Implications for Indonesia’s Agricultural Landscape

In 1996, Indonesia’s last attempt at a giant rice development project took place in Kalimantan. 1.4 million hectares of peat swamp forest was felled, and contracts given out to Suharto’s associates to build drainage and other infrastructure. 15,600 families were moved to the area as part of a transmigration program. However, no rice was ever planted. The peat soil was just not suitable. What’s more, the dry peat easily caught fire, and was part of the cause for the huge fires which raged across Kalimantan in 1997 and 1998. The failed program counts as one of Indonesia’s worst environmental disasters of recent times.(101)

For both the existing inhabitants of the area and the new transmigrants, the outcome of the Kalimantan Mega Rice project was poverty, because of fire risk, infertile soils and the loss of protection from swamps and forests. Programs have now begun to rehabilitate the area.(102) This is a clear irony from a project designed to ensure food security. Because of stories like this, farmers’ movements around the world have chosen to redefine the agenda in a way that takes social and environmental issues at the local level into account, and so now speak of food sovereignty instead of food security.

At the Nyeleni conference in Mali in 2007, food sovereignty was defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”(103) Groups such as the international network La Via Campesina, who support this idea, believe that allowing food production to fall into the hands of corporations destroys rural communities and is also ecologically damaging. Neither does it ensure food security, as it is the market that decides food prices and distribution.

Small family farms still account for the majority of Indonesia’s food-crop cultivation, and throughout the archipelago farmers fight to maintain this way of life, understanding clearly the difference between owning land and working as farm labourers. One example is the farmers’ movements in North Sumatra, whose land was seized by Suharto in the 1970s to become oil palm plantations. Many different groups are still using strategies such as land occupations to try to reclaim their land, even many decades after it was taken from them.(104)

The importance of a free family farm has become closely connected with nationalist beliefs in Indonesia. Memories of the Dutch Colonial era are very connected to the colonists’ control of land, particularly emblematic being the hated policy of Kultuur Stelsel or cultivation system, where farmers were forced to plant what the colonial administration ordered, and turn over a portion of their harvest. After independence there was a wave of agrarian reform – one of the aims of the 1960 Basic Agrarian Law was to redistribute land widely, and to limit the amount of land owned by any individual. Despite the many changes that have happened since, having access to a few hectares to make a living is very important to peasant farmers throughout Indonesia.

Nevertheless, the government wishes to introduce a new element to the agricultural economy, the food estate, which former minister and MIFEE investor Siswono Yudohusodo has described as highly mechanised, “working the land by machine, harvesting by machine, drying with an industrial drier. In this way the production costs are lowered”(105) He also cites Brazil as a role model for Indonesia’s agricultural development. Brazil has transformed its agricultural economy in recent years to become a major exporter of grains, and increased the value of its crops by 365% between 1996 and 2006. This was mainly achieved by cultivating the cerrado grasslands. The area was previously thought to be infertile land, but Embrapa, a state-owned research institute, has developed a technology-intensive approach involving conditioning the soil with large amounts of lime, breeding new strains of grasses which can be used as cattle-feed and genetically modifying soya beans.(106)

It seems slightly strange that West Papua was chosen for Indonesia’s first attempt at a Brazilian-style food estate. After all, it is mostly forested land with few skilled agricultural workers and almost no infrastructure, and also a conflict zone. All in all a difficult area to establish a smoothly-running, mechanised food estate. But Papua is still a region where controversial practices can go ahead with some degree of impunity. Indonesian networks of farmer’s and environmental movements do not have representatives there and the behaviour of the police and military is reminiscent of how it was in Indonesia under Suharto. To what extent is Merauke an experiment which can later spread to the rest of Indonesia?

The new law on food estates, government regulation No. 18 of 2010, may have been designed with Merauke in mind, but it is valid nationwide. Partly because progress in Merauke has not moved as fast as the government had hoped, new proposals to develop food estates spring up in other parts of Indonesia. As Agriculture Minister Suswono has said, while land and infrastructure issues continue to cause problems in Merauke, the food estate program will start wherever possible.(107) First in line is East Kalimantan where the provincial government claims that over 300,000 hectares of land can be made available, distributed over ten regencies.(108) Several companies have made bids for large stretches of land. Many of these are state owned or private Indonesian companies, but Korean and Malaysian companies are also involved.(109) 30,000 hectares are already being developed as a food estate in Delta Kayan.(110)

West Kalimantan is also planning a 50,000 hectare food estate in Kubu Raya(111), and the provincial government believes that eventually 250,000 hectares could be developed as food estates.(112) Reports have also been published of plans for a food estate in Aceh.(113)

The expansion of food estates does not only mean the eviction of people from their farms or customary lands, but also could have major impacts for farmers in other places. For example, big business will establish the price that farmers can get for their crops, or tie it in to the global market. If economies of scale and a mechanised approach mean that the companies can produce food at lower prices, small-scale, independent farmers are pushed into poverty. This is a serious issue in Indonesia’s agricultural heartland of Java, Sumatra and Bali, where pressure on land has decreased the average farm size and so made it harder to make a good living from farming.

Agribusiness companies also stand to gain an edge over local farmers by planting hybrid seed varieties. These high-yielding strains, which must be bought from seed companies each year, have not been popular with Indonesia’s small rice farmers. That’s because although the hybrid varieties promise bumper harvests, experience has shown that crops often fail due to disease. They are more suited to food estates, where the large scale and availability of capital bring greater scope for experimentation and pesticide use.

One of the MIFEE companies, PT Sumber Alam Sutera specialises in developing hybrid rice, in partnership with a Chinese firm, Sichuan Guohao seed company. State owned company PT Sang Hyang Seri is involved in all three planned food estates, and has partnerships to develop hybrid rice with Devgen from the Netherlands and SL Agritech from the Philippines. Other multinational hybrid rice companies present in Indonesia include Advanta, Bayer, Dupont, Syngenta, Takii Seeds and Yuan Longping Hightech Agriculture. In this way control of seed supply becomes another means for multinational corporations to enter the food chain.(114)

Another ominous piece of legislation has been progressing through the chambers of government during 2011. The law for obtaining land for development in the national interest (Undang-Undang Pengadaan Tanah Bagi Pembangunan Untuk Kepentingan Umum ) enables the government to evict people from their land if it is deemed to be in the national interest, and it is clear that this would not only apply to state projects but also include projects from private investors.(115) As we have seen, its proponents have attempted to legitimise MIFEE by creating a discourse of Indonesia’s food security. In the logging moratorium that Indonesia signed with Norway ‘projects of national importance’ including rice and sugar-cane production were excluded from the moratorium area.(116) It is no grand stretch of imagination to predict evictions around the country to clear the path for agribusiness operations, claiming to be in the ‘national interest’, under the crisis logic of food security.

next: Profiles of the companies involved

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