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Papuan chef Charles Toto serves up sustainability and environmental protection in a platter

  • Charles Toto is the founder of the Jungle Chef Community, a network of enthusiasts from across the Indonesian region of Papua who promote sustainable living and environmental protection through local cuisine.
  • Toto came up with the idea after seeing foreign documentary makers and tour groups embarking on weeks-long treks in the Papuan wilderness with nothing more than instant and canned food.
  • Over the years, he has learned to make the best use of the ingredients served up by the forest and the sea, and has taken his unique mission to culinary shows across Indonesia and abroad.
  • But for Toto and his group, the opening up of Papua’s forests to palm oil and other commercial operators, aided by a government-backed infrastructure push, threatens the region’s natural wealth and heritage.

Charles Toto’s epiphany came during his time working in the kitchen at a hotel in his home region of Papua in eastern Indonesia.

The hotel catered to foreign visitors, many of whom flew in to shoot documentary films, sometimes for several weeks at a time, in the lush jungles of Papua, home to some of the last unspoiled wilderness areas in the country.

“When I saw them bringing in so much luggage, I wondered to myself what they would eat in the forest,” Toto told Mongabay Indonesia.

He had friends among the guides who accompanied the groups, and they filled him in: instant food and canned sardines, for the most part.

Toto was 16 when he enrolled in a culinary program at a vocational school in Jayapura, the Papua provincial capital. At that point it wasn’t his life’s dream; he’d had his heart set on becoming a lawyer. But after missing out on a place in a regular high school, which would have set him on his way to a career in law, he figured he would sign up for vocational school.

After the three-year course, he wound up in an entry-level job washing dishes at the hotel in Jayapura. And that’s when the tourists came into his life, ushering in the epiphany: Why not, he thought, cater to these tour groups by providing them with fresh, wholesome meals during their trips?

The idea went over well, and Toto embarked with his first tour group in 1997, a year after leaving vocational school. That inaugural trip lasted some six weeks, with the group trekking through the densely forested Baliem Valley in the Papuan highlands, then heading west to the now-famed coastal paradise of Raja Ampat.

“A hotel chef would think to bring his own meat because it’s more hygienic,” Toto says. “But I think food from the forest is more hygienic, it’s cleaner and organic.”

Charles Toto serves up sustainability and environmental protection in a platter. Image by Luh De Suriyani/Mongabay-Indonesia.

He learned from the locals about the meals that could be conjured up using the resources found nearby, and bartered ingredients with them. It was, in effect, a return to his roots as a native Papuan, and an embrace of the principle that has served him to this day: “The forest is a market for Papuans to shop in without having to spend money.”

Toto thrived in his culinary niche, constantly learning something new amid the rigors of trekking and sailing through largely unexplored places. Disaster was no obstacle, either. “We got stranded on an island once for three or four days. We had to make do with whatever [food] was there,” he says.

As his business thrived and his renown spread, Toto built up a network of like-minded chefs. In 2008, he founded the Jungle Chef Community, which brings together dozens of local chefs from across Papua who specialize in rustling up meals from ingredients they find in the forests. Toto and his community have appeared at culinary events across Indonesia and around the world, promoting their unique mission.

“We train our members how to identify local cooking ingredients and how to make traditional Papuan food,” Toto says.

Foraging and hunting locally is widely accepted as a sustainable use of natural resources, and cuts the cost and carbon footprint from shipping in food from farther away. In the case of the Jungle Chef Community, it also helps sustain interest in ancient practices, values and culture that are at risk of slowly dying out as younger generations of Papuans embrace a more modern lifestyle.

“The key is to be able to obtain and [creatively] use what nature provides you with at that time and in that place,” Toto says.

The Jungle Chef Community also runs a program that teaches cooking traditional food to children, along with other practices to protect the environment, such as waste management and planting mangroves.

Charles Toto gives a presentation at an international food festival in Bali. Image courtesy of Ubud Food Festival.

But the most intense pressure on the group’s mission comes from the government’s sweeping infrastructure development plan that activists say threatens the pristine forests and rich biodiversity of Papua.

“A lot of sago farms are being sold off as [infrastructure] is developed in Papua,” Toto says. Sago has for generations been a staple food for the lowland peoples in the island of New Guinea and the Malukus, but local dietary preferences are increasingly shifting to rice, a more land- and water-intensive crop that is also eating up Papua’s sago farmlands.

Another threat to the region’s forests is the arrival of the palm oil industry, in search of new lands after the wholesale deforestation of much of Sumatra and Borneo, and incentivized by the infrastructure expansion. Large swaths of forest-clearing are already being reported in Papua, along with a high number of hotspots — the calling card of an industry notorious for slash-and-burn clearing.

Nearly 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) of forest have been cleared in Papua’s Merauke district since 2014 for a single plantation, according to the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI), with 10 square kilometers (3.9 square miles) being opened up just since October last year.

The challenges are mounting, but if anything they’ve encouraged Toto to come up with even more ways to introduce local Papuan cuisine boasting fresh ingredients from its forests.

“Papua is indeed rich in natural resources from its forests,” he says, “and the Jungle Chef Community introduces it through cooking.”

Banner image: A river valley in a mountain range in West Papua province, Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on May 25, 2017.

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