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Minister Hatta backs much-debated food estate

Jakarta Post - April 3, 2010

Adianto P. Simamora, Jakarta – Environment Minister Gusti Muhammad Hatta has thrown his weight behind a plan to set up a food estate in Merauke, Papua province, a plan many environmental groups see as a setback.

Gusti said the project should first develop 366,612 hectares of ailing forested land of while waiting for assessments on the planned 1.6 million hectares.

"The food estate projects should be implemented in steps without victimizing primary forests in Merauke," Gusti said.

He made the statement after Greenomics Indonesia had a meeting with Gusti and other senior staff about the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) on Thursday.

Gusti also cautioned that the massive 1 million hectare forest conversion for agriculture in Central Kalimantan province under Soeharto administration was not to be repeated.

The deputy minister for environmental damage control at the Environment Ministry, Masnellyarti Hilman said the ministry was working on a proposal that the environmental impact analysis for the MIFEE project should be made by the central government.

She insisted that Merauke administration should first assess its environmental condition to determine whether the province could accommodate such big projects.

The 2009 Environmental Law requires local authorities to run strategic environmental assessments to identify capability of environment to accommodate the projects.

The impact analysis will be issued based on the findings of the strategic assessment. The law says the project developers should first secure an environmental permit from the Environment Ministry before applying for business permits.

The MIFEE project was under the Agriculture Ministry's program that aimed to boost food production. A number of big companies, including from energy sector will reportedly take part in the project.

The Agriculture Ministry has not yet secured licenses from the Forestry Ministry to convert the forest. Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan previously said he would issue a permit to convert the virgin forest for food estate projects.

Greenomics Indonesia agreed that priority should be given to the primary 366,612 hectares, with permission from the Forestry Ministry.

"If there is progress, the project could be expanded to another 139,333 hectares of ailing production forest but permits should be [obtained] from the House of Representatives," Greenomics executive director Elfian Effendi said.

He said that the total natural forest which could be converted for MIFEE projects was only 505,945 hectares.

Greenomics said that if the government continued its plan to dig 1.6 million hectares in Merauke, some 1.1 million hectares would be from the conversion of natural forests, which would be against the government's pledge to protect forests to cut emissions.

"Minister Gusti must continue comparing the impacts of massive forest conversion for food estates to the government's pledge to cut 26 percent emissions by 2020," he said.

He said that the ministry should apply the 2009 law as instrument to control the project through the impact analysis and environmental permits.