Indonesia’s new agricultural megaproject threatens public health, indigenous rights—and it might not work

Image showing a peat swamp forest in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo: Ruanda Agung Sugardiman/AusAID / CC BY

Indonesia’s plan to turn millions of acres of peat bogs into farmland is underway—without the consent of indigenous communities. The scheme also poses major public health risks in light of COVID-19, as it will likely worsen the country’s annual wildfire and air pollution crisis.

Editorial

The Indonesian government has begun rolling out a plan to convert over 400,000 acres on the island of Borneo into farmland to grow rice, fruit and vegetables, drawing strong objections from environmentalist groups and indigenous communities across the country.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo says the project will help prevent possible food shortages due to COVID-19, as Indonesia’s food supply continues to rely heavily on imports. The president visited the agricultural development, located in Central Kalimantan province, in early July as preparations for the first stage of planting got underway.

The 400,000-acre development is part of a larger plan to convert over 2 million acres of peat bogs and forests into rice paddies and other farmland.

But critics say the project will lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions and increase the risk of wildfires that already cover swaths of Southeast Asia in a haze every year. Peat is waterlogged, carbon-dense soil that isn’t suitable for rice cultivation. To convert peat to cropland, farmers have to clear and drain the land, releasing massive amounts of carbon. One estimate suggests that 42% of the world’s soil carbon is held in peat reserves.

Once peat bogs and forests have been drained, they’re especially susceptible to burning, posing a major health risk to people across Indonesia and elsewhere in the region—a risk that could prove even more dangerous due to COVID-19.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) and the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) have both spoken out against the project. According to AMAN, the plan will violate the rights of indigenous peoples, hurting their food sovereignty and marginalizing the indigenous communities that currently cultivate the land in the project area.

A repeat of history

Some of the land slated for agricultural development doesn’t have to be cleared—it was already developed once before for the Mega Rice Project, an ill-fated program of former president and autocrat Suharto. Launched in 1995, the initiative sought to turn 2.5 million acres on Borneo, most of it peatland, into rice paddies. 

The plan hinged on digging thousands of kilometers of canals across Central Kalimantan in order to drain the peatland and prepare it for rice cultivation.

But the plan failed to produce much rice—if any. The peat soil lacked the nutrients necessary to grow rice or much of anything else. Witnesses recall seeing tractors and other heavy equipment sinking into the soft peat marshes.

The Mega Rice Project was also strongly opposed by local communities in Central Kalimantan, including the indigenous Dayak.

Many skeptics, from Greenpeace Indonesia, Wetlands International and other groups as well as local communities, say the current plan stands to repeat many of the mistakes of the past. According to local media, Public Works and Housing Minister Basuki Hadimuljono has made statements explicitly linking the current program to government farmland projects in the 1990s. 

The Suharto government never commissioned an environmental impact assessment for the Mega Rice Project. This could have prevented many of the ensuing problems, from canals that ran into lakes to the annual fires that now burn across the peatland. But so far, there hasn’t been an assessment of the impacts this time around either—or any study of what it’ll actually take to farm the soil.

Land degradation is a liability during the pandemic

The legacy of Suharto’s Mega Rice Project has been deadly. In 2015, when Indonesia’s peat fires were especially bad, some estimates say the resulting air pollution caused as many as 100,000 premature deaths. Though agricultural development isn’t the only thing that drives the worsening fire problem, it’s a major factor affecting millions of acres of land.

Photo showing the impact of the 2015 peat fires. Fires in Indonesia: Perspective from the Ground flickr photo by NASA Earth Observatory shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The possibility of worsening Indonesia’s already-toxic burning problem is especially worrying in light of COVID-19. A recent study by a Harvard University research team showed that a small increase in exposure to the fine particulate pollution produced by fires, known as PM 2.5, could cause COVID-19 death rates to jump by 15%.

“Planting unsuitable commodities on carbon-rich peatland that require draining would exacerbate the already massive health and climate crisis,” Tezza Napitupulu, an environmental economist at World Resources Institute Indonesia, told Reuters.

In light of the risks, environmental NGOs in Indonesia have called for a moratorium on burning across all peatland in the country. Syahrul Fitra, a researcher with the NGO Auriga Nusantara, says Indonesia can’t afford to take any risks this fire season.

“Forest fires can’t be extinguished via Zoom,” he told Mongabay recently.

Indonesia doesn’t need to risk people’s health to grow food

Indonesia also has other options to strengthen food security. A new push by the Ministry of Agriculture aims to support integrated farming, encouraging farmers to diversify their crops through initiatives like the microcredit Kredit Usaha Rakyat program.

“In achieving Indonesia’s food self-sufficiency, the ministry is very supportive for the farmers to implement the integrated farming method with zero waste,” said Suwandi, director general of food crops at the Ministry of Agriculture.

As for the peatland that’s already been cleared, researchers have suggested growing native crops like water spinach, sago, bitter melon and particular types of mangoes in the dense, wet peat soil.

In a recent piece in the Jakarta Globe, Alma Adventa, a community advocated in Central Kalimantan, and Randi Julian Miranda, who heads an indigenous Dayak social enterprise, wrote that the new agricultural scheme reflects broader patterns of land-use development projects from the central government. “Land-based development, such as the food estate project, has always been used to reinstate centralized governance by powerful actors and restrict the devolution of power to local people,” they wrote. “This status quo reflects the power abuse of state and private actors to retain control over land and forest resources for particular political and economic agenda—masked with the populist rhetoric of empowerment.”

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