Fertile ground for failure: Indonesia hopes 2 million acres of rice paddies will help it weather COVID-19

A canal being blocked in Pulang Pisau. Photo: Indra Nugraha/Mongabay Indonesia

The Indonesian government plans to turn 2.2 million acres of peat swamps on Borneo into rice paddies. The plan aims to help the country weather the impacts of COVID-19 on its food supply, but it risks repeating a fiasco from the Suharto era.

By Skylar Lindsay

The Indonesian government is pushing ahead with a plan to create 2.2 million acres of rice paddies on Borneo, reviving a decades-old agricultural scheme in a bid to shore up the country’s food supply during the coronavirus pandemic.

The government plans to convert swaths of peatland in Central Kalimantan province into rice plantations. But the program risks replicating the near-total failure of the “Mega Rice Project”, an effort launched by former president and dictator Suharto in 1995 that ended in disaster—and produced zero rice.

The 1995 plan involved digging thousands of kilometers of canals across Borneo to drain and clear peat bogs and turn the land into irrigated rice paddies, according to a recent account in Mongabay. Despite the government’s best efforts, almost no rice grew in the poor quality peat soil. Excavators sank into bogs and swampy forests as they attempted to clear the land.

Since then, the drained and abandoned peatland has burned in massive fires every dry season, producing a haze that chokes the region. It continues to burn today: much of the land in Central Kalimantan that burned in 2019 was land the government attempted to cultivate for the Mega Rice Project. The burning of these areas in particular also releases a significant amount of greenhouse gases, as peat bogs are major carbon sinks.

The new project has been in the works for a few years but Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is now pushing it ahead in light of the impacts of COVID-19 on the country’s food security. 

Borneo rice paddy plan driven by food security concerns 

Indonesia has seen over 17,500 cases of the coronavirus so far, including over 1,100 fatalities. As people see their incomes dry up and the pandemic disrupts supply chains and distribution, many are struggling to access food. 

Like Vietnam, Indonesia set up “rice ATMs” to help ensure that those struggling with the economic impacts of COVID-19 still have access to food. Jokowi has eased restrictions on food imports, announced a welfare program for farmers and told the Indonesian Bureau of Logistics (Bulog), the country’s state-run food distribution company, to purchase crops directly from farmers.

Despite these efforts, in late April, the president said that provinces across the country were seeing shortages of staple foods, including rice, as well as eggs, sugar and corn.

This doesn’t mean that Indonesia is running out of food: Bulog has stockpiled significant reserves of staples. The bureau reported in late April that it had 1.41 million tons of rice and announced plans to purchase almost a million tons of additional rice stocks from domestic farmers, the majority of it over the next couple months of the rice harvest season.

Indonesia already imports most food staples and this reliance is only increasing during the pandemic. Bulog has also reported that it will have stockpiled 75,000 tons of sugar by June, in large part by importing sugar from India. The bureau also has plans to import over 100,000 tons of meat.

As a major food importer, Indonesia is vulnerable to shifts in the global food system. Though COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains, the pandemic has so far not led to a global rise in food prices—except for rice. Rice prices have risen as demand increases and major rice exporting countries—chiefly China, India and Vietnam—place restrictions on exports of the staple. According to the Thai rice market, used as a gauge for the global rice economy, the price of rice hit a seven-year high in April. 

Indonesia has so far been insulated from the impacts of high rice prices: government data shows average rice prices are only 3% higher than they were last May. The government and food distributors have also made a concerted effort to increase supply, in some cases doubling the amount of rice on the market.

Weighed down by COVID-19, Indonesia wades back into the swamps of Borneo

The government’s efforts to relieve pressure on Indonesia’s food system are laudable, but the possibility of crisis doesn’t change the reality of the re-hashed Mega Rice Project. According to Basuki Sumawinata, a soil expert from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), there are no examples of rice being successfully grown in peat soil on a large scale.

“Peatlands in general contain few nutrients,” said 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.”

One Indonesian wetlands expert recalled that in trials for the 1995 Mega Rice Project, the government attempted to grow a half-acre of rice on peatlands in Sumatra, but had to add two tons of lime to the soil to lower its acidity enough that the rice would grow. Yields from other trials on peatlands have been low and the cost of added inputs will mean any rice produced can’t be sold at market prices without additional government support.

Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo has said that farmers on the Borneo project will use rice that is specially adapted to grow in peat and will have access to tractors that can handle the swampy conditions.

The government’s plan also represents a significant mobilization of labour: for the first stage alone, which covers about a fifth of the proposed area, the Agriculture Ministry plans to recruit 300,000 farmers. It’s not clear if these farmers will be paid to move or offered some form of guaranteed income. If not, the government is asking them to take a major risk for the sake of a project that has a losing record before it’s even begun.

The Jokowi government is still conducting an environmental study to determine the suitability of the land and select sites for the project, reportedly with a focus on areas that were cleared for the failed Mega Rice Project under Suharto. But a large portion of the proposed land is also part of designated forest conservation areas, meaning the Environment Ministry would have to issue permits for agriculture.

The stress on the country’s food system appears to be enough to make the government push ahead with the new Mega Rice Project despite its dubious legacy. The plan also won’t yield any rice until next year—rather than immediate relief, the scheme focuses on shoring up Indonesia’s food supply against long-term impacts. If it does happen, the project will offer lessons on how heavy-handed government food security initiatives will work during the fallout from COVID-19.

About the Author

Skylar Lindsay
Skylar Lindsay is a writer and photographer focused on development, the envrionment and conflict, primarily in Southeast Asia.