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Chili Today, Hot Tamale

There's a crisis in Indonesia!

The price of chili peppers has soared in the past month. The government blames bad weather and volcanoes, but regardless of the reason, the peppers have hit Rp.100,000/kilo ($5/lb)! And it looks to keep going...

Indonesians love a little spice in their food, and some of the local cultures go pretty far with the practice. No matter how much, though, some amount of chili finds its way into the average diet.

The price of chili, however, is just one symptom of an overall trend in rising prices for all food staples. The cost of rice, vegetables and certainly meats have all been going up precipitously of late. Recently, an incident in a small east Java village has drawn national attention to the problem.

A family with six children, ranging in age from early 20s to toddler, experienced the death of all of the children. They had eaten a local casava dish. Casava is a high-carbohydrate tuber that is sometimes used as a substitute for rice, because it is so cheap. There are two primary varieties, 'sweet' and 'sour,' with sour being quite poisonous if not prepared correctly. Naturally, it is also the cheapest variety. The family had been forced to eat casava for two weeks because of the rising prices and the family's low income, which is reported to be around $16-$20 per week.

The Indonesian government measures the poverty line in calories rather than income. Poverty is considered less than 2100 calories per day. Casava, being high in carbs, can technically raise a family above the poverty level, though the quality of their food, and certainly the amount, would hardly qualify as eating for even a street bum in downtown America.

At the moment, Jakarta is the only place in Indonesia that has a minimum wage, which is around $300/month. Other areas are debating the merits of creating one, but it is rather difficult in a country where the cost of living can vary quite widely. In some areas, people are able to fish, farm and collect enough to eat well at a monetary cost of almost nothing. Other places, like the major cities, prices can be quite high, even though to an outsider, they may appear to be ridiculously cheap. For a recent college graduate, living at home, $300/month is a decent starting salary. However, even with a degree and a few years of experience, a salary over $1,000/month is very rare. For the vast majority of Jakartans, earning $5/day is about all they can expect.

The an American, the prices here look like a joke. A decent 3-bedroom/2 bath house rents for about $2,000/year. Water and electric, if you are careful, runs around $5-$10/month. If you confine your food shopping to the traditional market and avoid the supermarket chains, the average monthly food bill for one person is around $150/month.

If you are European or American, your eyes are probably bugging out about now. But go back and look at how much a great number of people earn here: $100-$200/month. Divide all the costs above into 12 months, and you get about $200/month for a basic Western lifestyle, before things like clothes, transportation, luxuries (TV, cable, internet, etc.). The standard American middle-class lifestyle requires two to three generations of a family living together and combining their incomes, substitute motorcycles for cars.

So, with all that in mind, you can imagine that when the price of basic foods like rice and chilis start going up, along with the price of gasoline and other basic modern needs, it can start to crimp a wallet pretty darned fast. You may think that, well, they can do without chilis and cut back on rice, but both are signatures of the Indonesian diet. it's like telling Americans to get by without sandwiches.

A very popular snack here is something called gorengan, which simply means 'fries.' It consists of bananas, carrots, potatoes, egg rolls, and other finger foods that are battered and deep fried. They are, without exception, served with a handful of fresh cabe rawit, which some might know as Thai peppers. Right now, you are lucky if the vendor throws 2 or 3 cabe in with your order. Normal is a handful.

There is no such thing as a dinner table in Indonesia without sambal. Sambal is made with chili peppers and the result is somewhat like ketchup that makes your eyes water and your mouth burn. To ask an Indoensian to set a table without it would be equivalent to an American home without salt and pepper.

Rice is king! One simply doesn't eat without rice. It is the Indonesian version of bread with your meal. Ask an American to eat his burger without a bun, or a hogie, for that matter. Rice is the primary carb that is used to sop up the juice and pack the corners of the stomach. It is why I consider this past Thanksgiving such a victory. I was able to get 20 Indonesians to eat an entire meal and not one grain of rice was eaten.

When one lives in Jakarta and makes a decent living, it is hard to remember that this country has, according to one report, 2.3 million people living below the poverty line. It's why the case of the six children dying from casava poinsoning has become such an issue. It has reminded people that even though Indonesia's economy is one of the fastest growing in the world right now, there are still many folks who are suffering from the expansion and the resulting inflation in core necessities. And everyone is feeling the pinch when it comes to cabe rawit.

One thing that can endanger Indonesia's explosive growth in the past few years, and the relative social order and peace that comes with it, is a rapid rise in inflation without a concomitant adjustment in earnings. In 2010, inflation ran at 7%, which doubled the rate in 2009. However, there has been no significant rise in overall incomes in that period. Ultimately, this will swell the ranks of the disaffected, destroy a newly empowered middle-class and undo a decade of properity that has seen Indonesia enter the world stage as an economic power to be reckoned with.

The symptoms are on the table, in the gas tank and in a dozen other places. If action isn't taken quickly to control the situation, the disease will over-take the body. Along with Indonesia's rise in power and prestige, it has gotten the same illnesses that have so deeply infected the Western world. Indonesia should learn from the experience of Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Iceland, and of course America.

The casava deaths and the rapid rise in rice and chili prices is just the beginning, unless Indonesia takes a pro-active stance immediately. It must reduce corruption, control inflation and give particular attention to agriculture. Like all governments and societies, there's a tendency to procrastinate until the crisis is in full bloom. By then, it's too late and the solutions are years away. Indoneisa has the benefit of being at an early stage, and being able to so the results of inaction in many other countries worldwide.

The deaths of six children is a tragedy, but it can be turned to good use if everyone wakes up and takes action now. I would compound the tragedy if those six lives only became the first of many.

Besides, I miss my chilis!

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