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Indonesia pushes rice estate project despite environmental red flags

Microsoft Zoom Earth satellite image show a section of burned peatland in the region in Central Kalimantan where the rice project is planned.

Microsoft Zoom Earth satellite image show a section of burned peatland in the region in Central Kalimantan where the rice project is planned.

  • Planting will begin as soon as this October on a project that will eventually cover nearly a million hectares (2.47 million acres) of peatland in Indonesian Borneo.
  • Experts have criticized the project, citing the spectacular failure in the mid-1990s of the identical Mega Rice Project that cleared and eventually abandoned vast swaths of peatlands, paving the way for fires nearly every year since.
  • President Joko Widodo says the project is of strategic national importance and will be overseen by the Ministry of Defense.
  • But questions remain over the suitability of growing rice in nutrient-poor peat soils, exacerbating the risk of fire by clearing more peatland, and destroying forests that are home to critically endangered orangutans.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government is pushing ahead with a plan to grow crops on a Puerto Rico-sized area of peatlands, despite criticism from experts and a history of similar failed projects.

Planting in the Bornean province of Central Kalimantan could start as soon as Oct. 1, according to Husnain, the head of research at the Ministry of Agriculture.

“The preparation has to start before October, starting from August,” she said in a recent online discussion. “Beginning this August, we’ve started to go to the field intensively.”

The plan envisions nearly a million hectares (2.47 million acres) — an area the size of Puerto Rico, or twice as big as Bali — dedicated to growing food crops, in particular rice. The government has drafted a plan and a map, with 770,600 hectares (1.9 million acres) of potential areas already identified.

Most of this new estate will sit on peatlands that were targeted for an identical initiative, the Mega Rice Project, in the mid-1990s. Thousands of kilometers of canals were dug to drain the peat soils, all without any environmental impact assessment. But the nutrient-poor peat soil proved too unforgiving for the kind of rice cultivation practiced on the mineral-rich volcanic soils of other islands in Indonesia like Java and Bali.

After multiple failed harvests, the government abandoned the project, leaving behind a dried-out wasteland that burns on a large scale almost every year. Subsequent attempts to replicate the project in other regions, like the easternmost region of Papua, also ended in failure.

That hasn’t stopped the current government from repeating the MRP experiment. In his state-of-the-nation address on Aug. 14, President Joko Widodo highlighted the need to ensure Indonesia’s food security by establishing crop estates in Central Kalimantan and North Sumatra. He previously 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.

Widodo last month announced that he would put the defense minister in charge of overseeing the project because of its strategic significance to national security.

A map of the area earmarked for the Indonesian government’s food estate project in Central Kalimantan province. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture.

Planting on wetlands

Musdhalifah Machmud, the deputy for agriculture to Indonesia’s chief economics minister, said the government would start the project with a 30,000-hectare (74,000-acre) pilot project, followed by 118,000 hectares (292,000 acres) from 2021 and 2023. The initial 30,000 hectares consists of existing rice fields cultivated by local farmers; the government’s role will be to improve the agricultural infrastructure, such as irrigation systems, and providing seeds.

Husnain said this pilot project will be on coastal wetlands and not peatlands. “So there’s no need to worry that there’ll be problems with peatlands in the future,” she said.

But experts said farming on coastal wetlands poses its own challenges. Basuki Sumawinata, a soil and peat expert at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), said coastal wetlands have very acidic soils and high concentrations of a mineral called iron pyrite, which is highly toxic to crops like rice.

To make the crop grow, large amounts of lime — up to 10 tonnes per hectare — would have to be added to lower the acidity of the soil, Basuki said.

“If you want to be safe, then the need for lime is unimaginable,” he said. “That’s why we never dare to dream of neutralizing sulfuric acid using lime, because it’s very difficult. And there’s no guarantee that [the soil will then be] suitable.”

And because the area is a coastal wetland, there will have to be a constant addition of lime to counter the flow of acidic water washing into the area. While that can be addressed through an irrigation system that flushes this acidic water out to sea, this solution poses its own problem, Basuki said: it could spell disaster for the marine ecosystem.

He cited a report of a mass fish die-off in the Barito River in October 1998. The affected portion of the river ran through part of the Mega Rice Project site. Draining of that area had turned the river water unnaturally clear — an indication of very high aluminum levels from the uncontrolled discharge of acidic water.

“If we release too many acids, [which are] not balanced with the capacity of the river, then there could be surprises [ahead of us],” Basuki said. “So we have to truly calculate the discharge of acidic water.”

Imposing solutions that then require solutions of their own will jack up the cost of crop production, which the government doesn’t seem to have accounted for, according to Hari Priyono, a former secretary-general at the Ministry of Agriculture.

“If there needs to be technology that’s quite costly, using dolomite [lime], using water pumps intensively, then the cost of production will be high,” he said. “It means there’s going to be a very high dependency on the government, and the sustainability [of the project] won’t be high.”

Airlangga Hartanto, the coordinating minister for the economy, said the first phase of the project will cost 6 trillion rupiah ($405 million) over the next three to four years. Musdhalifah said investors would be involved to foot the bill.

“We’ll actually [only manage] 30,000 hectares. We hope the rest can be developed commercially by investors,” she said. “With intervention of more modern technology, which is more proven, we can plant crops on peatlands. More than 600,000 hectares [1.5 million acres] are available [for investors].”

Hari said the economic feasibility of the project is what would determine its success.

“I suggest that calculations [be made] before we’re obsessed with turning [the area] into the national food estate,” he said.

Dwi Andreas Santosa, a researcher at IPB, said similar programs in Ketapang, West Kalimantan province, and Bulungan, North Kalimantan province, were unprofitable with yields of 4 tonnes of rice per hectare, compared to 6 tonnes per hectare in Java and Bali. The projected yield for the Central Kalimantan rice estate is about 3 tonnes per hectare.

Hari said the government should focus on boosting yields in the country’s existing rice-growing heartland of Java and Bali.

“Why don’t we increase productivity, so that there’s less need to rely for our food security on less suitable lands that pose many technical challenges?” he said.

A map of the former Mega Rice Project in Central Kalimantan that has been zoned by the Indonesian government for the new food estate project. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture.

Planting on peatland

There won’t be any new rice fields established and no clearing of peatlands in the first year of the Central Kalimantan project, according to Husnain. After that, though, the military will move in.

“The Ministry of Defense will also clear land, not farmers’ land, but land that is earmarked for [the project],” she said. “The choice of commodity will be different, maybe no longer rice.”

The government says it has already identified about 307,000 hectares (759,000 acres) of peatland that can be farmed because the peat layer is less than 3 meters (10 feet) deep. But IPB’s Dwi says crop cultivation on peatland is only feasible when the peat layer is less than a meter (3 feet) thick.

“If the peat thickness is more than 1 meter, then forget it,” he said. “It’s impossible.”

The government’s justification for including peatland with a peat layer of up to 3 meters as arable land is simply that it can be exploited; land with peat layers thicker than 3 meters are protected by law.

Another type of landscape ostensible off-limits to agriculture is forest areas. Husnain said the Central Kalimantan project’s potential area was initially smaller because the Ministry of Agriculture had excluded forest areas. But the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, at the behest of the coordinating minister for the economy, has since said it will waive forest designations to allow forest areas to be cleared for the project.

“We didn’t consider protected forests because for us, they’re not available [for agriculture],” Husnain said. “But when the coordinating ministry of economy coordinated with the forestry ministry, the ministry said ‘oh these [protected forests] can be used, these can be moved [elsewhere], it will be taken care of legally later.’ So why not?”

She added that the Ministry of Agriculture had mapped out forest areas that would be suitable for the project, but might not use all of them.

In February 2017, the Central Kalimantan government submitted a request to the forestry ministry to similarly waive forest designation for 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) inside the former MRP to grow crops including rice and sugarcane. Almost the entire proposed area appeared to be protected peatland, according to Sapta Ananda Proklamasi, a researcher at Greenpeace Indonesia.

It’s not clear whether this area is included in the forest area that the forestry ministry now says it will relinquish for the national crop project. If it is, however, much of it constitutes habitat for the critically endangered Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), a species already under pressure from expanding oil palm plantations and mining concessions, Sapta said.

Fire burning through forest and oil palm on peatlands in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Fire risk

A key concern among critics of the revived rice estate plan is that it will jump-start what the MRP began a quarter of a century ago: massive soil drainage that renders the peat highly flammable and a major source of Indonesia’s carbon emissions.

Forty-four percent of land and forest fires in Indonesia last year, an area of 728,000 hectares (1.8 million acres), occurred in peatlands, according to data from the environmental NGO Madani.

“If rice fields are established [on peatlands], then it will automatically alter the peat ecosystems to match the characteristic of rice fields,” Madani geographic information system specialist Fadli Ahmad Naufal said. “That potentially increases the vulnerability to fires.”

Dimas Hartono, the head of the Central Kalimantan chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said it’s too risky to revive the MRP on the same site.

“The citizens of Central Kalimantan have long suffered from ecological disasters [forest fires] every year due to the policy of ambitious projects in the past,” he said.

Karliansyah, the director-general in charge of peatland protection and restoration at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said his office had devised a strategy to recover peat ecosystems in the former MRP site to ensure the food estate can be developed sustainably. This includes improving water management, rehabilitating degraded peatlands, and improving the welfare of local people.

“The recovery of peat ecosystem in the former MRP site will be key to support the development of national food security sustainably,” Karliansyah said.

The ministry says only about 2.5 percent of the total 1.47 million hectares (3.63 million acres) of peatland located in the former MRP site can be considered heavily degraded and needs to be rehabilitated immediately.

Basuki of IPB said establishing the food estate on the former MRP site would actually help mitigate forest fires. He argued that past fires were able to spread out of control because the area had been abandoned and was largely unmonitored. By farming it and ensuring a constant presence on the ground, the risk of fire will decline, he said.

Areas where uncontrolled burning has broken out in the past “don’t have owners,” Basuki said. “So if we successfully establish rice fields, there won’t be large fires. There won’t be haze.”

A canal of the Mega Rice Project near Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. Image by Indra Nugraha for Mongabay.

‘Win-win solution’

He said the food estate program is a win-win solution for both Indonesia’s recurring fire problems and crop shortages.

“Why do we have to create food estate? Why do I support [it]? [Because] there’s no other way,” he said. “Every year, we are being embarrassed [by the recurring fires]. How come we don’t manage [the former MRP site]? No matter the cost, it should be managed, and managed properly.”

Musdhalifah said it’s about time for an agricultural nation like Indonesia to have its own food estate. She added the government is confident it will be able to manage wetlands and peatlands sustainably, pointing to neighboring Malaysia as an example.

“There are many [successful] examples in other countries,” she said. “In Sarawak [in Malaysian Borneo], they also have peatlands and they can utilize them optimally. But they criticize me, asking why do we have to plant rice? In Malaysia, they use [peatlands] for planting oil palm trees. Indeed, our main crop is rice and so for our pilot project we will plant rice.”

Dwi of IPB said for Indonesia to avoid the same pitfalls as previous food estate projects, there are four aspects that need to be considered. First is to prioritize areas where the peat layer is less than a meter deep. Second is the provision of adequate infrastructure, including irrigation systems. Third is planting suitable crops, and fourth is ensuring social justice.

“Who are the owners of these lands [that will be used]?” Dwi said. “Are there Indigenous conflicts [over the land]?”

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

Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Arie Rompas urged the government not to rush the project and to respect the rights of the people of Central Kalimantan.

“The government has to respect the deep ties owned by the people of Central Kalimantan with their lands and give alternatives that don’t depend on the exploitation of peatlands,” he said. “There has to be a public consultation process first with the people who are most prone to the impact of the development.”

Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), said the government could solve the issue of food security by allocating more farmland to villagers rather than to companies to manage.

“They say we need 300,000 hectares for the national food estate,” she said. “There are 75,000 villages [in Indonesia]. If each village manages 4 hectares of agricultural lands, then [our] food demand will be met.”

Banner image: Microsoft Zoom Earth satellite image show a section of burned peatland in the region in Central Kalimantan where the rice project is planned.

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