to not have to be­come mi­grant work­ers and have their fam­i­lies torn apart just to af­ford a sack of rice. If fam­ily barns in Flores pros­per with abun­dantly avail­able nu­tri­tious food, it means so much more than money.”

East Flores farm­ers as­sisted by Loretha cur­rently sup­ply sorghum flour for the Unis Gluten Free Bak­ery in Bo­gor. They re­cently ter­mi­nated a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Javara – a pre­mium in­dige­nous food brand sold in high- end su­per­mar­kets – due to the pro­hib­i­tive costs of sus­tain­ing busi­ness within the brand. Loretha said her farm­ers plan to ex­pand their of­fer­ings of sorghum-based prod­ucts and cater to an in­ter­na­tional mar­ket in the fu­ture. “But cur­rently, es­tab­lish­ing food sovereignty at home re­mains our pri­or­ity,” she con­cluded. Loretha is happy to ar­range sorghum tours and tast­ings in Liko­tu­den and other sorghum-grow­ing com­mu­ni­ties as­sisted by the Dio­cese of Laran­tuka. She can be con­tacted on +6285238880085.

“Once In­done­sia runs out of healthy wet­lands, we be­come de­pen­dent on im­ported rice from Viet­nam and Cam­bo­dia,” said Loretha. And yet many In­done­sians would rather go into debt to have white rice for din­ner, rather than eat read­ily avail­able nu­tri­tious ‘an­i­mal fod­der’ like sorghum or maize.”

Maria Loretha with Sorghum Plant over Soily Rock

Sorghum Moringa and Fish Lunch

Liko­tu­den Farm­ers Plant­ing Sorghum

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