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Indonesia sweats high chili prices

In spice-mad Indonesia, the 2010 Chili Crisis is taking its toll.

Chili plants, like many other tropical food crops, benefit from a dry spell before harvesting. Soggy soils, which increase the risk of diseases and fungal infections, have reduced harvests in Java and Sumatra.

Because chilies spoil quickly, the government can’t stockpile them and sell them cheaply on the market to bring down prices like it does with rice or sugar.

Local newspapers, in their efforts to explain the 2010 Chili Crisis, are blaming climate change for the adverse weather.

Many have cited a 2007 World Bank report that predicts catastrophic results if climate change takes hold in Indonesia, where 40 percent of the people work in agriculture.

But the report actually predicts a drier climate, not a wetter one. And the Indonesian Meteorological Agency said the recent soggy weather stemmed from a one-off seasonal shift — from a hot and dry “El Nino” weather pattern to a colder and wetter La Nina system due next year.

Whatever the cause, agricultural experts say the Indonesian government needs to be better prepared for extreme weather, especially those patterns that can be predicted.

“We should be ready for the worst possible situations, including the gradually increasing problems brought on by climate change,” Arifin said.

This means faster response times when bad weather is predicted. Other short-term actions to mitigate the effects of more extreme climates, Arifin said, could include better education programs for farmers. It could be “as simple as giving chili growers plastic bags to put on their plants to protect them from the rain,” he added.

Those rains may soon be coming to an end, according to the most recent forecast from Indonesia’s meteorology agency, which suggests that precipitation will drop to normal levels in important chili growing areas this month. If so, then chili prices are likely to drop in coming weeks as more are harvested.

One of the few Indonesians that isn’t anxiously awaiting the sun is Sujiman, a chili trader at Jakarta’s large Kramat Jati fruit and vegetable market.

Sitting on a dusty box surrounded by chilies, Sujiman said traders like him have done brisk business during the shortage, enjoying the highest prices seen in a decade.

But he agrees that prices have now stabilized around 38,000 Rupiah a kilo, or about $4, and will “probably go down sometime after Ramadan.”

When asked about the shortage, he only laughs and says he has sold plenty of chilies this week, most of which are bound for out of town.

“Here,” he said, holding up a bag bursting with the fruit. “Have this one on me.”