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Do Indonesia’s food estates solve the nation’s food crisis? Activists, indigenous tribes don’t think so

To protest the clearing of customary land in Kalimantan or Indonesian Borneo to make way for “food estates” or industrial agriculture programmes, climate activists in Indonesia unfurled a massive banner at Gunung Mas in Central Kalimantan that read “Food Estate Feeding Climate Crisis”. (Photo: Greenpeace)
South China Morning Post | 20 November 2022

Do Indonesia’s food estates solve the nation’s food crisis? Activists, indigenous tribes don’t think so
 
by Aisyah Llewellyn
 
To protest the clearing of customary land in Kalimantan or Indonesian Borneo to make way for “food estates” or industrial agriculture programmes, climate activists in Indonesia unfurled a massive banner at Gunung Mas in Central Kalimantan that read “Food Estate Feeding Climate Crisis”. Photo: Greenpeace

As delegates at COP27, the United Nations climate change conference held in Egypt, discuss the climate crisis, activists in Indonesia have been determined not to be left out of the discourse.

To protest the clearing of customary land in Kalimantan or Indonesian Borneo to make way for “food estates” or industrial agriculture programmes, climate activists in Indonesia on November 10 unfurled a massive banner at Gunung Mas in Central Kalimantan that read “Food Estate Feeding Climate Crisis”.

Activists – members of Greenpeace Indonesia, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, the Legal Aid Institute in Palangkaraya and NGO Save Our Borneo – said that such estates exclude indigenous communities from their own land, fail to produce promised crops and worsen the climate crisis.
 
“The food estates were created in response to fears of a food crisis at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Muhamad Habibi, Director of Save Our Borneo told This Week In Asia. “But they were created without a plan and without involving the local community. They were not a serious answer to the perceived threat.”

As the pandemic spread across the world at the start of 2020, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation cautioned that Covid-19 had the potential to disrupt food supply chains and impact global economies as a result.

In response to the warning, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, launched the controversial food estate programme in which millions of hectares of land in Kalimantan and Papua was earmarked for conversion for agricultural planting.

Most of the industrial agriculture were rice fields and cassava plantations such as the one at Gunung Mas, and some of the land was forested indigenous land, according to a report by Greenpeace and local activists.

The report, titled “Feeding the Climate Crisis” released on November 10, found that food estates threaten indigenous communities and crucial biodiversity in Indonesia and “will exacerbate the climate and biodiversity crises through exploiting forests and peatland”.

Alfianus, a local activist in Palangkaraya who is Dayak Ngaju, one of the indigenous communities in Kalimantan, said that even the terminology of food estates is problematic.

“The name is a foreign one and comes from the English. An estate also has connotations of a business. The choice of the name is extremely sensitive at a time when we are experiencing the constant loss of our culture and our traditional way of life,” he said.

“A food estate is a European concept whereas we are so dependent on the elements here. Nature dictates everything from our infrastructure to our whole way of life.”

Both Alfianus and Habibi said that the decision by the government to plant large-scale cassava plantations in Kalimantan as a response to a perceived food crisis appeared to be an odd move. Cassava, a kind of woody shrub, is usually eaten as a side dish instead of a main staple in Kalimantan.

“The local community also considered the land used to grow the cassava, which is sandy in consistency, to be wholly unsuitable for the crop,” Habibi said.
 
As result, half the cassava plantation at Gunung Mas died and the other half has yet to be harvested, according to Greenpeace that took aerial pictures of the failed food estate showing swathes of arid and barren ground where the flourishing food estate should be.

According to Alfianus, the crop failure could have been avoided if the government had heeded the advice of local stakeholders.

He added that, traditionally, the Dayak never plant one homogenous crop but plant a mix of different plants, vegetables and fruit in one area to ensure a bountiful harvest.

“The government was told by locals that the crop would fail but did not respect the local wisdom,” he said.

“They didn’t do any research into how things have been done before. The food estate is very destructive and born of arrogance by the government. It has caused problems for the local population which have been ignored in favour of so-called national interest.”

These problems, according to Alfianus and environmental groups, include widespread flooding in the area around the food estate as well as the loss of customary land and other local crops.

Despite its reported failures, the Indonesian government has continued to promote the benefits of its food estates

Syahrul Fitra, Greenpeace Indonesia’s senior forest campaigner, told This Week In Asia that both Indonesia’s Minister for defence, Prabowo Subianto, and President Jokowi mentioned Indonesia’s food estates and cassava plantations at the G20 meeting in Bali.
 
“They claimed that the availability of fertiliser [as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine] was the cause of the food crisis. That was very careless and does not address the root of the food problem,” Fitra said.

“Targeting degraded forests as locations for developing food projects is not in line with the agenda of environmental restoration, restoration of peatlands, and efforts to reforest. The government and leaders present at the G20 should face the threat of today’s food crisis in a way that does not exacerbate the climate crisis.”

Yeb Saño, Greenpeace’s COP27 Head of Delegation, added that food estates like this also have a global impact.
 
Indonesia’s Baduy tribe struggles to keep rejecting modern technology
 
“Our industrial approach to agriculture is the biggest cause of biodiversity loss and responsible for a third of climate-wrecking greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
“It is also self-defeating. The 2022 UN Food Security report tells us global food insecurity is being driven by climate extremes. So, we face not only a food crisis, but an existential crisis arising from our failure to protect nature. We know the two are inextricably linked. We cannot solve one without dealing with the other.”
 
Saño, Habibi and Alfianus agreed that there are plenty of solutions available to tackle food scarcity by tapping local knowledge.

“Fortunately we can break this vicious circle by returning to and learning from the natural food systems of Indigenous peoples and local production by small-scale farming communities,” Saño said.

“By pursuing an agro-ecology approach, we can preserve nature and our food systems can gain the resilience we need to mitigate the impact of climate change.”
  • Icon-world  SCMP
  • 20 Nov 2022

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