JAKARTA — Observers and activists have raised concerns about the leading role the Indonesian government plans to give to the military and to big corporations in a program to establish vast crop plantations across the country.
The move appears to be part of a creeping rollback of Indonesia’s civilian democracy by the administration of President Joko Widodo, critics say, and could have major repercussions for Indigenous and community land rights, the conservation of the country’s rainforests, and efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The government has framed the program as a bid to secure food supplies domestically, and as such is treating it as a national security priority. To that end, Widodo has given the job of overseeing part of the program to his defense minister, Prabowo Subianto, a former Special Forces commander implicated in the disappearance of pro-democracy activists in the late 1990s.
The president has also drafted in the military to ensure the success of the program.
Achmad Soebagio, an expert staff at the defense ministry, said that the ministry needed to be involved in the program to make sure the country had enough food in times of crisis or war, with the nation’s rice supply only enough to feed its citizens for 69 days, compared to Thailand with 182 days.
He said one of the causes of the lack of food security in Indonesia is that the majority of agricultural fields are owned by individuals and small farmers, and they are more likely to sell their lands for quick cash. This is something that the defense ministry would like to avoid in the food estate program, Achmad added.
“The concept of the defense ministry’s food estate is that if [agricultural] lands are owned by individuals, then they’re very inflexible and not consistently used for food security,” he said during a recent online discussion. “Therefore, lands have to be controlled and managed by the state so that there’s no more [land] conversion except for food reserves.”
According to observers, this signals there will be no tolerance for the kind of grassroots opposition that has held up or even defeated other large projects in the past.
“This is a wave, a movement, a power that seems to be moving ahead without transparency, without listening to criticism,” Laksmi Savitri, the national council head of Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) Indonesia, said in a recent online discussion.
She said Widodo’s announcement of the planned plantations, or “food estates,” on the islands of Borneo, Sumatra, Papua and Nusa Tenggara is a sign that the government will press ahead and ignore expressions of concern.
“This is serious. This is an effort to change the face of Indonesia’s agriculture. Even though we’re only talking about food crops, we can’t take it lightly,” Laksmi said.
Dewi Kartika, secretary-general of the Agrarian Reform Consortium (KPA), questioned the president’s decision to involve Ministry of Defense and the military in the plantation program.
“This food estate [program] is a militarization of agriculture because it involves the army,” she said. “Farmers will become agricultural laborers, not the owners of production tools and lands.”
There’s also the very real prospect that, in securing land for the plantations, the state will use the military to force people off their land on the pretext of national security. Khairul Fahmi, a defense analyst at the Jakarta-based Institute for Security and Strategic Studies (ISeSS), said the Widodo administration risks repeating the actions of the authoritarian New Order regime of the late dictator Suharto. (Prabowo, the defense minister, was Suharto’s son-in-law.)
Under Suharto, repression of civilians by the military was rampant, including in the agricultural sector.
“This has the potential of repeating the New Order regime where we claimed that we succeeded in building [food] security and sovereignty, but with tremendous pressure on farmers to plant rice,” Fahmi said. Back then, he added, there were “soldiers going to the fields [to force farmers to plant].”
Since Suharto’s downfall in 1998, Indonesians have managed to secure a wide range of civil liberties. Among these is state recognition of traditional laws and ancestral rights. But because the areas targeted for Widodo’s plantations program include ancestral and Indigenous lands, there’s a real possibility that clashes will break out as the military tries to push the program through in defiance of those liberties, Fahmi said.
“We have to remind [the government] to be careful in involving the Ministry of Defense and the military, so that there’s no perception that they’re being used as thugs who will go head-to-head against the public,” he said.
Safrudin Mahendra, director of the NGO Save Our Borneo, said the military was involved in similar programs in the past. In those instances, it served to safeguard agribusiness and logging companies aas they cleared forests, he said. That raises concerns that under the new program, the military will once again be aiding in large-scale deforestation, Safrudin said.
“Will there be clearing of new areas that need extra security to smoothen [the process]?” he said. Because there are [former plantation] areas that have forest covers that’s still quite good. We are worried that these [areas] will become the target of the food estate program.”
President Widodo has acknowledged the potential for land disputes to arise from the program, and has tasked the Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning to resolve any issues.
The food estate program is already underway, with construction work construction work on irrigation canals in Central Kalimantan province beginning on Sept. 28. The following day, the military signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Agriculture; soldiers have already deployed to the field.
Environmental impact assessments are being expedited so that planting can begin this year. This raises the prospect of problems down the road, said Dana Tarigan, director of the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).
“There’s no reason to rush,” he said. “If it’s rushed, it’ll be local people, the environment and the state finances that get harmed.”
The government has cited the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the reasons for rushing the program through. It says the health emergency underscores the need for Indonesia to be secure in its food production and less reliant on imports. But Dana said the rationale doesn’t stack up.
“Don’t use the pandemic and food security concerns as justification for rushing [the food estate program],” he said. “Food security can be achieved by improving the productivity of farmers without having to clear new land.”
Others have also questioned the Ministry of Environment and Forestry for agreeing to speed up the impact assessment process, calling it flawed because it bypasses the need for public consultation. Rsynaldo Sembiring, executive director of the Indonesia Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), said there’s no legal basis for the expedited process, and that a regular impact assessment can be finished in less than three months anyway.
Lawmakers have focused on the feasibility of the government’s plan to plant this year. At a recent parliamentary hearing, Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo told the commission overseeing forestry and agriculture that the government planned to plant 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of rice in the Bornean province of Central Kalimantan this year. The site is the pilot project for the food estate program, and located on peatland that was cleared in the mid-1990s for a near-identical project under Suharto that failed.
Sudin, the head of the parliamentary commission, grilled Syahrul on the timeline, saying he had visited the site and wasn’t convinced.
“I’ve been there, the 30,000 hectares was still heavily degraded one year ago,” he said. “This past January and February I went there again and it’s still badly damaged, still in the process of rehabilitation. That’s why I asked, is it possible to plant 30,000 hectares? With what are you going to plant? Thirty thousand hectares is huge. It might take tens of thousands of laborers. Are there enough laborers available?”
Syahrul said he was confident about the target, adding that 300 soldiers had been enlisted to train farmers on how to use tractors and other mechanized equipment.
At another parliamentary hearing, Sudin questioned environment ministry officials about whether their efforts to prepare the nutrient-poor peat soil for planting this year were realistic. The pilot project involves dumping 5,500 metric tons of lime on the soil to lower the acidity and make it more suitable for growing rice.
“How do you transport that much lime to Central Kalimantan? Even using Hercules [military] aircraft, it would take more than two years,” Sudin said.
Large-scale vs. family farming
The government is touting technology as the key ingredient that will see the food estate program succeed where previous plans failed. But its focus on producing food at scale from vast swaths of land is “outdated, both scientifically and politically,” said Ben White, a professor of rural sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.
“All parties share the same view [of agriculture], which is that the bigger, the more monoculture, the more capital and labor intensive, the better it is,” he said. “Second, farmers are not citizens who have rights, but they are tools to grow GDP which need to and can be managed and ordered” by the government.
White said there’s a global shift underway from large-scale agriculture to small-scale farming. The United Nations, for instance, has been pushing for family-centered farming through its global action plan called the “United Nations Decade of Family Farming 2019-2028.” The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calls family farming well-suited to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across the food system, and Indonesia has expressed support for family farming.
Small farmers produce the vast majority of the food grown in Indonesia, but face considerable difficulties in accessing credit, services, technologies and markets. As a result, they suffer from low and unstable incomes, poor safety and health conditions, gender inequality in pay and opportunities, and limited social protection.
The food estate program won’t help on any of these counts because it relies on large investments from agribusiness and involves planting monoculture crops on a massive scale, according to White.
“So there’s an oddity here,” he said. “On one hand, Indonesia enthusiastically gave commitment to support family farming, but at the same time, it’s still holding on to, and expand, large-scale agricultural business model.”
White said some of the large agribusiness companies in Indonesia are holdovers from the time of Dutch colonial rule, and continue to control land that should rightfully have been given back to the people. What the food estate program aims to do is essentially emulate the colonial agricultural model, he said.
“Recently, there have been experiences at the local level indicating that the involvement of the government in farmers’ daily lives harkens back to the Dutch colonial time,” White said. “They are told to grow specific crops, instructed on when they have to start planting, with sanctions for farmers who disobey. This is something that didn’t stop when the colonial time ended or when the reformation era started [in 1998]. It’s still happening now.”
White called on the Indonesian government to seek out a better agricultural model, one that treats farmers as free citizens with their own rights and sovereignty.
“We have to move on from our obsession on GDP growth to the welfare improvement of both producers and consumers,” he said. “What would [our] agriculture and food systems look like if they’re not designed to maximize the growth of GPD or the profit of agrifood companies, but to guarantee the supplies of food and other agricultural products that are sufficient, healthy and safe for all people who need them?”
The government says farmers won’t be sidelined in the food estate program, and that they’ll instead be empowered through a “corporate farming” system, featuring modern tools, advanced production methods, access to post-production facilities, and effective marketing.
But White said the corporate farming system as described in a government paper might end up benefiting agribusiness more than small farmers. Reading it, he said, one might be led to think that, “wow, maybe these are good for farmers. So farmers can have their own companies.”
But a little more digging through the paper makes it clear that farmers will have little say in the system, White said.
The system defines three models of farming based on the participants: cooperative, company, and cooperative-company joint venture. The cooperative model comprises three main parties: farmers, investors and managers. According to the government, investors will get 50% of the net profit from this model of farming, while managers will get 20%.
“And for thousands of farmers, only 5-10%,” White said. “So this begs the question, what’s the meaning of [the government slogan] ‘corporate farming is by, for and from farmers’?”
Under the company model, those with total control are company shareholders, he added.
“What’s important is that the further we dig into the grand design, the more the word ‘farmers’ disappeared,” White said. “In the description of companies, farmers aren’t mentioned at all.”
An agricultural model that may better suit Indonesia is one that doesn’t focus on a single crop, like rice, White said. It would be one where farmers are free to choose what crops they want to grow on their land, have other sources of income, are capable of processing their harvest to add value, and support each other instead of competing, he said.
Qomarun Najmi, a member of the Indonesian Farmers Union (SPI), agreed, saying that prioritizing profit is the opposite of what being a farmer truly means.
“We almost never count profit and loss,” he said. “Our intention is to manage our land, to fulfill our needs. If we have more, we share it with others. If farmers are too calculating about profit and loss, then we have lost our spirit as farmers, we have turned into agricultural businesspeople, those who are more profit-oriented.”
White said this is something the government doesn’t seem to grasp in its push to establish the food estates.
“Maybe it’s not the mentality of the farmers that needed to be changed,” he said, “but the mentality of public officials and the modus operandi of agriculture bureaucrats.”