Food Estate in Ex-MRP Areas, Will It Be Feasible?

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Whether peatland utilization is suitable (and sustainable) depends on many aspects. According to Dwi Andreas Santosa, Bogor Agricultural University’s Professor, it can be summarized in four aspects: climate and soil suitability, infrastructure feasibility, technology, and socioeconomic conditions. More broadly, our KLP post recaps determining factors for the success of food estate projects, namely availability of infrastructure, institutions, social engineering, and innovation.

One of the highlights of this webinar held by Pantau Gambut was the elaborate explanation by Palangkaraya University’ Rector, who is also a local resident who has been following the development with peat utilization in recent decades. Since the 1980s, peatlands in Kalimantan have been used by locals for food production using a local knowledge, namely handil system. This success inspired projects on a wider scale, including the Paddy Tidal Project (P4S) in 1983 and the Mega Rice Project (MRP) in 1995. However, looking at the track record, what needs to be emphasized is that although peatland can be used for agriculture, it must go through an honest feasibility study. Targets with highly numbers attached to ambitious projects will only lead to failure of peat utilization.

The argument above was supported by two other spokespersons who have frequently been involved in peat management programs. Nyoman Suryadiputra, director of Wetlands Indonesia who previously monitored PLG implementation in its heyday, argued that the practice of local wisdom (handil, donor, etc. al) might be appropriate when the ecosystem is supportive. However, current agricultural practices, especially in oil palm concessions, have changed peatland hydrology that increases risks of negative impacts. The government’s claim about Kalimantan’s food estate is on alluvial land (i.e. result of sedimentation) may stem from the fact that ex-PLG lands have very thin, or not at all, peat layer left due to degradation.

One of the root causes of peatland utilization, including the food estate plan in Kalimantan, is indeed the lack of transparency, in relevant mappings and feasibility studies. With current attitudes, it is feared the supposed-to-be food crop production lands are converted – not many people are aware that some sites for food estate plan are surrounded by oil palms. The transparency of food estate planning will be even more important when the attention to this program starts to fade, since it is not impossible, the government, citizens, or other relevant stakeholders will turn to business-as-usual stance.

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