The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from human rights groups working in Yahukimo that since January 2009 till now approximately 113 villagers in Yahukimo, Papua, died of hunger associated with diseases. The harvest failure this year caused by climate change resulted in deaths which aggravated lack of food in the villages. It affected seven districts including Suntamon, Langda, Bomela, Seradala, Walma, Pronggoli and Heryakpini and 26 sub-districts. The affected areas had already suffered the deaths of 55 villagers from starvation due to harvest failure in 2005. The government however failed to improve agricultural facilities in order to ensure food security since then.
According to information collected by Indonesian Social Services Christian Foundation (Yayasan Kristen Pelayanan Sosial Masyarakat Indonesia; YAKPESMI), bad weather and heavy rain have severely affected the Yahukimo recency of Papua, especially from May until August. This has caused residents’ harvests to fail. The scarcity of food has led to an increase in diseases, such as malaria and diarrhea.
The number of people that have died of starvation in Yahukimo regency has reached 113 since January 2009; more than 31 people had died in Langda, 34 in Bomela, nearly 20 in Seredala and 10 in Suntamon. According to Yuliat Iksomon, the head of the Yahukimo disaster response team, deaths caused by starvation also happened in another three districts of Yahukimo; Walma, Pronggoli, and Heryakpini. In Walma district itself, it is reported that as many as 60 people have died of starvation associated with diseases.
The government has denied that there is a lack of food which has lead to villagers dying of starvation. It was published that the Secretary of Yahukimo administration Mr. Robby Langkutoy as well as the Ministry of Social Welfare, have denied the villagers died of starvation but rather from diseases and failed harvest. Conversely, in recent days, Ones Pahabol, the chief of Papua’s Yahukimo regency, announced that the villagers in 26 sub-districts were starving due to the failure of the sweet potato harvest, which is the main staple food in the area.
On 14 September 2009, the central government sent food aid of 100 tons of rice, sweet potatoes and other foodstuffs including noodles to the effected area. However, despite the fact the government has admitted the villagers suffered from various diseases, medical aid has not yet reached the villagers.
Even before 2009 the villagers in Yahukimo regency were suffering from extreme poverty and lack of facilities and resources for food security. However, the government has ignored their living circumstances and has not paid particular attention to the dire circumstances of the village communities.
In 2005, it was reported that 55 people had died of starvation due to harvest failure. The government accepted that there had been a failure of the harvest due to bad weather, but refused to accept that people are dying due to starvation. Instead it insisted that disease and lack of food due to a failed harvest were the main causes of death, not starvation.
Despite this, twelve food storage facilities were constructed in 2006 to assist those that had suffered from crop failure. Unfortunately, this was not effective in preventing starvation and did not ensure food security, as the storage facilities were not suitable for storing sweet potatoes – the staple food in the region. It was also claimed that the Ministry of Social Welfare, in 2006, distributed good quality seeds free of charge in Yahukimo. This happened only once.
Many villagers live in high land areas; Yahukimo is remote and isolated. Daily food sources come from home grown produce such as sweet potato or potato. If villagers fail to harvest enough produce to support their families, they immediately face starvation. While finding it difficult to harvest sufficient food, the villagers can eat only one meal a day. Although villagers collect vegetables and fruits from the forest, it is not enough for them to be free from hunger. The lack of infrastructure such as roads or public transportation in Yahukimo also aggravates food insecurity.
It is widely accepted that malnutrition or starvation affects the immune system of the human body, which then leads to diseases such as diarrhea, wasting, or breathing difficulty among other things (Please refer to the AHRC statement for more information on malnutrition and diseases). Any analysis which does not consider the extremely poor living conditions of these villagers will only expose the superficial symptoms. The denial, by the government, of a proper investigation into this situation and a lack of professional knowledge is irresponsible.
Furthermore, along with the government’s denial of starvation deaths, they are reluctant to detail exact information of the deceased villagers. Children, who are more vulnerable to malnutrition and diseases, need urgent medical attention. However, no accurate information about the children has been revealed. It is also extremely concerning that the deaths were disclosed several months after they occurred. To prevent further deaths and ensure food security the government should undertake a full investigation into the deceased villagers, detailing information such as age, gender, symptoms of sickness, living condition and food intake before the death.
The right to food is a fundamental right of each Indonesian person. It is enshrined in the Act of the Republic of Indonesia Number 7 of 1996 on Food. The Act also states that sufficient availability of safe, nutritious and quality food is a main pre-requisite which must be met in the effort to establish a system which provides adequate health protection, and plays a larger role in increasing the prosperity and welfare of the people.
Section 17 of Article 1 in Chapter 1 says,
Food security is the condition in which the fulfillment of food for the households is reflected by the availability of sufficient food both its quantity and quality, safe, evenly distributed and within reach.
As is evidenced in the deaths by starvation in Yahukimo, food is not available for the villagers. This is the most basic entitlement in the right to food according to the Act as well as international law. Food aid is necessary for initial emergencies but is crucial to preventing future emergency situations from arising. Despite the numerous deaths by starvation in Yahukimo since 2005, the government has failed to ensure the right to food in the long term by not establishing an adequate food system. As a consequence the neglect and denial of the government has led to more deaths through starvation this year. This is a serious violation of the right to food.
As a state party of International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Indonesian government has an obligation to take steps with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights in ICESCR, including right to adequate food as enshrined in Article 11 paragraph 1 of ICESCR.
Article 11 paragraph 2 of the ICESCR also clearly states that, “The States parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through inter needed: a) To improve methods of production, conservation, and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources; b) Taking into account the problems of both food importing and food exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need”.