Mantasa, a research institution and advocacy organization based in East Java, Indonesia is working to change the narrative of Indigenous food and nutrition sovereignty across Indonesia by reincorporating Indigenous wisdom and native wild plants into Indonesian diets.
Hayu Dyah, Mantasa’s founder, was writing her undergraduate thesis when she learned about the richness of Indonesia’s biodiversity and the traditional uses of indigenous plants. In 2009, she established Mantasa to partner with local and Indigenous communities to reintroduce native wild plants into Indigenous communal diets.
Mantasa works with Javanese, Papuan, and other Indigenous villages to domesticate wild edible plants and grow them in communal gardens. They partner with women to document traditional knowledge, plant and maintain gardens, and sell surplus produce in local markets to help diversify more communities’ palates.
“I actually believe that their food is their medicine, and their medicine is their food,” says Dyah. “Their foods come from the forest, which is fresh, seasonal, and grows from the best quality soil, which guarantees nutrition-dense food.”
Despite a natural abundance of edible flora, Mantasa finds that Indigenous communities are eating increasingly fewer native foods, including dozens of varieties of green leafy vegetables, wild mushrooms, fruits, nuts, herbs, and other indigenous plants.
Mantasa attributes this trend to many Indigenous communities’ reliance on foreign and domestic government food packages. The packages include rice, instant noodles, palm oil, sugar, packaged coffee, and tea.
“The package has changed [Indonesians’] food habits… and hunger and disease have surfaced,” Dyah tells Food Tank. Today, Indonesians suffer high rates of diet-based anemia and stunted growth, according to the World Health Organization.
Dyah says that many people she speaks with consider diets based on native, wild foods embarrassing. “Whenever we asked [Indigenous] people what kind of food they eat they would answer ‘food for the poor,’” referring to these native foods, Dyah tells Food Tank.
To break the stigma around these foods, Mantasa is focused on increasing access to traditional knowledge about indigenous ingredients and access to the food itself through communal gardens.
But Mantasa faces several significant hurdles to carrying out this work. Dyah explains that the organization relies on partnerships with universities to conduct research on the nutritional content of native varieties. But, she says, many institutions are uninterested in the work because they deem the plants commercially insignificant.
Second, much of the land where these foods grow wild has been converted to national parks, conservation lands, or mining sites, according to Dyah. This makes foraging difficult or illegal in many communities.
Mantasa has also faced violence by other groups. Recently, members of the local government burned down a collective garden in Jombang, East Java. “They think our garden, filled with hundreds of edible wild plants we have collected and grown for five years, is useless and contributes nothing to village development,” Dyah tells Food Tank.
Nevertheless, Dyah and Mantasa persist in working to make indigenous foods and Indigenous wisdom more accessible in Indonesia. In addition to planting indigenous food gardens, they host Wild Food Festivals to celebrate the ingredients. Mantasa is also working with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to document two Indigenous food systems.
Through this work, Mantasa is hopeful that local residents will become excited about these foods. And Dyah hopes that the work will act as a “way to make local communities proud of their local food culture.”