Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – When Indonesia embarked on its Mega Rice Project in the mid-1990s, it cleared vast swaths of forest for farmland, mostly in the peatlands of Borneo – only to abandon the scheme when it discovered that the carbon-rich peat soil was a poor host for rice cultivation.
Fast-forward to the present day, and the government is repeating the same folly with its near-identical "food estate" program, according to multiple reports of forest loss associated with the program.
The Indonesian government's program to establish large-scale agricultural plantations across the country has resulted in the loss of forests, including fragile peatlands, reports say.
A recent spatial analysis by peatland watchdog Pantau Gambut found more than 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) of forest had been cleared in the Bornean province of Central Kalimantan. The largest forest loss was detected in Tewai Baru village, Gunung Mas district, where 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of forest were cleared to make way for cassava plantations under the food estate program.
This dovetails with another analysis carried out in 2022 by Greenpeace Indonesia, which found 760 hectares (1,880 acres) of forest had been cleared in Gunung Mas since November 2020.
Deforestation for the food estate program is also ongoing in the northern part of the island of Sumatra. An investigation there by the NGO Kaoem Telapak in July 2022 found that forest clearing was happening in the village of Ulu Merah, in North Sumatra province, with a plan to clear 500 hectares (1,240 acres).
A spatial analysis using data from Global Forest Watch found that at least 100 hectares (250 acres) of forest had been cleared as of September 2022.
According to Kaoem Telapak, the forests in this region host protected species such as the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) and the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus).
'Who wouldn't be angry? The forests are gone'
Rangkap, a resident of Tewai Baru village, said the forests that had been cleared there meant a lot for his Indigenous Dayak community. The forests provided the wood they used to build their houses, the boar and rabbit they hunted for food, and the herbs the collected for traditional medicine.
"That's where we, the Dayak people, used to go. Now it looks like a field. Who wouldn't be angry?" Rangkap said as quoted by BBC Indonesia. "The forests are gone. There's no cassava [to be harvested]. Who's suffering? It's the people who suffer."
Another villager, 69-year-old Epel Lunce, said his land had been turned into an agricultural plantation under the food estate program without his consent.
"My land, around 3 hectares [7.4 acres], which is included in the program, was immediately cultivated by them without any coordination [with me]," he said as quoted by Pantau Gambut. "There wasn't even any compensation."
Ever since the forest was cleared, the village has experienced an increase in the severity of floods, according to the Tewai Baru village chief, Sigo. In the past, he said, floodwaters only reached a maximum of 50 centimeters (20 inches). Now, however, floodwaters reach three times as high.
Dion Noel, a villager who lives on the riverbank, said his house was flooded just after two hours of heavy rain.
"This flood hurts us," he said. "Especially if the flood occurred at night. That's the time to sleep, but the water came in."
Dion and others called for the forest to be restored.
According to Greenpeace Indonesia, which also investigated the food estate program in Tewai Baru, the flooding there has been exacerbated by the loss of vegetation in the freshly cleared areas, which causes accelerated rainwater runoff because of the loss of the sandy topsoil.
The problem extends to nearby wetlands and watercourses, where a combination of coarse sediment and woody detritus from the cleared areas has clogged the water flow, further worsening the flooding.
The forests cleared to make way for the cassava plantations are also home to Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), according to Bayu Herinata, director of the Central Kalimantan chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi). The great apes are categorized as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, with nearly 150,000 of Bornean orangutans dying between 1999 and 2015 largely due to deforestation and killing.
"There [the cleared area] was one of the areas with good forest cover, and it's a corridor for orangutan," Bayu said as quoted by BBC Indonesia.
Pantau Gambut also found that Tewai Baru had been earmarked for the government's social forestry program since 2019, meaning the forests there should have been left intact for the community to manage.
The social forestry program is one of the largest socioenvironmental experiments of its kind, aiming to reallocate 12.7 million hectares (31.4 million acres) of state forest to local communities and give them the legal standing to manage their forests.
The fact that the food estate program overlaps with the social forestry map means the program threatens the land rights of local communities, said Pantau Gambut research manager Agiel Prakoso.
"The question is, which one is going to be prioritized by the government? [Because] the social forestry program is also a government priority," he told Mongabay.
Clearing 'no-go' peatlands
Pantau Gambut's analysis also found the food estate program to be damaging peatlands, despite the government's promise that the program would protect and conserve this key ecosystem.
Environmentalists have flagged this as a particular concern, given the significant role of peatlands in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Hectare for hectare, peatlands store 20 times more carbon than tropical rainforests or mineral soils, and are home to a rich biodiversity.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia said the food estate program should avoid areas where the peat layer is deeper than 1 meter (3 feet), as these are intensive carbon sinks and also less suitable for crop cultivation. It also recommended steering clear of peatland with primary and secondary forest cover, as clearing such vegetation could release 62.25 metric ton of CO2 per hectare per year, the equivalent of burning more than 26,000 liters of fuel.
The food estate program should also avoid peatland that the government has classified as protected, WRI Indonesia said. All these types of peatlands should constitute a "no-go zone" for the program, it said.
However, Pantau Gambut's spatial analysis, using GFW's GLAD Alert data, found 233 hectares (576 acres) of forest loss in "no-go" peat areas in two villages from January to October 2022. The analysis indicated the food estate program had caused the loss of 137 hectares (339 acres) of secondary peat swamp forest in Pilang village, and 96 hectares (237 acres) of protected forest with a peat layer 2-3 m (6-10 ft) deep.
And while deforestation in other villages doesn't overlap with the "no-go zone," it still occurs in areas that are part of the greater peat landscape, Agiel of Pantau Gambut said.
"Even if the government said this [food estate program] is not on peatland, if we look at the overall [landscape] it's still connected because it's within one watershed area and one peatland hydrological area," he said.
The Ministry of Agriculture, which is responsible for some of the food estates, denied the allegations of deforestation. The ministry's director for land expansion, Baginda Siagian, said the food estate program in Central Kalimantan being carried out by the ministry has undergone thorough planning. He said the government had overlaid a number of maps to ensure that fragile and protected ecosystems such as forest areas, peat domes and deep peatlands aren't included in the areas targeted for the food estate program.
"Therefore, the food estate activities are not disturbing natural ecosystems and do not cause deforestation," Baginda told Mongabay.
Adrianus Eryan, head of forestry and land at the Jakarta-based think tank Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), said there needs to be accountability for restoring the degraded landscapes. The question of who should be held responsible is especially important as the food estate program is showing signs of failure, he added.
An investigation by Pantau Gambut, Walhi Central Kalimantan and BBC Indonesia in March 2022 and February 2023 found the cassava plantations in Tewai Baru village were withering away, with the plants stunted and the tubers undersized. The investigation also found seven abandoned excavators that no longer work.
Another investigation, by Kaoem Telapak, found last year that around half of the food estate plantations in the village of Ria-Ria, North Sumatra province, had been abandoned. Kaoem Telapak attributed this to various technical problems, including insufficient time for farmers to cultivate the crops of potato and corn to meet a government-mandated harvesting deadline.
Local farmers told Kaoem Telapak that the government had also built irrigation channels haphazardly, and as a result, many of them were now no longer working.
"If the food estate lands don't yield a maximum result – [or are] even deemed to have fail based on a number of criteria – then the project should be reevaluated," ICEL's Adrianus wrote in The Conversation. "License holders have to restore the failed lands to turn them into forests that have more ecological benefits. The surrounding communities could manage the abandoned lands in order to support their livelihoods."'
Baginda again denied the allegation that the program is failing.
"Based on the data that we collected from the field, activities in intensification lands [which are targeted for increased yields] managed by farmers are going on and have quite a good production yield," he said.