Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – When the Indonesian government announced its food estate program in 2020, it envisioned the establishment of large-scale agricultural plantations across the country.
These plantations of crops like rice, cassava and potato were supposed to be the answer to what the government says is an impending global food crisis, and would help feed the world's fourth-largest population.
But a field investigation at the sites of the food estate program in the Bornean province of Central Kalimantan by independent researchers in March 2022 and February 2023 instead found sprawling plantations that had been abandoned.
Three years into the program, there's no rice or cassava crops ready to be harvested, and no farmers tending their fields. Instead, wild shrubs have sprouted on these plots of lands, and excavators have started to rust away, according to the investigation by environmental NGOs Pantau Gambut and Walhi Central Kalimantan, and BBC News Indonesia.
In the village of Tewai Baru, Gunung Mas district, for instance, the investigation found 600 hectares (nearly 1,500 acres) of cassava plantations withering away. Villagers told the researchers that the crops hadn't been harvested. And despite being more than a year old, well into maturity for cassava plants, these crops appeared thin and stunted, the researchers found. The cassava tubers themselves were small, about the size of a human finger.
The investigation also found seven abandoned excavators that no longer worked.
In another village, Mantangai Hulu in Kapuas district, 17 hectares (42 acres) of land had been prepared for rice plantations, with excavators at work in the village from July to August 2021 to clear away shrubs.
But the plantations have been abandoned since then, and the wild shrubs have returned. In March 2022, the government distributed seeds, lime and pesticide to the villagers, but they ended up not using them.
Daniel Johan, a lawmaker who sits on the parliamentary oversight commission for agriculture, said he had visited a number of food estate sites in Central Kalimantan and had also seen the same thing.
"When we went to the field, we also saw that [some plantations had been abandoned]," he told Mongabay at his office in Jakarta. "We saw it in Kapuas district in 2022. [The crops] are not growing."
These findings indicate that the food estate program, included in the government's list of projects of national strategic importance, is failing, said Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Syahrul Fitra.
He said the clearest sign of this is that Indonesia still doesn't have enough rice, the most important staple food in the country, to meet domestic demand. In late 2022, Bulog, the government agency that manages the national food stockpile, had to import 500,000 metric tons of rice from Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Pakistan to replenish its depleting stocks.
And the government is considering importing another 500,000 metric tons from India this year because there's only around 300,000 metric tons left in Bulog's stockpile – far less than the safe threshold of 1.2 million metric tons.
The food estate program was meant to prevent such scenarios, with its grand plan to turn Central Kalimantan into the country's new rice production center. But official data show that rice production in the province has actually declined since the program began in 2020. That year, Central Kalimantan produced 457,952 metric tons of rice. In 2021 and 2022, the output dropped to 381,189 and 343,918 metric tons respectively.
"This means that the food estate program has failed to solve [the rice deficit]," Syahrul said.
The program's development has received extra scrutiny in Central Kalimantan, which was the site of an identical initiative, the Mega Rice Project (MRP), that failed spectacularly in the mid-1990s.
During that project, thousands of kilometers of canals were dug to drain the region's waterlogged peat soils, all without any environmental impact assessment. But the nutrient-poor peat soil proved too unforgiving for the kind of rice cultivation practiced on the mineral-rich volcanic soils of other islands in Indonesia like Java and Bali.
After multiple failed harvests, the government abandoned the project, leaving behind a dried-out wasteland that burns on a large scale almost every year. Subsequent attempts to replicate the project in other regions, like the easternmost region of Papua, also ended in failure.
The current government of President Joko Widodo said it had learned from the mistakes of previous food estate projects, and promised that the ongoing initiative won't be a repeat of the MRP fiasco. It cited changes such as construction work aimed at improving existing infrastructure like roads and irrigation channels.
But the findings from the joint investigation indicate that the government is repeating the same mistakes, according to Pantau Gambut research manager Agiel Prakoso.
"While the peatland area [cultivated this time around] is not as massive as the one in the MRP project, the practices are still the same," he said.
What went wrong?
The root of the problem is lack of proper planning, activists say.
For one, the government only required a rapid strategic environmental assessment for the implementation of the project, instead of the usual, more stringent, strategic environmental assessment process. The latter is mandatory for a large-scale project like the food estate, and takes longer to complete.
"There's no in-depth study [just like with the MRP], and [the current food estate program] doesn't take into account past studies from experts," Agiel said.
Where the cassava program was implemented in the Gunung Mas district, Greenpeace Indonesia alleges that forests were cleared in November 2020 without any environmental assessment being carried out first.
It wasn't until February 2021 that a public consultation process took place as a part of an environmental impact assessment, according to Greenpeace Indonesia.
The government's audit agency, known as the BPK, also found irregularities in the food estate program. It said the program was planned without valid data and information, and the planning itself fell short of sustainable agricultural practices. The BPK also found that the process to determine the best locations of the food estate program didn't comply with existing regulations.
Agiel said it's apparent that the government also didn't consider local knowledge and experience in designing the program, resulting in planners forcing local farmers to use seeds that aren't suitable for the type of soil in the region. The cassava crops in Tewai Baru, for instance, are dying because the they're not suited to the soil there, which is mostly sandy and shallow, the villagers said.
"So if [you] want to plant cassava, you have to look at the soil condition, is it suitable or not? We may be ignorant, but as locals we know the condition of the soil," said Rangkap, a villager in Tewai Baru.
As for the rice plantations in Mantangai Hulu village, residents said they weren't given any training by the government on how to cultivate the prepared land. So after the excavators were done clearing the land in August 2021, the villagers didn't know what to do next, said Sarianto, a villager.
"For rice fields, the process is long and needs a lot of fertilizers," Sarianto said. "That's why it's important to train [us]."
Another issue is the lack of agricultural infrastructure, such as irrigation channels, he said. He noted that adequate irrigation is important for the kind of swampy land in Mantangai Hulu, which is located near a river and routinely floods when the water rises.
This type of swamp, near rivers and on the coast, are affected by the rise and fall of the sea level, and dominate the landscape of Central Kalimantan. Irrigation channels would allow the villagers to cultivate rice without being subjected to these changes.
Janang Firman, the advocacy manager at Walhi Central Kalimantan, questioned why the strategic environmental assessment process was rushed if the government were truly serious about the food estate program.
Chay Asdak, a professor of watershed management at Padjadjaran University in the city of Bandung, said the food estate program should have been carefully designed by considering the hydrological condition of the landscape to avoid a repeat of the failed 1990s Mega Rice Project.
"So if [the government] wants to use science as the basis [of the food estate program], then the hydrology of the organic system has to be followed," he said at a recent discussion in Jakarta.
Susilawati, a swamp rice researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), said it's too early for the food estate program to produce the same kind of yields as the plantations of Java, the main rice-producing island in Indonesia, where growing rice is a centuries-old tradition and where the soil is nourished by frequent volcanic eruptions.
"If [you] want [the food estate program] to immediately succeed within three years, then it's possible with optimal lands, not in swamp lands that are newly cleared," she said as quoted by news outlet Tempo.co. "But if it's in swamp lands, then we will need more time to manage the lands in accordance with their function."
Daniel, the lawmaker, said parliament had already voiced its concern over this lack of detailed planning when the government first announced the plan to establish the food estates.
"Actually we've opposed [the program from the very beginning] because the study is not there yet," he said. "It turned out that the lands are not suitable. The people [to manage the plantations] are not there. And if there are people [managing the lands], they don't understand good agricultural practices."
Allegations of inflated yields
The Ministry of Agriculture has denied the allegations that the food estate program was poorly designed with a rushed strategic environmental assessment. It said all relevant ministries had carried out analyses using their own maps to determine which areas were suitable for establishing a food estate. These maps were then overlaid onto each other to ensure the areas' suitability.
The ministry said the implementation of the food estate program had to be done as fast as possible because of the looming global food crisis.
Syahrul of Greenpeace Indonesia said Indonesia's issue isn't food shortage, but uneven food distribution.
"Some regions have high childhood stunting rates, whereas others have high obesity rates," he said. "This means our food problem is uneven distribution as well as high rate of food waste in urban areas."
According to official data from 2018, about 20% of primary school-aged children and 14% of adolescents are obese or overweight.
The solution to this problem is not to establish large-scale plantations. Syahrul said, as these would only exacerbate global warming by clearing large swaths of forests, which in turn would only harm the agricultural sector by making extreme weather events more intense and frequent.
Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo said the food estate program isn't a failure as it has managed to increase the productivity of rice plantations in Central Kalimantan from less than 2 metric tons per hectare to 4 metric tons.
However, he acknowledged that his ministry hadn't achieved its target of setting up new rice plantations for the food estate program in Central Kalimantan.
In Kapuas district's Dadahup area, for instance, the government targeted the establishment of 1,020 hectares (2,520 acres) of new rice plantations. But the ministry has only established 200 hectares (494 acres) so far.
Syahrul said irrigation is one of the challenges in the implementation of the food estate program.
"We have challenges in the form of water. Of course [we] have to make irrigation channels first so that the water can recede, but it's not as easy as we thought it would be," he said as quoted by Kompas newspaper.
The reports of failing plantations in the food estate program have prompted parliament to launch an investigation, according to Sudin, a lawmaker who heads the parliamentary commission on environmental issues.
He said the commission will establish a team to investigate the program over concerns that the Ministry of Agriculture may have falsified data to inflate the program's agricultural production.
"The food estate production data has been marked up by the Ministry of Agriculture," Sudin said at a parliamentary hearing on Jan. 25.
Minister Yasin didn't deny the allegation, saying only that the agricultural production data came from the national statistics agency, and therefore any concerns should be addressed to the agency, not his ministry.
Despite the reports of abandoned and failing plantations and inflated yields, the government has decided to continue with the food estate program. It plans to establish 10,000 hectares (nearly 25,000 acres) of corn plantations in the easternmost region of Papua. This will start with 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of corn to be used as livestock feed, followed by the establishment next year of 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) of corn plantations, according to President Widodo.
"We'll see how many tons per hectare we get during the first harvest in June," the president said during a visit to the food estate site in Papua's Keerom district.