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Failed rice fields may get new lease of life under Indonesian peat restoration project

A canal near Palangkaraya. Photo by Indra Nugraha for Mongabay.

  • The Peatland Restoration Agency is looking at possibilities to develop agriculture on abandoned peat swamps from the failed Mega Rice Project in the mid-1990s.
  • The agency has identified 1,250 square kilometers of peat areas with agricultural potential.
  • The search is a part of the agency’s pilot project to test methods of developing agriculture without using fires.

KIRAM, Indonesia — It was one of the most spectacular failures of modern agriculture, but two decades after it was abandoned, patches of Indonesia’s Mega Rice Project look to be revived under a government-run peatland restoration program.

The original Mega Rice Project (MRP) was initiated in 1996 during the regime of long-ruling strongman Suharto, who envisioned a million hectares (10,000 square kilometers, or 3,860 square miles) of rice plantations — an area eight times the size of Los Angeles — on peatlands across southern Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo.

Thousands of excavators and tens of thousands of workers were deployed to clear the peat forests and dig some 4,600 kilometers (2,900 miles) of drainage canals to keep the soil dry enough in the rainy season and the crops irrigated in the dry season. But the project was an unmitigated disaster, with not a single blade of productive rice ever grown. The nutrient-poor peat soil proved too unforgiving for Javanese-style rice cultivation, and the government ultimately abandoned the project, leaving behind a dried-out wasteland that continues to burn on a large scale almost every year.

Some of the worst fires on these degraded peatlands occurred in 2015, and prompted the creation of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), whose mission is to block off the drainage canals and rewet up to 20,000 square kilometers (7,720 square miles) of affected peatland.

The agency, under its presidentially appointed chief, Nazir Foead, is now eyeing turning tracts of former MRP lands to their Suharto-era role of farmland, albeit not at the same scale as the original project, and with greater consideration for the environment.

“The lands are already cleared, and the canals have been built, but they are abandoned,” Nazir said. “These areas have turned into bush, and they often catch fire and become rat nests.”

Much of the MRP area went up in smoke during the 2015 fires, he said, “so it’s better to restore it while at the same time increasing its agricultural productivity.”

Under that plan, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing is blocking drainage canals, focusing on the biggest canal in the network, in the district of Pulang Pisau, in Central Kalimantan province.

The BRG, meanwhile, has a project to establish farmland without the need to set fire to the brush. The first round of that project, done in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture, saw 7 hectares (17 acres) of land in Pulang Pisau turned into rice fields. Now the BRG wants to try for 10 square kilometers (4 square miles), and Nazir sees the former MRP area as a good fit.

“Rather than leaving it abandoned, it’s better to revive the productivity of these areas,” he said.

To avoid a repeat of the Suharto regime’s mistakes, the BRG and the Ministry of Agriculture have mapped areas of shallow peat they see as potentially suitable for farmland. The ministry identified 1,450 square kilometers (600 square miles) in former MRP areas, while the BRG identified 1,250 square kilometers (480 square miles).

“We’re currently trying to set up the pilot project with the Ministry of Agriculture on a 1,000-hectare [2,470 acres] lot in Pulang Pisau district,” Nazir said.

Previously, the BRG helped villagers in Pulang Pisau develop farmland without the use of fires, starting from a 1-hectare (2.5-acre) lot of peatland. That village now boasts 7 hectares of farmland developed on peat soil without any fires being set.

“We’ve done that on a small scale, now we want to try with 1,000 hectares of peat,” Nazir said.


Banner image: A canal near Palangkaraya. Photo by Indra Nugraha for Mongabay.

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