Jokowi relaunches MIFEE, wants 1.2 million hectares of new ricefields within 3 years!

jokowipanenmeraukeIndonesian President Joko Widodo made his second presidential visit to Papua on 9th and 10th May. In Jayapura he made two small but welcome gestures, pardoning five long-term political prisoners and announcing that there would be no more restrictions on foreign journalists reporting from Papua. The next day he flew to Merauke to get down to serious business: launching a plan to convert 1.2 million hectares of indigenous land to rice fields with a target of three years.

Within the last few months, it has become clear that President Jokowi is determined to resuscitate his predecessors’ plans for the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), the mega-project launched in 2010 which was supposed to ensure Indonesia’s food security, but which has only succeeded in creating a series of land conflicts and in opening the door to a handful of oil palm and sugar cane plantation companies.

The original 2010 MIFEE plan allocated 1.2 million hectares, to be developed by 2030.What the president spoke of at the weekend was much more extreme: 1.2 million hectares to be developed within three years, as the first stage of a plan which could eventually encompass 4.6 million hectares (an area larger than Switzerland, the Netherlands or Denmark). However, as the government has not yet published any official plans, we only have journalists’ reports of what was said at the event to go on. Here is a summary and analysis of what we know about the plans so far:

The event at Kampung Wapeko

Jokowi went to Merauke to participate in a rice harvest, after being invited by businessman Arifin Panigoro (head of the Medco Group) last month. The rice was harvested by machine on a 248-hectare experimental plot in Wapeko, Kurik District. Apart from the president, several ministers and the national police and military chiefs were also present.

So what’s the plan?

The first thing to note is that the whole project all seems a bit spontaneous – as if they were making it up on the spot. When interviewed Jokowi at an event later the same day, he explained that

“This morning I decided that we should start this year. I’ve given a target of 1.2 million hectares that must be operational within three years.”

To iron out the details, a follow-up meeting was held the next day between representatives of the local Merauke Regency administration and agriculture minister Andi Amran Sulaiman. Bintang Papua reported from that meeting that the minister gave the local government just three days to prepare a reference framework for developing rice-fields – 1.2 million hectares within three years. 250,000 hectares would be developed this year, with another 250,000 hectares each subsequent  semester. The central government would supply 7 trillion Rupiah (US$ 534 million) each time to support the plans.

The key to developing such a large area would be to use mechanised agriculture – nearly all Indonesia’s rice is produced by traditional peasant agriculture, working mostly by hand with few machines, but providing a livelihood for millions of peasant farmers over the whole country. News website quoted Jokowi as saying

“It would be impossible to work this land by hand, even if we worked until judgement day. Modern machines much be used. Merauke will be the first place to use these modern machines, as yet there are none in Indonesia”

Under this ‘modern’ system, one person could cultivate 50 hectares of land, Jokowi claimed. However, the high capital inputs needed to buy machines such as combine harvesters would leave this far out of reach of any individual farmers in Indonesia. Industrial agriculture would only be possible for the state, or corporate investors.

How many hectares?

Jokowi mentioned 1.2 million hectares in the next three years, but many press articles have quoted Jokowi as speaking about a total potential of 4.6 million hectares (( for example, three days later at an event in Jakarta, he was quoted as saying 4.6 million hectares can be offered for rice paddy fields”)) , and was even calculating total potential rice yields based on that area ((He claims 60 million tons, presumable calculated at a yield of 7 tons/hectare with two harvests annually, which would be more than the current national rice production)). In fact, 4.6 million hectares is the entire area of Merauke Regency, more or less, including Wasur National Park, other protected forests, existing oil palm plantations and farmland as well as the urban area. Does Jokowi really want the whole area? Or could there have been some misunderstanding somewhere along the line?

It is not clear whether the figure of 1.2 million hectares which has been earmarked for development over the next three years is any less random. We don’t yet know where the land is that they are talking about. It is probable the 1.2 million hectares refers to the land originally earmarked for MIFEE in 2010, which was divided into 10 clusters. If so, it is highly unrealistic to imagine it could be developed within three years. Permits for oil palm and sugar-cane plantations have been issued on virtually the whole area for a start. Also, in many places, Marind indigenous communities, who have rights over the land, have stated a very clear resolve not to surrender their land to plantation companies.

Actually, the fact that all land in Merauke belongs to indigenous communities was not mentioned by any of the mainstream media organisations reporting on Jokowi’s visit. Indigenous communities are dependent on the forest for their subsistence and other livelihood activities and it has a deep connection to their culture and identity as a people, and for that reason there has been significant opposition from many communities in the MIFEE area to plantation companies, as there undoubtedly will be to this latest plan.

Who will develop the land?

It was Medco who invited Jokowi to Merauke, and to the best of our knowledge Medco is currently the only company which is actively experimenting with rice agriculture in the area. Medco was one of the pioneers of MIFEE and has several different interests in the Merauke area. But it’s record up to now hasn’t been good. It’s forestry subsidiary, PT Selaras Inti Semesta, became well known as one of the worst companies in the area, after it tricked the people of Zanegi village into handing over their forest for minimal compensation. Poverty and conflict followed, and the company itself shut down a few years later after failing to make a profit, leaving a vast swathe of the forest destroyed and the villagers with no forest and no income.

Although many companies expressed an interest in planting rice in the early days of MIFEE, most backed out due to the high risk of developing capital-intensive rice agriculture when it was unclear who would foot the bill for the infrastructure costs. The few companies who are still interested in basic food crops have failed to make much progress, and it is the oil palm companies (which are much-less infrastructure-dependent) which are the ones to have persevered. No new names of private companies which might be involved have come to light since Jokowi revived the rice plan.

With the considerable amount of public money on offer, it appears that it would be the state which would be the principle player. In Jakarta, a few days later Jokowi confirmed to that he was thinking along these lines:

“Who’s going to do all the work? It’s not possible to pass it all on to the private sector. So we have decided to allocate 30% to the private sector and 70% to state-owned enterprises”

A role for the military.

Military commander-in -chief General Moeldoko accompanied Jowoki on his visit to Merauke, and military representatives were also present at the follow-up meeting held the next day. In Bintang Papua’s report from that meeting it was mentioned that “elements of the military would be involved in order to speed up the program”.

This rather sinister-sounding sentence is in line with several comments Jokowi has made since the start of the year. Having set himself the ambitious target of achieving food self-sufficiency within three years, he has tasked the military, especially the local Babinsa officers who are assigned to individual villages, to get involved in food production. To critics, this is worryingly reminiscent of the Suharto Era “ABRI masuk desa” (armed forces in the villages) programme, which allowed the army easy access to monitor citizens and repress the farmers’ movement.

In Merauke, the military appears to be enthusiastic about its new role. This week they are holding an exhibition about food security as part of a cultural festival to mark the 52nd anniversary of the founding of the Cenderawasih Regiment in Papua.

So should we expect violence or will the army just loan its equipment and manpower to help clear the land? Let’s see, but if land conversion is to take place on anything like the scale and pace that Jokowi hopes for then we have to anticipate that some indigenous communities will not want to hand over their ancestral land. When local communities have opposed oil palm and sugar-cane companies in recent years, their experience has been that the mere presence of troops or police backing up a company has a serious intimidating effect.

So what’s likely to happen?

Merauke has been the target for a long string of megaprojects over the past decade: The Sinar Mas Group was planning to develop 1 million hectares of oil palm, the Bin Laden Group wanted 500,000 hectares as part of the Merauke Integrated Rice Estate, then came MIFEE in 2010 and now this new rice estate plan. All of the previous plans failed to achieve their stated aims, although they have cleared the way for an expansion of the oil palm industry in particular. This new plan seems incredibly rushed and will no doubt run into major obstacles too, which are bound to create even more stress for the long-suffering Marind people.

It appears that Jokowi has just shown up in Merauke for a ceremony, seen a vast flat land with ample water supply, and just like a string of leaders before him, thinks that if he gives the order it can be converted to industrial agriculture just like that. There are no signs that he has paused to consider why the previous plans might have failed, nor to listen to the voices of the indigenous Marind people who have had to put up with all these grand schemes. His fantastical timescale does not allow for any process of discussion with indigenous communities where they could give their free prior informed consent to their land being used, nor does it give time for thorough environmental impact assessments. With large sums of money and the military involved, whatever happens is likely to be much more chaotic and unpredictable, as there will be pressure to show some results despite the hopelessly unrealistic original plan.

Of all the media reports covering Jokowi’s visit to Merauke, only one has addressed the situation facing Merauke’s indigenous people, and how ensuring Indonesia’s food security will deprive them of their own traditional food sources. Papuan student Sanimala Bastian wrote an interesting analysis of “Indonesia’s food colonialism” in Papua for Majalah Selangkah. So let’s finish with an excerpt from that article:

“On the issue of his proclamation about rice in Merauke, Jokowi is clearly ignoring the fact that the indigenous people of Papua consume sago and their livelihoods depend on the sago forest. That means that cutting down sago palm trees in order to ensure national food (rice) security is a programme that will make the survival of Merauke’s indigenous people impossible because it will destroy their staple food, sago.”

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