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June 06, 2013

Papua: Into the Fields

A rice farming boom in Papua is bringing opportunities to reconcile old divisions and plant new churches.

  • New Harvest

    Rice is not traditionally grown in the region around Merauke, but the Indonesian government provides incentives for people to move here and start rice farms.

  • Immigrant Population

    Many immigrants from other islands in Indonesia come to the Merauke region due to the affordable land and profitable farming.

  • Other Crops

    Other crops such as pepper plants also do well in the rich soil of the region.

  • Building Trust

    Slamet* uses his agricultural experience and training to build relationships with new friends.

In America, they throw rice at weddings and put it in dog food. They fill fast-food burritos with it to pad profits. In tight times, they comfort themselves by saying, “We can always eat rice and beans.”

But in Indonesia, where a meal is not a meal without rice, progress has not yet marginalized the diminutive white grain. In Indonesia, rice has changed everything. It toppled a president and helped another to consolidate power. It has run families off their lands, eroded indigenous cultures, and saved thousands of lives at the same time. And in Indonesia’s largely rural provinces like Papua, rice has fueled political and religious tensions that have often turned violent.

When Slamet* looks at rice, he sees something else: A tool for the gospel. A church-planting pioneer who lives in Semangga, just outside the Papuan city of Merauke, Slamet came to the region three years ago from one of Indonesia’s other islands. He is trained in agricultural development and works side-by-side in the fields with the region’s rice farmers, the vast majority of whom are Muslim immigrants from the densely populated island of Java. But more than building the rice industry, Slamet hopes the relationships he’s building will eventually form the foundation of a church among the immigrant community, a group that has gone mostly ignored by Christians in Papua.

“Our goal is to come to this area to live among the people and share the truth with them,” Slamet says. “We realize we can’t just tell them about Jesus and expect them to receive it. Our strategy is to come to the fields and work alongside the people.”

Not long ago, most Papuans identified themselves as Christians, the product of more than a century of missionaries who endured wars and pestilence to plow ever deeper into the countryside and reach isolated tribes. Papua has a vibrant and maturing national church, even though some remote indigenous groups have still never heard the gospel.

But that religious mix began changing noticeably in the 1990s, when the Indonesian government’s long-standing transmigration program shifted its focus to Papua. The program, which relocated Indonesians from densely populated islands like Java and Bali to more rural areas, had been in place in one form or another since the 19th century. The government has officially disbanded the program, but thousands of immigrants continue pouring into Papua, mostly Muslims coming from Java. By some estimates, the Muslim population has grown from around 20 percent of the Papuan population in 2004 to more than half today.

The rapid growth has concerned many Papuan Christians, who fear persecution as well as the loss of some of the privileges they enjoyed as the majority group. There have been reports of occasional religious violence, which is intertwined with deeper political tensions about the role of the Indonesian government. And rice itself carries historical baggage for some Papuans, who traditionally relied on sweet potatoes as their main food staple before the government pressured all Indonesians to eat rice. Former dictator Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998,  branded rice as the food of sophisticated people and generously dished it out, in part to avoid the food shortages that helped push out his predecessor. The move did help to alleviate deadly food scarcity in some parts of Indonesia, but it left many Papuans feeling the government was overtly dismantling their native identity.

Field Work

Many of the immigrants pouring into Papua are drawn to the island for its relatively  cheap agricultural land and a chance for a new start. Many of them farmed on other islands, such as Java, where most Indonesian rice is grown, and have moved to Papua as part of a wave of newcomers trying to buy land at low prices. In 2008, bureaucrats in Jakarta launched an ambitious project to develop millions of acres of swampy terrain around Merauke into a sprawling farm estate, hoping to turn Indonesia into one of the world’s breadbaskets. The largest chunk of that land is devoted to rice.

Reporters, academics, and activists have penned plenty of articles raising concerns about the government’s scheme, from environmental destruction to the reportedly widespread displacement of indigenous Papuans to make way for the project. But Slamet, the church planter, does not talk about any of that. Instead he heads into the rice fields and steps into the mud, planting or harvesting with the Muslim farmers who have become his friends. Conversations wander, but he brings up God and the prophets. A lot.

“I’ve had a lot of people suspicious because I talk about God a lot,” Slamet says. “People ask, why do you talk about God so much, are you a pastor? I say, ‘Well, I think we’re all children of God and we all need to talk about who he is and what he’s doing in the world. It’s not just pastors.’”

To avoid suspicions, Slamet works under the umbrella of the Merauke Community Center, a TEAM initiative aimed at building connections between the Christian and Muslim communities. Officially, he’s an agricultural development worker. In addition to rice farming, Slamet is trained in growing mushrooms. He has a small mushroom farm at his house and is helping the community center develop it into a larger program to help farmers diversify and grow mushrooms themselves, ultimately improving their bottom line.

Slamet has grown close to five of the farming families in the community, and he visits them regularly to help in any way he can, farm-related or not. One family has become so close that they occasionally stop by Slamet’s house to check in and share rice with his family. “I don’t even have to ask them, they would just bring me some,” Slamet says. “We’re like family.”

That sort of relationship is exactly what the church in Papua needs, according to Nathan Jansen, who runs the Merauke Community Center. The local church has been reluctant to reach out to Muslim newcomers, perhaps in part out of fear that the immigrants are threatening their way of life or out of resentment that they have an unfair economic advantage — the transmigration program in many cases provided homes, land, and political favors for immigrants. Men like Slamet, who has a seminary degree and is trained in ministry to Muslims, could help local Christians take the first steps in reaching out to their Muslim neighbors.

“These guys are front-line Muslim ministry evangelists, and they’re doing the hard work of daily, day-in-and-day-out building relationships with these Muslim farmers,” says Jansen, who mentors Slamet. “Ultimately, they’re going to plant churches among them.”

Slamet approaches his ministry with a posture of respect. He has studied the Koran and uses it to begin conversations about God. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he delivers food to the farmers’ homes to be distributed among neighbors. When he first came to Semangga, Slamet visited the de-facto village leader to introduce himself and ask his blessing to live there. That respect has been returned in spades. His neighbors say he’s a good friend to them. And Slamet was recently put in charge of determining who in the community receives government assistance funds, a task that also puts him in touch with a larger part of the community.

From his position, Slamet is able to watch the rapid demographic and agro-industrial change spreading across Semangga, impacting cultures and shaping the future in ways that could eventually replay across all of Papua. The Indonesian government says around two million peopled lived in Papua in the year 2000. That number had swelled to nearly three million just a decade later, making Papua one of the fastest-growing provinces in the country, largely because of immigration. Slamet is worried about the rapid growth — not because of the encroachment of Islam, but because there is a shortage of Christians who are working to share Christ with the burgeoning Muslim community.

“There are 2,000 people who are Muslims in this little area,” Slamet says. “Every week, about 15 new families come. We’re feeling the pressure because there’s just not enough to reach all these new families that are coming here.”

- Written by Andy Olsen
- Photography by Robert Johnson

*Slamet’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

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