JAKARTA: Indonesian environmental and food security experts are crying foul as the government’s new program to develop vast farm estates across the archipelago increases the risk of disastrous forest fires that regularly choke the region.
President Joko Widodo announced on Wednesday that the megaproject, which will span more than 770,000 hectares of land, is aimed at anticipating a global food crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s reliance on imported food.
Such projects, however, mostly exploit peatland and for the past years scientists and environmental activists have been calling on the government to provide protection for peat areas to prevent seasonal forest fires and mitigate climate change.
“But the government now comes up with a massive land conversion program which will disturb the peatland ecosystem and can potentially worsen the impacts of land and forest fires,” Arie Rompas, forest campaign team leader at Greenpeace Indonesia, said in a statement for Arab News on Friday.
He added that the government cannot use the issue of enhancing Indonesia’s food security to justify a move that will deny its citizens their rights to “a healthy and just life that is free from land and forest fires.”
Forest fires and haze are annual calamities suffered mostly by Indonesian citizens in Sumatra and Kalimantan, causing multibillion-dollar economic losses as well as long-term health impacts. Haze from the fires regularly reaches Malaysia and Singapore, resulting in diplomatic tensions.
A pilot project for the program will be launched in the regencies of Kapuas and Pulang Pisau of Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island by the year’s end. Widodo said another estate is planned in Humbang Hasundutan regency, North Sumatra, after which more will be set up in Papua and East Nusa Tenggara.
Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo will be overseeing the food estate undertaking.
The program is reminiscent of the unsuccessful Mega Rice Project (MRP) launched by Suharto, Indonesia’s ruler of 32 years, in peatland areas of Central Kalimantan in 1996.
The pilot project for the new farm estates will be developed on nearly 165,000 hectares of peatland in ex-MRP areas.
According to environmental expert Agus Sari, the project is neither the right way to build Indonesia’s food security nor to anticipate a food crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, which resulted in major disruptions across food distribution channels.
The government, he said, should prioritize the improvement of logistics and other supporting infrastructure. He also voiced doubts over the institutional capabilities of the ministries of defense and agriculture to carry out the program.
“If the government insist on realizing the food estate program, it needs to strengthen the agriculture ministry or form a dedicated cross-cutting committee with the agriculture ministry as the lead coordinator,” Sari told Arab News, as he raised concerns of the involvement of the defense ministry for the purpose.
“The Defense Ministry is not well equipped for this program and it needs more time to establish the necessary capacity. It’s a long process started from creating regulatory framework, planning, engineering design, conducting environmental impact analysis and so forth,” he said, adding that the ministry’s plan to deploy army personnel for the pilot project may increase risks of conflict with local residents.
Instead of carrying out the “costly but non-feasible” project, the government, according to Sari, should focus on reforming the country’s agriculture sector by reorganizing and increasing the efficiency of existing farmland.
A senior researcher from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, Dwi Andreas Santosa, who as a food security expert was involved in Suharto’s MRP program, called on Widodo’s administration not to repeat the failure of previous food estate projects.
“This program will suffer a similar fate as previous projects as it does not meet the four main scientific rules for developing large-scale plantation areas,” he told Arab News, explaining that the vast farm estates fill fail due to “unsuitability of land and agroclimate, lack of supporting infrastructure, inadequate cultivation technology and failure to address socio-economic issues such as manpower and tenurial rights.”