Crying over stolen onions

As the price of onions soars in Indonesia, fewer housewives are weeping while cutting them, but farmers are shedding copious tears as thieves steal their valuable harvests.

Some growers are even carrying out night patrols to guard their goods.

Onions became a hot commodity in the country when prices more than quadrupled from 10,000 rupiahs (S$1.26) per kg just before the end of last year to 45,000 rupiahs per kg in some areas.

Farmer Sunarto, 45, in Brebes, Central Java told how five men raided his farm under cover of darkness, making off with 300 kg of onions.

"It was just about to be harvested but still got stolen. They just came, pulled out the onions and threw away the leaves," he lamented to local media. Some were onions he had left out to dry for at least two days before packing them and sending them to local markets.

His loss is estimated to be in the millions of rupiahs.

His fellow farmers just east, in Jombang, also told of the same fate at the hands of onion thieves.

Mr Kosim, 56, said: "We have no other choice but to patrol nightly to guard our precious onions which are nearly ready to be harvested."

He has now teamed up with his neighbour and they carry flashlights and stout sticks to deter raiders. Wearing gloves and jackets in case of chilly weather, they patrol their hectare of land from mid-evening till dawn.

But sometimes even the extra vigilance is not enough. Several nights earlier, thieves made off with fruitful pickings, despite patrols by other farmers.

Local police say they have been kept busy because of the spate of onion thefts.

Police spokesman Machsus of Batang district in Central Java said complaints have risen in the last month, since the price of onions shot up.

Culprits aren't just ordinary residents desperate for free groceries, but opportunists who cart them off by the basket-load, to be sold in local markets.

The limited supply of onions is caused by a mix of bad policies aimed at protecting local farmers by pushing down imports. But local farmers' supplies are insufficient, owing to inefficiencies in production and further complicated by bad weather.

Indonesia produces less than 10 per cent of what the country of 240 million needs, say government officials.

Economists say prices of staple items have risen by 55 per cent over the last five years.

Coordinating Minister for Economy, Mr Hatta Rajasa, bluntly told reporters at the sidelines of an official trip in Yangon, Myanmar: "The fault lies with the Agriculture Ministry... and the trade system needs to be overhauled."

A complex set of licences leads to imported goods being stuck at the ports, shooting prices up, while the lack of a proper agriculture policy contributes to a shortfall in local produce. Anti-cartel watchdogs say some importers purposely delay getting permits to wait for prices to spike.

Three weeks ago, an irate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told off both the Agriculture Minister and Trade Minister, saying they "should work day and night" to resolve the issue of price instability and to stop blaming each other.

But for now, vendors of torches and jackets are happy with the increase in business as more farmers like Mr Sunarto and Mr Kosim get moving to thwart the onion thieves.

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