Nina A. Loasana, Jakarta – The latest regulation issued by the Environment and Forestry Ministry that allows forests to be converted into farmland to support the government's food estate program has sparked concerns of potential massive deforestation, according to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).
The ministerial regulation on forest re-designation for food estate development, signed by Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar on Oct. 26, allows forests to be converted into farmland in both protected and production areas.
"The issuance of this ministerial regulation has shown the ugly side of the food estate program. It would accelerate deforestation in our country and damage the environment," WALHI executive director Nur Hidayati said in a statement on Monday.
Article 19 of the ministerial regulation stipulates that protected forest zones can be converted into Forest Zones for Food Security (KHKP) as long as the forest does not entirely function as a protected forest.
Ministers, governors, heads of state bodies, regents and mayors can request a permit from the Environment and Forestry Minister to convert both production and protected forests into KHKP.
Permits for KHKP management can last for 20 years and can be extended based on the evaluation result of the area utilization.
The new regulation would also increase the risk of land conflicts between big corporations and local farmers as the regulation did not include agricultural schemes for the latter, Nur argued.
She expressed doubts over the success of the food estate program, citing the failure of a similar program during the administration of former president Soeharto.
In the mid-1990s, the former strongman's administration sought to develop a food estate project called the One Million Hectare Peatland Project (PLG) comprising around 1.4 million ha in Central Kalimantan.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's administration is reported to be using some of the former PLG land to develop its food estate.
"PLG, which cost the country Rp 1.6 trillion [US$113.24 million), failed to make [the converted forests] into the national food barn. Instead, some of the PLG areas were converted into oil palm plantations, and remain as such even now," Nur said.
"Ironically, the money used for financing the project was taken from the country's reforestation funds," she added.
Jokowi's administration launched its food estate program involving the development of around 164,600 hectares of land in Central Kalimantan and 61,000 hectares of land in North Sumatra as part of its National Strategic Projects for the 2020 – 2024 period.
The food estates are to be developed for crops such as rice, potatoes, shallots and garlic.
The government asserted that food estates were essential as the COVID-19 crisis has aggravated Indonesia's food security issues. The projects were also aimed at overcoming food distribution issues across the archipelago, land use change, especially in Java, and the increase of the country's population.
In late April, a month after the outbreak in the country, Jokowi 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 Prgram's (WFP) Indonesia office 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 issuance of the regulation came amid criticism from environmentalists on the recently passed Job Creation Law, which relaxes rules on environmental protection.
"After the passing of the Job Creation Law, the ministerial regulation would accelerate nature exploitation and deforestation in the country even more," Nur further said.
Officials from the Environment and Forestry Ministry did not immediately respond to The Jakarta Post's request for comments.