By Suryo Wiyono; Dodik Ridho Nurrochmat; Eny Widiya Astuti

Agriculture is one of the main livelihoods in Indonesia and has a strategic role in national development because it deals with food supply and self-sufficiency. A large number of people in the country depend directly or indirectly on agriculture. Although rice is the primary crop, the country's rice consumption is 114 kg per capita, making it a major challenge for the agriculture sector to meet domestic demand. 

Indonesian farmers experience many technical challenges in plant production. Small-scale farming and the small size of agricultural landholdings make it difficult to improve productivity. There is also the imminent threat of natural disasters. 

The agroecosystem and farmers' empowerment are two important elements in an agricultural system. An agroecosystem is a spatially and functionally coherent unit of agricultural activity and includes living and non-living components as well as their interactions. As the name implies, the core of an agroecosystem is agriculture. However, an agroecosystem is not restricted to the immediate site of agricultural activity (such as the farm) but includes the region that is impacted by this activity, usually by changes to the complexity of species assemblage and energy flows as well as to the net nutrient balance (van de Fliert and Braun, 1999). One of the important non-living components in the agroecosystem is soil, which is a critical factor in the health of the system. Farmers' empowerment is also significant to the welfare of the communities associated with an agricultural system.

This paper discusses theory, examples and several findings from research and field experience in plant production—mostly in paddy rice—related to the importance of agroecosystem health as well as the empowerment of farmers in coping with natural disasters in Indonesia.

Natural disasters and plant production
Indonesia has the most active volcanoes in the world—an estimated 129. The Eurasian Plate, the Pacific Plate and the Indo-Australian Plate create the subduction zones that have formed the volcanoes. The Centre of Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation maintains careful observation of these volcanoes because a number of them show continuous activity. Because of the active volcanoes, the tropical climate and the fact of being an archipelago, Indonesia faces many imminent natural disaster threats. 

These disasters can have a major effect on agriculture, especially in plant production. Some cases of extreme wet or dry season can ruin food crop harvests, trigger inflation and place severe financial pressure on the poorer segments of the population. The effects of natural disasters on plant production are direct and indirect. Direct effects are the physical damages caused by flood, drought and volcano eruption. Indirect effects are the plant pest outbreaks and epidemics of plant diseases that a natural disaster can trigger. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2015), the agriculture sector in general, including crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry, absorbs approximately 22 per cent of the economic impact caused by medium- and large-scale natural hazards and disasters in developing countries. 

Flood and drought are some of the frequently occurring natural hazards and disasters in Indonesia. Research covering the period 2000 to 2013 shows that the agricultural area affected by natural disasters i.e. floods as well as drought has been increasing in this period (Pusdatin, 2014; Balitbang Kementan, 2011) (see Figure 1). The area under paddy affected by flood shows an increasing tendency, although a decline has been noticed in recent years. Generally, drought affects more area than flood. Indeed, the Figure also indicates that the variation of drought affected area among years is very high, even though there is no increasing tendency. The average annual flood affected paddy area during the 14-year period was 215.36  thousand ha, whereas 274.84 thousand ha were affected by drought. Assuming a total loss of 20 per cent of the affected area, the economic loss caused by that damage was 1.4 trillion rupiah and 1.1 trillion rupiah ($100 million and $78.6 million) for drought and floods, respectively. 


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There are many illustrations of the serious and continuous threat to plant production from volcano eruptions as well as floods and drought. For example, the eruption of Mt. Sinabung in North Sumatera in 2013-2014 destroyed 26,666 ha of food crops, 18,853 ha of horticulture and 6,864 ha of estate crops (coffee and clove trees) (Sindonews, 2014). The eruption of Mt. Kelud in East Java in 2014 damaged 1,395 ha of paddy field and 790 ha of corn crops. The damage to horticulture from the Mt. Kelud eruption was more severe, compared with Mt. Sinabung, with 538 ha of big chillies, 1,220 ha of small chillies, 155 ha of tomatoes, 47 ha of shallots and 1,200 ha of pineapple damaged. The economic loss due to the eruption of those two volcanoes (Mt. Sinabung and Mt. Kelud) amounted to an estimated 1.8 trillion rupiah ($128.6 million).

The damages caused by a volcano eruption are physical, due to the volcanic materials—shrivel, sand and ash—and the heat released. Examples of the indirect effect of natural disasters like flood on agriculture include outbreak of rice golden snail (Pomacea canaliculata), which attacked paddy rice fields along the Bengawan Solo River after the immense flooding in 2007 (Wiyono, 2010). The flood waters had facilitated the spread of the pest. Outbreaks of brown plant hopper (Nilaparvata lugens), a pest destructive to rice, have been found to occur more often after a flood. Drought is well known to be associated with epidemics of blasts (Pyricularia grisea),  a destructive disease of rice, by predisposing plants to attack due to stress and the low availability of potassium and silica (Bonmman, 1992).

Agroecosystem health
Gliessman (2007) stated that human manipulation and alteration of the ecosystem for the purpose of establishing agricultural production renders the agroecosystem different from natural ecosystems. However, the process, structure and characteristics of a natural ecosystem can be observed in the agroecosystem. 

Several elements differentiate a natural ecosystem and the agroecosystem: energy flow, nutrient cycling, interaction and biodiversity (among others). An agroecosystem has more open nutrient cycling, is often not self-sustaining and has less complex interaction because of its low biodiversity (Gliessman, 2007).

A healthy agroecosystem refers to each ecological function working well. It is characterized by high productivity, richness of interactions or diversity and strong resilience. healthy agroecosystem is important for coping with natural disasters
(Rapport and others, 1998; Vadrevu and others, 2008). A healthy agroecosystem will have great resilience against any disturbance, both abiotic (flood and drought) and biotic (pests, diseases and invasive alien species).

Some agronomical practices are recognized as improving agroecosystem health: crop rotation, poly-culture or mixed culture, agroforestry, organic matter amendment, organic mulching and cover crops such as legume cover crops. Additionally, optimizing synthetic fertilizer application, proper water management and treatment of cultivated crops by beneficial microbes for growth promotion also help strengthen an agroecosystem's health. Some practices, however, weaken its health, such as monoculture, continuous planting of single crops and use of synthetic pesticides. A healthy agroecosystem is indicated by stable productivity over time and less frequency of pest and disease outbreaks.

Healthy agroecosystems are proven to be more resilient against drought, flood, pests and disease attacks. The application of organic matter to some crops in traditional farming provide greater water-holding capacity of the soil, which makes them less vulnerable to drought (Altieri and Koofpahan, 2008; Lin, 2011). Field observation (by the authors) revealed that the application of rice straw combined with the application of plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria in paddy fields under water-pump irrigation conditions in Blora Regency, Subang Regency and Kuningan Regency increased paddy rice tolerance against severe drought in 2015, as indicated by a reduction in irrigation frequency from nine times (conventional case) to three times (treated case). Polyculture has also proven more resilient than monoculture to volcano eruptions. For instance, after the Mt. Kelud eruption in 2014, the chilli and other solanaceous vegetable crops and pineapple were destroyed in the surrounding area, including Kediri in East Java, while the clove trees (Syzygium aromaticum) were only slightly affected, as the following photos illustrate. According to Simelton and others (2015), farms with trees and crops generally recover quicker from natural disaster, which emphasizes the importance of a healthy agroecosystem. 

Various research studies conducted by Bogor Agricultural University faculty members and students have reiterated the effectiveness of strengthening agroecosystem health against pest attacks and for better plant production. One of the practices, biointensive integrated pest management (which involves treatment with plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria and rice straw amendment, such as putting rice straw back into the paddy field after harvest), reduced the infestation of main pests in rice and increased productivity by 27 per cent in six locations in Java (Wiyono and others, 2014). Other research found organic mulching on chilli cultivation effective for controlling stem blight disease caused by Phytophthora capsici, while plant diversification was found effective in controlling pests, diseases and the adverse impact of drought (Lin, 2011; Altieri and Koohafkan, 2008).


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Farmers' empowerment
The success of agricultural production relies mainly on farmers' capacities. Even with much information, technology and knowledge available, coping with natural disaster effects is difficult when farmers are not empowered. Farmer's empowerment includes access to knowledge and technology, critical thinking, and greater participation in management and control of resources. 

To carry out a successful farmers' empowerment programme, it is important to increase their knowledge and capacity through a series of training initiatives and mentoring, then introduce them to the newest technology and build up supportive networks. Additionally, the social capital of the community is important for coping with natural disasters. Brigit and Hagan (2007) defined social resilience by the capacity of social groups or community to recover from or respond positively to crisis. The self-organizing capacity of communities determine the speed of recovery against natural disasters (Israel and Briones, 2012; FAO, 2015).

Historically, Indonesian farmers have banked on their own local knowledge and simple technology for managing the impacts of natural disasters. For instance, farmers have a traditional forecasting system (pranata mangsa for Javanese farmers) to determine the planting date and kind of crop for each season. Farmers living in areas that are frequently affected by drought usually grow drought-resistant species or varieties, such as pigeon pea (Cajanus cajans), mung bean (Phaseolus radiatus), cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) and sorghum (Altieri and Koohafkan, 2008; Wiyono, 2010). However, climate change, which is leading to changes in seasonal patterns as well as floods and drought intensity, is challenging farmers' local knowledge. The situation calls for farmers' knowledge, technology and organizing capacity to be improved to cope with the impacts of natural disasters. 

Climate information system
Much research has been conducted by the Bogor Agricultural University in relation to a climate information system. It is an important resource to support plant production and covers not only the generation of climate information but also the dissemination, translation and application of that information. Such climate-related information will benefit farmers in plant production. The climate information system needs to be institutionalized, as emphasized by Jones and others (2004) who reported that planned adaptation to future climate will be based on individual, community and institutional behaviours that, in part, have been developed as a response to the current climate conditions. There would not be much benefit for society if the results of climate applications research remain in the academic or research domain. Efforts are needed to develop the appropriate means for the meaningful dissemination of climate information to users (Boer, 2004). 

Climate Field Schools
In response to challenges posed by climate change and the need for farmers' empowerment in relation to it, a Climate Field School programme was introduced in Indonesia (Boer, 2004). The programme promotes farmers' empowerment and capacity-building for managing climate-related disasters. Through the Climate Field Schools, scientists and researchers share climate knowledge and climate information applications to increase farmers' adaptive capacity and community participation in dealing with climate change. 

Another area of focus for the schools is managing climate variability. It is not easy for farmers to cope with climate variation, and they often suffer due to the El Niño phenomenon and an inability to anticipate its occurrence. Irregularity of seasons recently has exceeded the predictive capacity of indigenous weather forecasting. Even though the Indonesian Meteorology and Climate Agency is responsible for providing climate forecast information, it has not been able to effectively disseminate their forecasts. The Climate Field Schools can assist in this task. 

Moreover, farmers have difficulty in practically applying the climate-related information they receive in the field, which is also an area in which the schools can help. The Climate Field Schools programme is an effort to increase farmers' preparedness for climatic disasters and represents an example of farmers' empowerment. 

The Climate Field School programme curriculum seeks to: (i) develop better understanding on climate forecast terminology; (ii) develop better understanding on probabilistic concepts; (iii) develop farmers' capacity to tailor their cropping strategies in accordance with climate forecasts;  (iv) develop better understanding on the use of water balance for assessing drought and flood risks; and (v) develop the capacity to assess the economic value of climate forecasts. The programme can also help in bridging the gap facing universities in providing a source of innovation and technology for farmers.

Promoting strong agroecosystem health as well as farmers' empowerment are key factors to building better resilience of agriculture to natural disasters. A healthy agroecosystem has proven to be more resilient against drought, flood, pests and disease attacks. Through the introduction of innovations, best practices and strong institutions in agriculture, Indonesian farmers should be able to increase their productivity as well as better manage the risks associated with natural disasters.

(List of references can be made available upon request)