A Return to Sago
The Sangihe Islands' regency government is gearing locals away from consuming rice as a staple food. The local government has chosen to focus on the organic farming of sago.
ONE might initially feel some shock at hearing the word 'porno' used everywhere in the Sangihe Islands. The word, however, refers not to pornography, but rather to a sago-based staple food typical of the regency in North Sulawesi. The name porno is taken from a clay tool of the same name, used for molding the food before it is baked. "Some call the food pineda or papeda," said Yetris Bawelle, 46.
Before, Yetris, who lives in the Lengiang village, North Tabukan subdistrict, would only cook porno once a week because her six children still prefer rice. But in the past three weeks, she has made porno more than twice a week. The savory food is served with fern leaves cooked in coconut milk and fish-either boiled in tamarind sauce or grilled.
Porno has seen a recent spike in popularity because Sangihe Regent Jabes Ezar Gaghana has issued an instruction for the Sangihe people to serve sago more frequently. Mid this year, Jabes launched a program called 'two days without rice' to be implemented every Tuesday and Friday. In the program, Jabes invites all locals to turn to local foods such as sago, corn, cassava and sweet potato.
Jabes strongly believes that his program would be easily implemented, although Sangihe locals are accustomed to eating rice. The former Sangihe deputy regent says locals did not use to consume rice in the past, as the region is contoured with hills and mountains-not exactly suitable for growing rice. "Our main commodity was sago and all kinds of tubers," he said.
Rice, says Jabes, is an 'imported' food that must be brought in from outside the regency, causing the government's budget to soar up to Rp6 billion per month. "Our money is 'drained' outside Sangihe," he said, when actually residents can simply get their main staple food from their orchards or buy from neighbors. "This way, we can preserve our local food and the farmers are eager to produce it because it has its own market segment."
To encourage Sangihe residents, Jabes provides an incentive. He has promised village chiefs that they would have an opportunity to perform a comparative study in China during his term. The prerequisite is that interested village chiefs must use their village budget to develop organic agriculture and to implement the two-days-without-rice program.
Sangihe farmers seem to welcome Jabes' initiative. According to Lekumina Masihor, chair of the Lestari Farmers Association (Gapoktan), the two-days-without-rice program has once again placed sago as a leading crop in Sangihe. More than 50 farmers under Lekumina's leadership have begun growing non-rice staple-food plants.
"It's not difficult because the plant is suitable to the landscape and Sangihe's soil, which is rich in volcanic minerals," she said.
Furthermore, Sangihe farmers are used to horticulture cultivation, meaning various types of plants are planted on one plot of land. As a result, local farmers are now more confident when it comes to increasing their production capacity. "Carbohydrate plant cultivation has increased by 25-30 percent," said Lekumina.
Yetris Bawelle, a Gapoktan member, is quick to see that the two-days-without-rice program presents an opportunity for agrobusiness. Within the last month, she has planted a number of local food plants, including sago, on her one-hectare plot using an organic farming method. One can find corn, tubers, and sago on her plot, not to mention other plants such as nutmeg and chili pepper, which she had already been planting before.
According to Yetris, Regent Jabes' program does not only have the potential to increase farmers' incomes, it can also reduce her household expenditures. Her household spending of Rp50,000 per day is reduced by half on days without rice. "I can save money and it's probably healthier," she said.
Regent Jabes says he would be pleased if it turns out that his program does not only improve food sovereignity, but also improve the community's health and their micro economy, which is why he continues to encourage village chiefs to motivate villagers in developing local food plants. If a farmer can produce four tons of corn on one hectare of land, says Jabes, that farmer can potentially make an income of Rp20 million every three months. "The market for corn is wide open," said the regent.
Implementing the two-days-without-rice program does not seem like a big deal for the Sangihe people as sago has always been an alternative staple to rice in the region. But still, many residents, particularly children, have not yet adapted their taste to other staples.
Lekumina Masihor's child, for example, cannot do without rice, although Lekumina has tried cooking various staples, including sweet potato, sago and corn. "Adults such as myself and my husband don't have difficulty adjusting to non-rice staple food," she said.
Yetris Bawelle has a similar experience. Some of her children still refuse to eat non-rice carbohydrates, particularly her young four-year-old twins. "Their tastebuds have not gotten used to non-rice staples yet." Yetris, a chili pepper farmer, has to cook at least half a kilogram of rice on Tuesdays and Fridays, apart from porno and other non-rice food.
But Yetris has not given up. She continues to introduce different types of food made of non-rice carbohydrates to her children. "One strategy is to prepare eye-catching side dishes."