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Against The Grain: How Recultivating Jali-Jali Is Helping Dry Villages in East Nusa Tenggara Survive The Climate Crisis


Ignasius Ite couldn’t always afford rice, but he always had his jali-jali. “When we had no money we milled jali-jali,” he reminisced. “maybe if we had it [jali-jali] now, it would help”. This year, Ignasius’ crops are failing due to drastically reduced rainfall and rice is becoming too expensive for purchase. Like other farmers in East Nusa Tenggara, he stopped harvesting jali-jali when there wasn’t enough water to keep it going, available supply went to more popular crops instead. Now, replanting jali-jali might be the only way to survive the drying climate.

Jali-jali, also known as adlay or Job’s tears[1], is an ancient grain which is native to Southeast Asia. For centuries, it has fulfilled dietary, medicinal and cultural requirements for multiple peoples across the region, including and especially in Lembata, East Nusa Tenggara. Nonetheless, despite requiring relatively less water than rice to thrive, the jali-jali has not been prioritised as a subsistence crop.

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“Why did we stop harvesting jali-jali?” Ignasius asks rhetorically, “because we didn’t know there was a choice”. Understandably, it’s difficult to go against the grain and plant an unpopular crop. Dr Yusuf Andriana from Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) says the reason adlay is not harvested more is because it is simply not as popular as most crops, especially rice.

“The strong preference for rice, combined with limited awareness and promotion of adlay, has hindered its widespread adoption”. He says farmers have limited exposure to adlay and that efforts need to be made to disseminate knowledge about its properties and how to harvest it. Adriana recommends that such efforts be directed toward farmers in drier regions like East Nusa Tenggara where most crops will become extremely difficult to harvest as rainfall continues to decrease.

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This kind of knowledge is something which a new social enterprise is trying to cultivate. Koalisi Pangan Baik (KPB) is a project designed to find and promote local solutions to climate change, especially those which are able to sustain food systems. They have identified 10 regencies in East Nusa Tenggara as requiring immediate adaptation solutions, mainly because it is these areas where a drastically decreasing water supply is making it difficult for crops to survive.

“Our solutions use education, food education, as a way to overcome the worst effects of climate change – like how to grow things without a lot of water,” says programme coordinator Rizki Nurani. In other words, the solutions work by utilising knowledge that is already there. Knowledge like adlay is a crop which is efficient because it needs far less water than others, functional because it is less susceptible to pests, and nutritious because it doesn’t need to be polished like rice does. It is not difficult to connect this educational design with the one that was espoused by Ki Hajar Dewantara.

Honouring the legacy of Ki Hajar Dewantara Hari

Earlier this month, Indonesia celebrated its national education day to commemorate the Taman Siswa movement and its founder, Ki Hajar Dewantara. This movement sought the provision of education for all, at a time when education was only offered to select few, namely the Dutch colonisers and Javanese aristocracy. In other words, the Taman Siswa system was founded in response to majority of the population missing out on an education. The work of KPB is a response of a similar kind: a response to the population missing out on local knowledge.

‘Food education is a process of transferring knowledge’ says Maria Mone Soge, a teacher from East Flores. ‘It is the key to how our food culture is maintained and therefore able to be passed on to the next generation.’ Maria is one of KPB’s local champions. She says food education is still not taken as seriously as it should be, despite the positive influence she knows it to have.

Creating new resources for food education  

Recipes for adlay, let alone knowledge about harvesting it, are incredibly difficult to come by. To find these, one would have to travel to the small village of Hoelea II in the Lembata regency.

Here, there is a tribe whose recipes have only ever used jali-jali. The Leuhoe tribe revere this plant in both their traditions and their diet – so much so that most forbid cooking with rice or other carbohydrates. Yohan Edangwala, KPB local champion of the village, says it makes sense that this tribe honours jali because it is the crop that is the most compatible with such dry conditions.

Still, like other villages in ENT, rice remains the most popular popular carbohydrate. Unlike other villages, Edangwala explains, it is actually not possible to harvest rice in Hoelea II because of the uniquely dry conditions. “This means everyone has to buy it [rice] at the market or the shop and this is getting very expensive.”

Substituting rice for jali-jali in these drier villages is certainly a more creative way to survive the climate crisis unfolding across the world. But the knowledge is already there. “The jali is used in almost every aspect of Leuhoe life and they have thrived for centuries.” We might start by learning their recipes.

written by: Abigail McCaill

[1] The name ‘Job’s tears’ refers to the tears of Job. Job is considered a prophet in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Bible proclaims in the Book of Job that for the many agonies that Job endured, he wept ‘tears unto God’ and that when he did, those tears hit the ground and created a miracle – the sprouting of a tall plant that, in turn, produced the same seeds and kept the miracle going. The name is given to the jali-jali, scientifically known as Coix lachrymajobi for their tear like shape and colour.

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