Thousands attend rally against plan to cull pigs amid African swine fever outbreak in North Sumatra

A worker feeding hogs on a pig farm in Denpasar, Indonesia, on Feb 5, 2020. North Sumatra's Bataks have raised pigs for many generations and the animals are utilised in various cultural ceremonies from birth to death, PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Thousands of people, including pig breeders and restaurant owners, have staged a rally in Medan, the provincial capital of North Sumatra, to protest against a plan to cull pigs to curb African swine fever.

Provincial Governor Edy Rahmayadi disclosed the plan in January to halt the spread of the disease, which has left more than 40,000 pigs dead in the past few months.

But many Batak people, who are predominantly Christian and a sizeable minority in North Sumatra, oppose the plan. They have formed a movement called #SaveBabi to try and overturn it. "Babi" is pig in Indonesian.

The movement's leader, Mr Boasa Simanjuntak, described Monday's 102 Rally, named after the date and month of the event, as an expression of "pig sovereignty" acknowledged by the Bataks and pork lovers, as well as those whose livelihood depending on the livestock.

"With this sovereignty, these living creatures must be saved despite their critical condition," he told The Straits Times on the phone from Medan.

"We strongly oppose the plan to cull the pigs. Other solutions must be sought," he added.

The Bataks make up one of the biggest minority groups in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority country. More than 90 per cent of the country's population of some 260 million are Muslims, who are forbidden from eating pork or rearing pigs.

Bataks, however, have raised pigs for many generations and the animals are utilised in various cultural ceremonies from birth to death, including as dowry in marriage proposals.

For Batak Christians, Mr Boasa said, "pigs have an absolute, irreplaceable position".

Pigs are also an integral part of Bataknese cuisine, and among the most popular dish is babi panggang, or grilled meat dipped in the animal's blood mixed with spices.

There were more 1.27 million pigs across North Sumatra, Indonesia's second largest pig supplier after East Nusa Tenggara, in 2018, according to official figures.

The pig herd in North Sumatra was first hit by hog cholera in late September last year. It was followed by the African swine fever, which has also taken a toll in at least 11 Asian countries, including South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Timor Leste. The disease broke out initially in China in August 2018.

The #SaveBabi movement appealed to President Joko Widodo's administration to avoid culling the pigs and, among other things, have demanded that the government provide compensation to pig breeders, whose losses, according to Mr Boasa, have hit more than one trillion rupiah (S$101 million) as of early January.

"The pig deaths were declared by the Agriculture Ministry as a disaster, and there should be disaster mitigation (in this case)," he said.

Mr Boasa, a consultant who advises clients, particularly companies, on legal matters, also claimed negligence on the part of the authorities, saying that they had not taken immediate steps to address the African swine fever problem, in contrast to past diseases affecting other live animals, such as anthrax and avian influenza, which took only around one month to end.

But the agriculture ministry's livestock and animal health director general, Mr I Ketut Diarmita, has refuted all the allegations of the #SaveBabi movement, saying that African swine fever was a new disease and a vaccine had not yet been developed worldwide.

"Until now, an effective vaccine for prevention remains unavailable," he said in a statement.

Denying a plan for massive culling, Mr Ketut said: "Our main strategy is to enhance biosecurity and curb the movement (of pigs)."

Apart from North Sumatra, Indonesia's tourism hot spot Bali has also been hit with the sudden death of over 880 pigs in the past two months, allegedly because of African swine fever.

Agriculture ministry animal health director Fadjar Sumping Tjatur Rasa told The Straits Times that the ministry was still investigating the deaths.

"The latest data in the past one week showed no more (pig) death. It's possible the disease is not African swine fever. But, we will need to further check with laboratory results," he said.

He also said that the recent massive pig deaths had not disrupted Indonesia's live pig export and the animals shipped from Bulan Island in Riau Islands province complied with Singapore's biosecurity standards.

Pig breeders on Bulan island, situated 2.5km south-west of Batam, deliver 25,000 live pigs each month to Singapore, the only destination for pig exports from Indonesia, and the trade totalled US$55.9 million (S$77.5 million) in 2018, figures from the Geneva-based International Trade Centre showed.

There are about 30 countries approved to export pork and pork products to Singapore, and imports from areas affected by swine fever outbreaks have been suspended.

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