In the last three months, the word ‘food estate’ (lumbung pangan) has been dominating the news headline, again. It is not the first time we heard this terminology — the usage of food estate has been introduced at least four times in Indonesia. While lumbung pangan could be also translated to ‘food barn,’ the words food estate and lumbung pangan are lately interchangeable. Still, it is worthwhile to note that the government uses the English word (i.e. food estate) to refer to the national scale program. Meanwhile, the Indonesian word (i.e. lumbung pangan) may also refer to regional programs, such as literal barns to store food (especially grains), farmer’s empowerment programs facilitated by the ministries, or initiatives in the form of an affordable marketplace.
The now trending food estate program has been designated as one of the National Strategic Programs of 2020-2024, also as a preventive measure to anticipate the food crisis warned by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It is located in Kapuas and Pulang Pisau Regency in Central Kalimantan Province, where about 165.000 ha of ex-peatland area will be used to produce staple foods of Indonesian people – which ideally, not only rice. The debate surrounding the type of land — whether it is alluvial or peat — in this region adds to the intricate story of Indonesia’s food estate programs.
In 1995, the then President of Indonesia, Soeharto, approved a similar concept in the same location. The infamous Mega Rice Project (MRP) was launched in Central Kalimantan as an effort to secure the nation’s food sovereignty. The aspiration to have Indonesia as a rice self-sufficient nation pushed the idea to convert about one million hectare peat forest into rice fields while bringing in more than 15.000 families of transmigrants to work as farmers. However, this rice estate plan was never fully-realized and was canceled in April 1999. When MRP came to halt, around 4000 km of primary, main, secondary-, tertiary-, and fourth-channels were dug between Sebangau and Barito Rivers with inaccurate calculation to follow the peatland’s topography and hydrology . As a result, the water table of what were supposed to be rice field regions was lowered. This unsustainable practice left the locals suffering not only financial losses due to failed harvests, but also ecosystem damage which made the area prone to both fire and flood until now. With lesser exposure, Soeharto also appointed Pertamina, a state-owned enterprise to complete a rice estate project on South Sumatera’s wetlands. The plan failed due to the financial crisis in the late 1970s .
A food estate concept was reintroduced in 2006 during the era of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) under the name Merauke Integrated Rice Estate (MIRE) and later changed to Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE). The plan was included in Presidential Instruction No. 5/2007 with the objective to accelerate the development in Papua . Supposedly, the area of 1.2 million ha would be developed for the cultivation of food crops (50%), cane (30%), and palm oil (20%). MIFEE was created to integrate agricultural and energy products, following the success stories of large-scale agriculture in Brazil. However, many people and organizations oppose this project since it violates forest conservation areas, water catchment areas, and especially the habitat of indigenous peoples in Papua. For the rest of SBY’s office term, the progress of this plan was vague, leaving the locals with conflicted land, next to uncertainty. The successor president, Jokowi, revisited the idea of food estate in Merauke during his first term of office. The plan to develop 1.2 million ha of land had shrunk gradually. At the end, the local government offered 350.000 ha and the plan changed into Merauke Kawasan Ekonomi Khusus (Merauke KEK) . Yet, the progress with Merauke KEK started to dim in 2018 while at the same time other KEKs are being developed.
In the current food estate plan, Central Kalimantan was chosen since some regions have proved to be in great potential for food crop productivity. For example, Pulang Pisau Regency’s agriculture contributes to more than 50% of its gross regional domestic product in recent years. To increase productivity, the government plans to introduce superior inbred rice varieties Inpari-42 and Supadi Hybrids which are expected to boost the harvest to reach 5 ton/ha. Nevertheless, different audiences react to the news about the development in Central Kalimantan differently. The skepticism is logical knowing the fate of previous food estates. Still, the issue with food security should be addressed in practice. While Indonesia’s performance in the Global Food Security Index is getting better, the problems with food and agriculture systems persist. Food estate is one effort to add arable lands and boost food crop productivity. However, other approaches such as food diversification and food distribution are compulsory to be taken care of .
Ambitious programs are not guaranteed to make food security improved. The relevant stakeholders need to pay attention to its longevity and sustainability. Introducing necessary innovation and infrastructure from experts are vital, yet, involving the local communities, especially indigenous ones, to co-create and implement the plan is indispensable. This way, the people will grow a sense of belonging to the plan. Otherwise, this huge scale food estate will be another stalled or even wasted opportunity to bring betterment to the people.