© Bisnis Indonesia

Endowed with vast tropical lands and waters, Indonesia has long been pursuing the state of food security. Back in 1996, this intention had been manifested in an extensive plan to develop one million hectares of rice fields or known as Mega Rice Project (MRP) in the peatland area in Kalimantan. About 1.45 million ha of the landscape was determined to be a food estate which was defined as an integrated food, plantation, and livestock production area. A year later, the ongoing project was terminated due to monetary crisis and political turmoil, leaving hundreds of thousands of newly cleared peat forests abandoned. The project sparked massive criticism since it generated a gigantic peat carbon release, destroyed the ecosystem, and damaged the local community’s life.

After the failure with the 1990s’ MRP, the idea of food estate is modified and reenacted using different approaches to continue the government’s effort in securing food supply, especially rice production. The increasing population and needed development have driven the paddy fields, particularly in Java, to be converted to non-agricultural purposes. Consequently, alternative areas to generate large-scale food production that has the capacity to feed hundreds of millions of population should be developed. This year, the government announced that they are planning to implement the food estate program, particularly to secure the food system which has disturbed by the pandemic. Interestingly, the site for this plan is situated in the same location as the 1990s’ MRP.

The chosen food estate site is part of the National Food Barn in Pulang Pisau District, Central Kalimantan. Currently, the new crop field is expected to generate up to 2 tonnes of rice per hectare, quite below the average national rice productivity which is 2.9 tonnes per hectare. Further, the food estate is estimated to produce one million tonnes of rice per year, this is also the amount of the nation’s rice import in 2019. If the plan works out, Indonesia could be self-sufficient and stop the import.

This idea may sound promising but it also comes with huge challenges and criticism. It is such a controversial program in which many civil organizations, including the local community, condone the policy. Data from Pantau Gambut also revealed that 95% of the estate location is overlapped with protected peat landscapes and moratorium areas. Yet, the Ministry of Agriculture has argued they are not planning to open a new crop field on the peatland, instead, they will optimize the already cleared alluvial soil in the swamp area. If the land remains abandoned, it would bring higher fire risk compared to cultivated land. However, no clear framework found regarding the sustainable agricultural methods that will be deployed, and how it will significantly prevent the enormous failure like MRP had.

Dry peat in Sebangau Forest. Photo by Suzanne Turnock/Borneo Nature Foundation

Swamp and peat soil is part or suboptimal land types, they have specific characteristics that will hinder the plants to grow. Technically speaking, the key element to make the food estate feasible lies in water management and seed varieties. The MRP was failing because the civilization system dried up the soil and made them flammable. The peat swamp plantation must not solely rely on rain as their irrigation source, otherwise, there will be fire during the dry season. However, if the government manages to build a sophisticated water system where the canals, dams, and water gates are able to maintain the proper water table and regulate the water supply all year long, this program is relatively feasible and sustainable. Some good examples of large-scale peat swamp plantations using proper water systems can be found in Indragiri Hilir, South Sumatera, and Kubu Raya, West Kalimantan.

Sustainability is not merely about the environment, it should also accommodate the social and economic aspects. The food estate requires around 300,000 farmers to operate which can be translated into local labor market development. Alas, it is still unclear whether the government would apply a transmigration scheme to bring in the workers or hire the local farmers around the area. Adequate regulation should be prepared to anticipate future social conflict, as well as ensuring their prosperity. The relevant actors should work hand in hand to achieve the sustainability and the supporting policy should reinforce the efforts in achieving the end objective: maintaining national food security. The vision with this food estate plan will be only a dream if, for example, policies to regulate land conversion from arable to nonarable lands are not strong enough. In the end, it is vital to have good governance for the implementation of this food estate plan.