Conservation news

Wildfires turn up the heat on farmers growing Indonesia’s ‘hottest’ pepper

  • Farmers in the south of Indonesian Borneo have built up a reputation and a lucrative industry around their Hiyung chili pepper, said to be the hottest in the country.
  • The pepper grows well in the swampy peat soil of the region; farmers here began planting it after their rice crops failed in the same acidic soil.
  • But the chili peppers, which local officials say have elevated farmers’ income to six times the local average, are under threat from the perennial fires that sweep across Indonesia’s drained peatlands.

HIYUNG, Indonesia — For the village cultivating Indonesia’s most pungent chili pepper, July is a time of prosperity — and potential ruin.

That midsummer month is when hundreds of farmers in Hiyung, a village in the southeast of the island of Borneo, begin to harvest the special variety of cayenne pepper they grow here.

Known as the Hiyung pepper, it has been declared the hottest pepper in the country by the nation’s agriculture ministry. Billed as a community development success story, it’s sold as far away as the nation’s capital, Jakarta.

But July also marks the start of the period when Borneo is most susceptible to wildfires. A near-annual occurrence, the fires produce haze that can sicken hundreds of thousands of people. They spread most easily across Indonesia’s vast peat swamp zones — like the one in which Hiyung is located.

In its natural state, peat soil is waterlogged. But across Borneo and nearby Sumatra, peatlands have been widely drained for agriculture, drying them out and rendering them highly flammable.

“The fires can devour huge swaths of land here,” said Junaidi, the head of the Hiyung Cayenne Pepper Association, a farmers’ group in the village that endeavors — not always successfully — to protect the crop from incineration. “They are our greatest threat.”

Hiyung cayenne pepper after harvest. Image courtesy of M Rahim Arza/ Mongabay Indonesia.

In the local lore, the Hiyung cayenne was first brought to the village in the early 1990s by a man named Soebarjo.

Like many residents of Hiyung, Soebarjo had struggled to grow rice in the village’s acidic peat soil. One day, after seeing his relatives’ cayenne pepper garden in another village, he decided to try growing it himself. He brought crop samples back to Hiyung and planted 200 seeds behind his house.

The peppers thrived; Soebarjo borrowed land from a neighbor to plant even more. Word of his success eventually spread, and other villagers wanted in. Today, Soebarjo is a wealthy man by local standards, and hundreds of families in Hiyung, most of the population, cultivate the pepper.

“The unique thing about this pepper is that when it’s planted outside the village, it’s not as good as when it’s planted in Hiyung,” Soebarjo told a local news outlet in 2017.

Hiyung pepper dried and finely ground into powder. Image courtesy of M Rahim Arza/ Mongabay Indonesia.

Hiyung’s farmers received a boost in 2014, when the administration of Tapin district, which encapsulates the village, took notice of the pepper and began to promote its cultivation as a solution to the problem of farming in swampy, acidic soil.

The Tapin administration provided farmers with equipment and know-how, helping them increase productivity and produce packaged food products. Besides fresh chili peppers, seeds and seedlings, the farmers make processed products such as bottled chili sauce and shredded chili pepper. The pepper has a relatively long shelf life, increasing its appeal.

The farmers use grass mulch and organic fertilizer made from bat droppings, which they say keeps the soil healthy.

Now, in a region where the average income is less than 50,000 rupiah ($3.40) per day, Hiyung cayenne farmers can earn six times that, according to Arifin Arpan, Tapin’s elected leader.

In 2020, Tapin’s efforts earned national recognition when the Ministry of Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform included the Hiyung cayenne — proclaimed “17 times hotter” than ordinary chili peppers — on its annual list of top public service innovations.

“Of course, our hope is that the Hiyung pepper will be increasingly known not only in Indonesia, but also abroad,” Arifin said earlier this year.

Besides selling them as fresh chili peppers, seeds and seedlings, the farmers make processed products such as bottled chili sauce and shredded chili pepper. Image courtesy of M Rahim Arza/ Mongabay Indonesia.

But Borneo’s environmental problems threaten to derail the Hiyung farmers’ efforts.

In March, the village was hit with heavy flooding, killing much of the newly planted pepper crop and forcing farmers to replant.

But the bigger problem, says Junaidi, is fire.

In Tapin, which is mostly peat, the Hiyung pepper is a good dry-season crop, since the water table in the peat must have receded somewhat before it is safe to plant. But the dry season also brings wildfires. Peat fires ripped through the village in 2015 and 2019, scorching dozens of hectares of pepper crops.

Video of the 2019 fires in Hiyung.

In Hiyung, community firefighting brigades are working with government agencies to prevent disaster from striking again. Farmers’ groups have erected banners around the village warning against the use fire to clear land for planting, which is the cheapest method but one that can quickly spiral out of control.

The Hiyung farmers share the landscape with several oil palm plantation companies, which have set up shop on drained peat just a few kilometers away.

“When the harvest season comes, we’re always afraid of burning,” Junaidi said. “We must staunchly guard every plot of agricultural land.”

Cayenne pepper from Hiyung Village, South Kalimantan, is known to be the hottest in Indonesia. Image courtesy of M Rahim Arza/ Mongabay Indonesia.

Banner image of chilis in an Indonesian market by Paolo Martini via Flickr(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on June 25, 2021.

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