Indonesia Eyes Peatland for Food Sovereignty 

Massive project raises environmental concerns

By: Ainur Rohmah

The Indonesian government is making a bold bid for food security by opening hundreds of thousands of hectares in Kalimantan and Sumatra to industrial farming, outraging environmentalists who say the plan will destroy peatlands critical to combating global warming, and alarming rights activists who say former General Prabowo Subianto’s role in the project smacks of a political deal to resuscitate his electoral chances.

The Kalimantan project is to be sited in an area where the late strongman Suharto ordered the destruction of peatlands critical as carbon dioxide sinks for an agriculture project in the 1990s. That project failed, critics say. The Forum for the Environment, for example, asked the government to stop using the pandemic, which has sickened more than 200,000 people and killed more than 8,000, as an excuse to exploit peatlands considering that there is a possibility that this project will fail as the Suharto one did.

The plan to open the new lands was put forward by President Joko Widodo recently in a state address amid a food crisis generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, saying modern technology would be used several areas in Central Kalimantan and North Sumatra to create the massive farms.

"Food estate development is important in order to achieve food security and ensure the smooth supply of food from upstream to downstream," he told the House of Representatives.

Jokowi on another occasion said the program is being run in line with predictions by the World Food Organization (FAO) that the pandemic would generate widespread hunger. Another factor is the irregular and unpredictable seasons as climate change generated by rising CO2 levels warms the planet and plays havoc with growing patterns.

The Ministry of Public Works and Public Housing (PUPR) in a statement said the agency is repairing irrigation networks and the road to the Kalimantan project location, which is planned to be between the Kapuas and Barito Rivers, the location of the stillborn Suharto project

Suharto ordered that agriculture development in anticipation of the depletion of Javanese agricultural land as well as attempting to spur development outside Java, Indonesia’s most densely populated island. The project started in 1996 and stopped in 1998 due to the multidimensional Asian Financial Crisis, which led to Suharto's overthrow after 32 years in power.

Now part of the peatland is owned by the community, some of which is neglected because it couldn’t be planted. The government, however, claims that it is alluvial land and that high-tech agriculture will make it a success.

Public Works Minister Basuki Hadimuljono said there will be two food estate developments in Central Kalimantan – rice cultivation to be managed by the Ministry of Agriculture under Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo, which will occupy ​165,000 hectares, of which 85,000 hectares are already productive. The remaining 80,000 hectares are covered by shrub growth that will require land clearing.

Initially, the Ministry of Agriculture will plant ​​32,000 hectares starting in October, with harvest expected in March 2021.

"Planting in the remaining 133,000 hectares will continue in 2021, Basuki told local media. “By the end of 2021, it is hoped that the entire area can be planted."

Cassava is to be planted 60,000 hectares in the second food estate program and will be operated by the Defense Ministry headed by Prabowo, who is now deploying the army corps of engineers unit or Zeni to carry out land appropriation and clearing and preparing cassava seedlings. Zeni personnel are usually involved in a wide range of disaster relief and public works projects, as well as in combat support operations.

Another 30,000 hectares in North Sumatra are planned to be planted with garlic, potatoes, and fruits.

Although it looks tempting, the food estate program has drawn criticism from a number of parties in addition to those from the Forum for the Environment. Campaign Manager for Food, Water & Essential Ecosystems Wahyu A. Perdana said the Suharto project was considered a failure because it had no significant impact on food availability at that time. "Whereas (the project) at least absorbed the state budget of Rp1.6 trillion (US$108.1 million)," said Wahyu.

The Suharto project failed, Wahyu said, because policymakers simply were ignorant of the peat ecosystem. If a similar project is carried out again now, he said, ecological disaster can recur. "Peat ecosystems have an essential hydrological function,” he said. “If this ecosystem is in drought, there is the potential for fires and flooding in the rainy season. Not to mention the carbon released from the damaged peat ecosystem will increase the risk of ecological disasters.”.

However, Nazir Foead, the head of the Peatland Restoration Agency, dismissed concerns about the adverse effects on the environment because the project site has already been categorized as cultivated peatlands, not conservation.

Cultivated peatlands, he said, can be planted with a number of plants, while conservation peatlands should not be converted because they store water in the peat dome and supply carbon, as well as being a habitat for protected species including orangutans and tigers.

"It (cultivated land) is better planted than left unproductive, full of bushes which in the dry season burn," said Foead, who since 2016 has headed the Peat Restoration Agency (BRG), an institution came into being to restore peat in the wake of massive forest fires in 2015.

Foead said that his institution has prepared a business plan or roadmap regarding the location and area of ​​peatlands that are suitable for fisheries, livestock, horticulture, and rice fields.

Prabowo's Appointment Draw Controversy

Several parties also criticized Jokowi for appointing Prabowo, a former general accused of human rights abuses, as the leader of the food estate project. Military researcher from the Institute for Security and Strategic Studies (ISESS) Khairul Fahmi said the Ministry of Defense cannot control the overall national security, including the issue of food security. The task of this institution should only be in the field of defense against military threat.

In addition, he said, the involvement of the military has the potential to repeat the repressive actions carried out by the army during the Suharto projects. "This has the potential to repeat the New Order era where the government claimed to have succeeded in building food security and self-sufficiency, but with great pressure on farmers to plant rice, and soldiers also came down to the fields," said Fahmi.

Ubedilah Badrun, a socio-political analyst from Jakarta State University, agrees that the minister of defense should not lead the food program, and saying he suspects a political deal between Jokowi and Prabowo.

Sandiaga Uno, Prabowo's businessman and running mate in the 2019 presidential election, congratulated him for leading the project, saying he and Prabowo proposed the food security program in the 2019 presidential election campaign.

Surveys say Prabowo, who ran for the presidency twice against Jokowi, continues to be extremely popular and to continue to have high electability in a number of surveys, although the numbers are declining. Based on Charta Politika survey, for example, Prabowo's electability percentage was 22 percent in February, dropping to 17.5 percent in July. A survey by Indonesian Political Indicators (IPI) showed his electability level fell to 13.5 percent in July from 22.2 percent in February.

Apart from the possibility of a political transaction, a political observer from the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Adi Prayitno thinks Prabowo deserves to take care of food issues because he had experience as chairman of the Indonesian Farmers Association (HKTI). "Prabowo's passion is in the fields of defense and agriculture. His vision and mission have always been about these two things," said Prayitno.


This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.