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In Indonesia’s new rice plan, experts see the blueprint of an epic past failure

An excavator at work on the canal in Pulang Pisau. Photo by Indra Nugraha for Mongabay.

  • The Indonesian government plans to establish 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) of rice fields in the peatlands of Borneo, in what experts say is a worrying repeat of a near-identical project in the 1990s that failed.
  • The earlier mega rice project (MRP) resulted in vast swaths of peat forests being drained and eventually abandoned as it became clear that the soil wasn’t suited for growing rice.
  • The MRP left behind a wasteland of drained and degraded peat that has since burned during the annual dry season, spewing out a choking haze and large volumes of carbon emissions.
  • The government says the new rice project will learn from past mistakes, but experts say it would still be unfeasible at that scale and would risk the clearing of even more peat forests.

JAKARTA — Nyoman Suryadiputra says he still vividly remembers the time he traveled deep into the heart of the lush tropical peat forests of Indonesian Borneo in 1996 to document an ambitious agricultural project.

The mega rice project (MRP), initiated in 1995 under the rule of  the strongman Suharto, was on a scale like no other: a million hectares (2.5 million acres) of rice plantations  — an area twice the size of the island of Bali — on peatlands across Central Kalimantan province to boost food security.

During his time there, Suryadiputra, today the executive director of Wetlands International Indonesia, captured the ambitious project on a Betamax camcorder.

What he witnessed was an unmitigated disaster.

“Monkeys were running away when the excavators were moving in,” he told Mongabay. “And there were a lot of excavators that sank [into the peatlands] because the soils were soft while the excavators could weigh up to 22 tons.”

He also saw thousands of kilometers of canals being dug to drain the peat soils, all without any environmental impact assessment.

“When I was there, the workers were digging a canal from the west, while the others were digging from the east,” Suryadiputra said. “When these workers were about to meet in the middle, suddenly they said ‘stop!’ It turned out that there’s a lake there. At that time, the satellite technology might not be as sophisticated as now, so they just dug” without a clear plan.

The government brought in farmers from Java and Bali to cultivate the newly cleared land. But the nutrient-poor peat soil proved too unforgiving for the kind of rice cultivation practiced on the mineral-rich volcanic soils of those islands.

The government ultimately abandoned the project, leaving behind a dried-out wasteland that burns on a large scale almost every year.

Today, the government of President Joko Widodo is embarking on a similar mega project, also in the name of food security, recently announcing the clearing of 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) of rice fields — a move that Suryadiputra warns is history repeating itself.

The government says the project is necessary as Indonesia is already feeling the brunt of a food shortage triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The president has also cited a warning from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) about an impending global food crisis in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

Just as with the MRP a quarter of a century ago, the government is eyeing the peatlands of Central Kalimantan this time around, specifically in Pulang Pisau district, site of the biggest canal from the failed rice project.

“We can’t afford to make the same mistake twice,” Suryadiputra said. “That’s why a comprehensive study is needed. Because if we fail again, then we’ll waste money.”

A canal of the Mega Rice Project near Palangkaraya. Image by Indra Nugraha/Mongabay Indonesia.

Lessons from history

Nazir Foead is the head of the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), which was set up by the president after disastrous fires in 2015 that raged across large swaths of peat. He said there won’t be a repeat of the MRP fiasco because the government has learned from its mistakes. Many of the senior officials now in charge are veterans of the MRP and averse to making the same mistake again, he said.

Knowledge of how to sustainably manage peatlands has also evolved in the years since, as have government policies on peat protection, Nazir added.

Most of the latter were put in place only recently, after the 2015 fires, fueled in large part by the draining of peat swamps that render them highly combustible. Among these policies is a designation of peatlands into two types: those with deep layers of carbon-rich peat, which must be protected, and those with shallower layers, which can be cultivated.

“So in terms of policies, we are more ready,” Nazir said. “The paradigm of peatland conservation is completely different than before.”

But critics point to worrying signs that the new plan will end up as another failure. Chief among them is that it relies on clearing large areas of peatlands for cultivation, just like the MRP.

Basuki Sumawinata, a soil and peat expert at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), said there were no successful examples of rice being cultivated on peat at scale.

“In the past, we wanted to open up a rice estate in 1970 in South Sumatra. That ended up in failure,” he told local media. “And then we wanted to open 1 million hectares in 1995. Of that 1 million hectares, where has rice cultivation has been sustained on peatlands?”

A more recent project is the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) program, in the easternmost region of Papua. Launched in 2011, it aimed to turn 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of mostly forested land into the “future breadbasket of Indonesia.” But the government has found it tough to implement, particularly because of land issues: the estate, as planned, would overlap with conservation areas such as primary forest and water catchment zones, as well as the territories of indigenous tribes.

Activists say the project has become a “textbook land grab,” and that it contradicts Indonesia’s own commitments to protect peatland, as much of Merauke district is made up of peat. And with the destruction of peat comes the burning: more than 11,000 hotspots were detected in Papua in 2015 as a result of fires set deliberately to clear vegetation.

“Conversion of peatlands for agriculture as a solution for food crisis is feared to be causing peat to dried up and damage the peat ecosystem in a large scale,” Rusmadya Maharudin, the head of the forest campaign team at Greenpeace Indonesia, said in a statement.

In 2019, fires burned across nearly 270,000 hectares (660,000 acres) of land in Central Kalimantan. Much of this was on former MRP areas, according to Rusmadya, with the haze generated by the burning posing a public health threat. Clearing more peatland for the new project will only exacerbate the burning and haze, he said.

This has grave implications for climate change, since peatlands are some of the densest sinks of greenhouse gases on Earth. Indonesia is already one of the world’s top emitters, with the bulk of its emissions coming from land-use changes, including the conversion of peatland for plantations.

The canal being blocked in Pulang Pisau. Image by Indra Nugraha/Mongabay Indonesia.

Farming on hostile ground

Experts have also questioned the government’s insistence on planting on peatland, despite the failure of the MRP and other projects pointing to its unsuitability for growing rice, the staple crop in Indonesia.

“Peatlands in general contain few nutrients,” said ITB’s Basuki. “So if they are to be managed for rice fields, it will need thorough and serious technology, with costs that we might not be able to imagine.”

Suryadiputra, from Wetlands International, said this was exactly what happened with the MRP. In a pilot project, the government tried planting rice on 2,000 square meters (0.5 acres) of peatland in Sumatra’s Riau province. They found they had to add 2 tons of lime to lower the acidity of the soil enough to make it suitable for rice.

“I couldn’t fathom it,” he said. “Would the price of the rice become higher because of the cost of the lime?”

Suryadiputra, therefore, said the government shouldn’t focus on planting rice only, but to diversify the types of crops, such as sago, a staple food in Indonesia’s eastern region.

The BRG’s Nazir said that for the current project, his agency had carried out its own pilot, planting rice on an 80-hectare (200-acre) plot in a former MRP area. They produced less than 3 tons of rice per hectare — half of the yield seen in Java and Bali, and similar to the output in Riau, where much of the land is also peat.

This time around, technology will answer those concerns, the government says. According to Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo, the government has prepared a special variant of rice that is suitable for peat conditions. Sarwo Edhy, the ministry’s director-general of farming infrastructure, said farmers could also use a special kind of tractor adapted for swampy peatlands that would allow them to sow a hectare of land in a matter of hours, compared to five or six days at present. Combined with the prospect of being able to farm during the dry season, that makes peatland the future of farming in Indonesia, Sarwo said.

He added that while technical details of the plan still needed to be sorted out, planting could begin as early as this month May.

Syahrul said the first stage of planting would cover 164,000 hectares (405,000 acres) of peatland, for which the Agriculture Ministry would need to bring in at least 300,000 farmers, or about a ninth of the current population of Central Kalimantan. He said a lack of farmers was one of the reasons why the MRP failed; half of the nearly 16,000 farming households brought over from Java and Bali for the MRP abandoned the land and moved elsewhere, with many turning to illegal logging.

This time, Syahrul said, the ministry will coordinate with the provincial government to prepare for the farmers needed. Airlangga Hartarto, the coordinating minister for the economy, said the government will soon conduct an environmental study and map out the availability of land and labor, in a process that is expected to last for three weeks.

Suryadiputra, however, warned against rushing through the plan, given the scope of the project, adding that a detailed study will take at least a year.

“I advise the government to conduct a very comprehensive study on biophysics, social, economic and cultural aspects. It can’t be done partially,” he said. “If the government merely asks for a consultant, then it’s very dangerous.”

Peat fire in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Abandoned peatlands

Nazir said the government would be extra cautious this time by making sure that the peatlands to be farmed are areas that have already been cleared in the past and are now abandoned, including former MRP areas. This will serve the dual purpose of both growing crops and ensuring the land doesn’t catch fire again during the dry season, Nazir said.

“So we’re not clearing peat forests, but bush that used to be burned and have shallow peat,” he said.

But Suryadiputra said it’s not as simple, noting that land with a shallow peat layer might be formerly deep peat that has subsided as a result of draining. That would make it prone to flooding.

“That’s why the study can’t be done partially,” he said. “It has to be conducted using satellite imagery for at least one year to see the land cover.”

Basuki questioned the feasibility of finding enough suitable peatlands that has already been cleared, without clearing new tracts of land. He said most of the peatlands in Central Kalimantan are located in designated forest areas, which makes them off-limits for plantations.

“There’s another problem with peatlands in Kalimantan,” he said. “What’s the plan for the 1 million hectares of ex-MRP area? They’re in forest areas.”

Israr Albar, the head of the land and forest fire management planning directorate at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said during a discussion via teleconferencing platform Zoom that the Central Kalimantan governor had notified the central government that some former MRP areas were earmarked for various agricultural crops, including rice, sugarcane, tubers, and bananas, amounting to 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres).

Sunarti, the head of the provincial agriculture agency, confirmed the size of the land, but said it was specifically for rice, under a program initiated by the government in 2017 and spanning more than 660,000 hectares (1.64 million acres). She said the allocation of land was still pending approval from the central government.

But that appears unlikely to happen, according to Nazir. He said that because much of the proposed land falls within designated forest area, it will require the environment ministry to issue a forest conversion permit to allow farming there.

“Of course the environment minister is upholding the environmental law and the peat protection regulation,” he said. “So the proposal might not be able to be realized yet because it contradicts” environmental protection rules.

Dimas Hartono, the director of the Central Kalimantan chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s biggest green NGO, said it would be very dangerous for the environment ministry to issue the permit. He said the land in question includes peat domes, a crucial part of the peat ecosystem that serves as the source of water for the ecosystem.

“The proposed area is a conservation area, between the peat hydrological areas of the Kapuas River and the Kahayan River,” he said. “If these peatlands are opened, it’ll become the second MRP and the peatlands in Central Kalimantan will be destroyed again.”

Drained, cleared, and burned peat forest in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Drained, cleared, and burned peat forest in Indonesian Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Reviving the MRP

The final location for the new rice plantations hasn’t been fully determined yet, but the government intends to include Pulang Pisau district, based on projections of high rainfall up to three months into the dry season. Agriculture Minister Syahrul visited the district, surveying former MRP areas by helicopter, on May 15.

“The ones that are going to be optimized [to be planted with rice] are the former MRP areas,” said Syamsuddin, the head of the agricultural technology research agency in Central Kalimantan. “Truth to be said, the past opening [of paddy fields in the MRP areas] wasn’t supported with sufficient technology and innovation, unlike now.”

Nazir has proposed the idea of using the abandoned peatlands from the MRP since 2018; to date, the BRG has mapped out 60,000 hectares (148,000 acres) of abandoned peatlands that it deems suitable for agriculture because they don’t fall inside forest areas and the peat layer is shallow.

Suryadiputra said that if the government insists on cultivating the former MRP areas, there are still many questions it needs to answer.

“Is the mapping adequate? Let’s say the targeted land is located in shallow peat areas, but is it also in flood areas? Is it connected to the MRP’s canal network, which stretches to more than 4,500 kilometers [2,800 miles]? Do these locations have sulfuric acid? What are the subsidence level of these peatlands? Who are the people they want to bring in as farmers? Do they have agricultural experience on peatlands?” he said.

IPB’s Basuki also questioned the government’s readiness.

“If you’re preparing for a food crisis by December, what month is it now? If you want to open up 200,000 hectares, how much equipment will it take? Thousands of excavators have to be prepared. Is it possible? No way,” he said. “So if tomorrow you’re going to be hungry and you’re only starting to clear the fields now, then it’s impossible. Why not do it since long before?”

Peatland in Indonesia drained to prepare the land for agriculture. Peatlands accumulate their rich carbon stores over thousands of years, but begin to decompose once they lose their moisture . Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Small farmers, big odds

Activists also see a cruel irony in the government’s plan. For years, the government has pushed small farmers off their lands in favor of corporate-run mega plantations, particularly for oil palms, and infrastructure projects. That’s resulted in the loss of 128,000 hectares (316,000 acres) of smallholder farmland each year, and 5.1 million farming households forced to find other forms of livelihood between 2003 and 2013.

As of the start of 2020, there were 7.46 million hectares (18.4 million acres) of crop fields left in Indonesia, compared to 16.4 million hectares (40.5 million acres) of oil palm plantations, which have undergone rapid expansion in the past decade.

“So the size of [crop] fields keeps declining,” said Dewi Kartika, the secretary-general of the Agrarian Reform Consortium (KPA). “And we know that the government’s policy is to push infrastructure development, large-scale investment and premium tourism, which targets villages that have productive land, including customary villages.”

Yet even as they lose their land, farmers are being asked by the government to keep working during the COVID-19 pandemic to make sure the country has enough food. The current food shortage isn’t just because of the pandemic, activists say, but also a result of government policies that favor large-scale monoculture plantations managed by big companies instead of farms managed by smallholders growing diversified crops.

“This crisis has to be a wakeup call for the government that hasn’t carried out agrarian reform,” Dewi said. “[The president] asked farmers to remain harvesting and to work hard during the pandemic, but there are many farmers in the past two months who have been threatened by eviction from state-owned company land, including plantation firms, and reported to the police. A farmer died in South Sumatra because of a conflict with a plantation company. So there’s a contradiction. Farmers remain unsafe.”

Dewi said farmers who managed to hold on to their lands are able to withstand food shortages, while those who sold their lands to plantation and mining companies are at risk of not having enough food.

“They can feed his families and their neighbors, they can even put aside some of their harvests for people in the cities,” Dewi said.

But land ownership in Indonesia is increasingly concentrated in a small number of hands, with 1% of Indonesians owning 59% of the land in the country. Farmers on average have less than half a hectare, or about an acre. To tackle this inequality, President Widodo has launched a land reform program, under which the government aims to issue titles for more than 9 million hectares (22 million acres) of land to small farmers.

In 2018, the KPA submitted to the government a map of priority areas for land reform, covering more than 654,000 hectares (1.62 million acres) and home to some 445,000 families.

“But this hasn’t been fully supported by the government and these villagers are prone to be criminalized by the government and companies,” Dewi said.

She called on the government to fulfill its promise of agrarian reform through redistribution of land, which she said would help both farmers and the state, by ensuring greater food security. Without tying the agrarian reform program to the plan to create new rice fields, the government risks sparking more conflicts by taking over lands owned by locals that it deems to be unproductive, Dewi said.

“If we can’t answer what and who this plan is for, then new agrarian conflicts will flare up,” she said. “Empty lands don’t mean they don’t have owners. In Papua, many indigenous peoples have fallen victim to the food estate program there. So it has to be ensured that this program is for farmers and traditional field workers, so that farmers become the main actors.”


Correction (5/20/2020): The article has been revised to correct the job title of Israr Albar at the environment ministry and the size of the MRP’s pilot project in Riau province. 


Banner image: An excavator at work on the canal in Pulang Pisau district, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image by Indra Nugraha/Mongabay Indonesia. 


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