Fadhil Haidar Sulaeman, Jakarta – President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has urged his ministers to scale up the country's food estate megaproject to boost agricultural productivity, even as technical problems continue to plague the program in its third year.
In a press briefing on Tuesday, Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo said he had received orders from the President to "intensify the progress" on food estates in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Maluku and Papua by managing them under a unified strategy.
In early 2020, the President announced the creation of the food estate program in response to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on the possibility of a global food crisis.
The initial plan was to prepare roughly 164,600 hectares (ha) of land in Central Kalimantan for the cultivation of rice and other staple crops. About 30,000 ha of the land was supposed to be readied in the first phase of development.
In 2022, the government expanded the program to estates in Sumatra, East Nusa Tenggara, Java, Papua and Maluku.
"Fundamentally, do not [just] look at the current progress on the food estates [...]. We are trying to intensify land reserves in other regions. Do not forget that potential land in Java has been converted into industrial land," Syahrul told reporters.
In Central Kalimantan, the government is planning to provide around 62,000 ha of land for the food estate program, some 47,000 ha of which is already being cultivated. Syahrul claimed yields from this land had been increased to 4 to 5 tonnes per ha from below 3 tonnes per ha before the program started.
However, the minister said acidic soil had hampered the growth of some crops and that minerals had been brought in to adjust soil pH levels.
In certain areas, tree root systems were removed, making the land more vulnerable to flooding, even if rains were light.
"Certainly [our efforts] failed there, but it was not much compared to [the total] 47,000 ha. If [the troubled area was only about] 200 to 300 ha, the President said it was acceptable," Syahrul continued.
To account for the soil condition, Syahrul said special varieties of seeds had been prepared with the assistance of the World Bank, the International Rice Research Institute and the FAO.
Speaking at the same event, Coordinating Economic Minister Airlangga Hartarto announced that the Public Works and Housing Ministry would be made responsible for land and water management in the Central Kalimantan food estate.
"[This is] so that later the Agriculture Ministry will just enter land that is prepared, and this will also apply to further land development," Airlangga told reporters.
Airlangga said the President had instructed Syahrul to intervene in the development of the food estate in North Sumatra, as officials there had only been able to develop 7 ha of cultivated land out of the targeted 22 ha.
Despite the setbacks with the existing food estates, he noted that the government was still planning to develop more estates in East Nusa Tenggara and Papua.
Airlangga announced that the Defense Ministry would lead a new body called the Strategic Logistics Reserve Agency, which would be established by a presidential regulation and given the responsibility of securing the national food supply.
Doomed to fail?
Indonesian Farmers Seed Bank and Technology Association chairman Dwi Andreas Santosa said President Jokowi's efforts to boost domestic food production were at very high risk of failure, as farmers would need at least 4 tonnes of harvest per ha to avoid losses.
Having been involved in the food estate project, he noted that only 0.8 tonnes of crops had been produced per ha in the land under his management.
The mismatch between soil conditions and crops, coupled with the lack of farming infrastructure and technology, he said, had contributed to the problems plaguing the food estate program.
"This food estate program is a total failure. There is nothing to be expected from this program," Dwi told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.
In his view, the government was trying to cover up the failure of the original food estate program by designating land belonging to its land intensification program – a separate project aimed at boosting yields on already cultivated land – as part of the food estates.
Food estates, Dwi said, were supposed to be based on cultivating new land to combat the significant reduction in agricultural land over the past years.
Dwi recommended that the government to refocus its resources on genuine food estate development and learn from – and make use of – the former Peatland Development (PLG) project.
The PLG project – which covered some 1.4 million ha in Central Kalimantan in the mid-1990s – was an attempt by the New Order regime to make agricultural use of peatland, but it failed. Dwi said the government's disregard for scientific standards in the project was the cause of the failure.
If the water management system in former PLG land was fixed, he added, then it might be possible to use the land as a food estate.
To achieve economies of scale, he also called for farmers to be granted 10 ha of land per family instead of the current average of 2 ha.
"The government should choose suitable locations in former PLG land that are feasible for development, not utilize all 1.4 million ha of land," Dwi continued.
State-owned Bank Mandiri agriculture analyst Andrian Bagus Santoso said on Wednesday that it would take a long time for the food estate program to succeed, as production and land extensification required significant time and investment.
Andrian said the government's desire to develop food estates made sense as the country should strive for food independence.
However, he suggested that the government focus on intensifying the production of crops that had proven suitable to the local agricultural system, such as sugar cane, corn, onion and fruit.
"Not all food commodities can grow well in Indonesia's climate, so we should not be forced to be self-sufficient [in difficult-to-grow crops] in the near future," Andrian told the Post, adding that the government could "start with a pilot project to find a good cropping pattern first".