Project diary: Introducing Resilient Agricultre

Taining of trainer - Group (©fFairfood)
Taining of trainer - Group (©fFairfood)

Agroforestry in Indonesian Pepper Cultivation

The "aGROWforests" project is working in Indonesia to transform traditional pepper cultivation to prepare for the challenges of climate change and enable farmers to earn a secure income.

Europe and the USA are the largest importers of pepper in the world. On average, around 80,000 tons are imported to the European continent each year. On average, 115,000 tons are imported each year, and imports are expected to rise. Vietnam, Brazil, and Indonesia are the largest pepper growing countries, and Verstegen Spices & Sauces has been trading Indonesian pepper for more than 130 years. To ensure the future of this trade, Verstegen, in cooperation with the company PT CAN and the Dutch NGO Fairfood launched the "aGROWforests" project, which has been part of the "Initiative for Climate Smart Supply Chains" (I4C) since December 2022. "The main goal of the aGROWforests project is to support farmers with more sustainable pepper farming," says Yayang Vionita, an agronomist at Verstegen, describing the project's objective. This is urgently needed because if the current trend in pepper production continues, there will soon no longer be enough pepper.

Climate change – a crucial problem, but not the only one

One of the most far-reaching difficulties is that farmers can no longer earn enough from pepper to make a living. "Pepper prices have dropped dramatically over the past years," says Fairfood project manager Josje Spierings. At the same time, production is labor-intensive and expensive. Many farmers, therefore, switch to more profitable crops such as palm or rubber trees. To make cultivation profitable at all, most pepper farmers produce in monocultures. However, this has many disadvantages.

The biggest problem is the loss of biodiversity, as monocultures only cultivate one plant species, reducing the variety of plants and animals in the area. Monocultures can result in soil degradation – this has consequences. Yayang Vionita explains the effects: "If soil quality decreases, the source of nutrients for plants to grow and develop will also decrease, so that productivity can decrease." As a result, farmers have to excessively fertilize their soil. Moreover, diseases spread more quickly where only one plant species is grown. Pathogens spread rapidly to surrounding fields and farms. This can lead to complete crop failures, prompting farmers to use a lot of chemical pesticides as a precaution. They then are constantly exposed to these pesticides in their daily lives. Many suffer from lung diseases or have already suffered permanent lung damage.

Added to this is climate change with its extreme weather events. Experts estimate that heavy rainfall and prolonged rain will destroy up to 50 percent of pepper harvests in the future. The extreme moisture introduces stem rot and other diseases that destroy the pepper plants. Also, the increasingly intense sunlight, leading to longer dry periods, causes stress for the plants and makes them susceptible to diseases. Therefore, maintaining their livelihoods becomes increasingly difficult for farmers.

Approaches to Solutions: Agroforestry and transparency    

"The aGROWforests project aims to increase pepper production and income while at the same time adapting the agricultural system to climate change," says Yayang Vionita, outlining the vision of the I4C partners. The means to this end: agroforestry. Pepper bushes are combined with various tree species and other plants that interact with each other which subsequently reduces stress on the pepper plants and improves soil quality. The result is better yields. Additionally, water is not simply drained away but absorbed, making the pepper better equipped to withstand droughts and long dry periods.

To prepare pepper farmers for the reorganisation of their farms, the project provides training to participants. "Farmers can learn and slowly implement regenerative agriculture and agroforestry in their farm," says Vionita, explaining the approach. Farmers are invited to observe the procedures, apply the new methods in the field themselves, and discuss them in small groups. If they have any questions, farmers can directly consult experts in so-called "Spice Hubs". They advise them on introducing agroforestry to their farms or on pepper cultivation in general. To ensure a successful transition to the new agricultural methods, the project monitors the process during the first six months.

Furthermore, "aGROWforests" operates under the motto "farm-to-fork traceability", meaning tracing pepper from cultivation to consumers. Josje Spierings explains the purpose: "By tracing the supply chain,      we will show where the pepper comes from, which regenerative farming practices have been implemented, and the price farmers receive for their pepper". Traceability creates transparency in the supply chain – which benefits everyone. This includes at least 2,300 farmers and their family and household members who benefit from the "aGROWforests" project.

aGROWforests is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) as part of the Initiative 4 Climate Smart Supply Chains and supported by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).