Indonesia says military will develop millions of hectares for national agriculture push

Photo: United Nations Photo shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Indonesia has given control of its new national agricultural plan over to Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who stands accused of ordering civilian repression, torture and other crimes. The military’s control of the food estates program has increased opposition to the plan as critics voice concerns about the militarization of agriculture.


As part of its response to COVID-19, Indonesia is pushing a plan to turn millions of hectares across the archipelago into new “food estates” in an effort to shore up the country’s food supply.

But in recent months, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has given the military control over the new program, raising questions about land grabs and repression of civilians.

The plan had already drawn widespread opposition as it would reportedly lead to massive greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbate Indonesia’s wildfire crisis and violate the rights of indigenous peoples—who, at 50-70 million people, make up over a quarter of Indonesia’s population.

It also risks repeating the mistakes of a similar program that failed in the 1990s under the dictator Suharto, known as the Mega Rice Project.

Food estate program risks repeat of Suharto’s failures

The new food estate program plans to convert swaths of land across Borneo, Sumatra, Papua and Nusa Tenggara into plantations to grow rice, cassava and other staples. There are major questions about whether the plans are feasible in the first place, as much of the land slated for development is nutrient poor and includes peat bogs.

In the 1990s, the Mega Rice Project tried to turn over 1.4 million hectares in Central Kalimantan province, on the island of Borneo, into rice plantations but failed because the landscape isn’t suitable for many crops. 

“I was part of the environmental risk analysis team. We had warned [the government] about the possibility of failing,” Dwi Andreas Santosa, an agriculture expert with the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), told the Jakarta Post. “All of [the plantations] failed because they ignored the scientific principles in their development.”

In what appears to be a repeat of the project from the 1990s, over 900,000 hectares in Central Kalimantan province are now slated for development. But Borneo’s peat bogs are vital carbon sinks and their destruction through development is driving climate change.

Cleared peatland in Central Kalimantan. Photo: CIFOR shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Public opposition skeptical of military’s food security agenda

In July, Jokowi announced that Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto would lead the program and since then, soldiers have been deployed to program areas in Central Kalimantan. Prabowo was the head of Indonesia’s special forces and is widely accused of human rights abuses. Aslo Suharto’s son-in-law, he was banned from visiting the United States by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama. He stands accused of ordering kidnappings and torture as well as orchestrating human rights crimes in East Timor.

Prabowo has emphasized that the new agricultural megaproject is necessary to reduce the country’s dependency on imports for its food supply. But the military’s role in the food estates has only served to increase popular opposition to the program.

“This is serious. This is an effort to change the face of Indonesia’s agriculture,” said Laksmi Savitri, the national council head of Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) Indonesia.

The plan has been condemned as “agricultural militarization” by the National Committee for Agrarian Reform (KNPA), a broad coalition of the country’s largest indigenous alliances, think tanks, women’s groups, agricultural organizations and advocacy networks. 

“Focus on [the] populist agenda, agrarian reform. It is agrarian reform that will save our food, rather than food estate,” KNPA Secretary General Dewi Kartika told CNN Indonesia.

The KNPA has recorded dozens of ongoing land conflicts across Indonesia amid COVID-19, many of them cases of land grabs carried out by authorities.

Prabowo Subianto. Photo: Prabowo Subianto, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Military role in national agriculture plan sparks questions

Military control over the program has also sparked concerns that it will repeat aspects of Suharto’s New Order regime, when the military had a hand in nearly all aspects of civilian life and human rights violations and repression were common.

“This has the potential of repeating the New Order regime where we claimed that we succeeded in building [food] security and sovereignty, but with tremendous pressure on farmers to plant rice,” Khairul Fahmi, a defense analyst with Jakarta’s Institute for Security and Strategic Studies, told Mongabay. Fahmi added that under Suharto, who ruled until 1998, there were “soldiers going to the fields” to force farmers to comply with government orders.

Prabowo’s control over the food estates program also raises questions about whether the military will play a role in the plan to relocate the country’s capital to East Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. The plan is currently on hold due to the pandemic but has faced major opposition over its social and environmental impacts, especially from indigenous groups. Critics point to how in the past, the Indonesian military has worked to protect agribusiness and logging firms in cases of disputes.

Government approach highlights complexity of land issues

According to one Defense Ministry representative, Achmad Soebagio, the military is involved to ensure that the program produces enough food to sustain the country through crises and conflict.

“The concept of the defense ministry’s food estate is that if [agricultural] lands are owned by individuals, then they’re very inflexible and not consistently used for food security,” he said during a discussion this fall.

But for much of the land slated to become plantations, the question isn’t of individual ownership versus state control. The program targets swaths of forest and peatland for clearing and development, as well as peatland that was cleared in the 1990s for the failed predecessor to the current agricultural estate initiative. In addition, much of the land targeted for the program belongs to indigenous groups who use systems of traditional community land tenure, rather than individual ownership.

Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo has said the program requires “strength” and “unity” of all involved. But Syahrul appears to have a slightly different understanding of the project from his Defense Ministry counterparts, saying that it opens up possibilities for new agricultural exports.

It’s also unclear why the military would take control of the program as the country’s food and agriculture authorities are still debating the feasibility of many aspects of the program. In the case of Central Kalimantan, current plans would require bringing in 5,500 metric tons of lime to lower the acidity of the soil—a process which one official said could take years, if it’s possible at all.

As COVID-19 strains Indonesia’s economy and people across the archipelago work to adapt, food security is a legitimate and pressing concern. But the government appears to be pushing ahead with the food estates program regardless of popular opposition, environmental risks and the real possibility that it won’t work. 

The role of the military only signals that the government may be unwilling to listen to public criticism, further jeopardizing the program. As Indonesia already struggles with land conflicts and displacement, a militarized agriculture regime may only cause tensions to worsen.

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