January 7, 2011 / 9:45 AM / 8 years ago

Indonesian farmers guard precious chilies against thieves

A chilli vendor (C) holds a bunch of chillies as he serves a customer at a market in Jakarta, January 6, 2011. REUTERS/Beawiharta

JAKARTA (Reuters Life!) - With sickles and slingshots in hand, farmers in Indonesia are guarding chili plants from thieves, after prices for the much-loved spice jumped five-fold in the past year to boost inflation and worry the government.

Around-the-clock patrols for chili farmers in Kediri in the eastern part of Java island have started as the price of the spicy ingredient reached around 100,000 rupiah ($11) a kilo, more expensive than beef and about a tenth of the minimum wage.

“Poor farmers are taking the whole family — their wife and children — to guard their chili fields,” Sukoco, a farmer in Kediri, one of East Java’s biggest chili farming areas, told Reuters.

“Now villages are empty at night, while the fields are full of people,” he added.

The United Nations’ food agency (FAO) said on Wednesday that food prices hit a record high last month, exceeding 2008 levels when riots broke out in various countries.

Rising chili and rice prices helped push up Indonesia’s annual inflation to a 20-month high near 7 percent in December, and spurred the country’s president and trade minister to urge households to plant foods such as chilies at home.

Farmers have previously conducted patrols when chili prices were on the rise, but this time the price increase has alerted many to beef up security, including by doubling guards at 3-4 a.m. and 6-7 p.m., most likely time for theft as some people leave fields to pray in the mostly Muslim country.

Sukoco said farmers are opting for slingshots over sickles once they single out thieves, who are mostly spotted when a chilly shrub shakes unnaturally. Thieves are responding by taking whole plants instead of picking each red pod.

Reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Yoko Nishikawa

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