Yulia Savitri, Palembang – The government's food estate program in South Sumatra could harm the environment, as an estimated 26,000 hectares of forest zones might be converted into farmland, experts have warned.
Ida Banjumi Wahab (IBA) University rector and public policy expert Tarech Rasyid told The Jakarta Post on Sept. 9 that while the province had the potential to become a food supplying region due to its sheer acreage of agriculture land, especially to prevent a food crisis during the COVID-19 outbreak, the government should find a way to use the land while minimizing the environmental damage.
The province currently has 980,000 ha of rice harvest areas that produce 4.7 million tons of rice per year, according to Agriculture Ministry data. The food estate program is expected to take up a total of 235,000 ha of land.
"We shouldn't clear land for new agriculture zones, because it will worsen the environmental damage. The food estate program should have an integrated strategy to prevent negative impacts on other sectors," he said.
The government is pinning its hopes to bolster the nation's food security on developing food estates in several provinces, including South Sumatra, North Sumatra and Central Kalimantan, as the COVID-19 crisis has aggravated Indonesia's food security issues.
In late April, a month after the outbreak in the country, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo reported that key commodities, such as garlic, sugar, chili and chicken eggs, were in short supply in more than 20 provinces, while rice, a staple food for Indonesians, was lacking in seven provinces.
The World Food Programme's (WFP) office in Indonesia has estimated that the country experienced a 13.2 percent year-on-year decline in rice production to 16.1 million tons in the first half of 2020.
The projects are also aimed at overcoming food distribution issues across the archipelago, land use change, especially in Java, and the increase of the country's population, according to the Agriculture Ministry's Food Security Agency (BKP).
South Sumatra Forestry Agency head Panji Tjahjanto told the Post on Sept. 24 that the Environment and Forestry Ministry would revoke the forest status of the 26,000 ha of land.
Panji argued that the forest zone conversion into farming areas would not affect South Sumatra's total forest zones of 3.46 million ha, or around 39 percent of the province's land area.
"Some of the existing production and protected forest zones are already opened. Therefore, we are only waiting for the ministry's instruction," he said.
The executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) in South Sumatra, Hairul Sobri, rejected the government's notion to redesignate forest land for the food estate program, urging the government to instead protect existing food producing areas from agrarian conflicts.
"Many forest zones in South Sumatra have been transformed and do not function as forests anymore. Don't pile up more problems by damaging the existing forest ecosystem," he said.
Hairul further said that the government could redesignate failing oil palm plantation areas for the food estate program rather than forest zones, so as to prevent further environmental damage. (mpr)