By Feri Irawan
from Simpul Jaringan Pantau Gambut
The COVID-19 pandemic has been ongoing for almost two years and people are worried that it can trigger a worse impact resulting in a food crisis in Indonesia. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also pointed out that there has been a spike in global food prices since May 2021 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the 2019 Global Food Security Index, Indonesia, which is rich in natural resource potential, was actually at number 62 out of 113 countries. This position is certainly far below neighboring ASEAN countries. Singapore ranks first, Malaysia at 28, Thailand at 52, and Vietnam at 54.

President Joko Widodo responded to this condition with efforts to strengthen food resilience, which leads to the Food Estate project. This project has even become a priority program included in the 2020-2024 National Strategic Program. The government also generously disbursed trillions of rupiah for the project to run.

Since early October 2020, the government has started to cultivate lands under the former One Million Hectare Peatland Development program in Central Kalimantan to expand new rice fields.

It seemed that the Jambi government did not want to lose the opportunity, so they also proposed to the Ministry of Agriculture to be included in the Food Estate program.   Agricultural lands in the districts of Tanjung Jabung Timur, Tanjung Jabung Barat, and Muaro Jambi were proposed to be included in the Food Estate project.

Even though Jambi already has 79,396 hectares of rice fields, so far it has not been managed optimally. The Food Estate proposal seems to be just a way for the Jambi government to get a share of the budget from the Central Government.

In fact, the lands proposed by the Jambi government for the Food Estate project are agricultural lands owned by the residents. Meanwhile, the government's efforts to improve farmers’ productivity are still far from the expectation of smallholders.

For example, the 5,166 hectares of land in Tanjung Jabung Timur, which was proposed to be planted with rice, corn, and soybean, is owned by farmers who have been managing it with minimum capital. The location is in the Subdistricts of Nipah Panjang, Berbak, Muara Sabak Timur, Dendang, Sadu.

In Tanjung Jabung Barat, the Jambi Provincial Government proposed 6,566 hectares of rice fields owned by farmers in Batang Asam Subdistrict, Pengabuan, Senyerang. The government also proposed 6,046 hectares of land owned by farmers in Muaro Jambi. The location is in the subdistricts of Kumpeh Ulu, Kumpeh, Maro Sebo, Taman Rajo, Sekernan, Jambi Luar Kota.

In fact, the Jambi Provincial Government also targets the forest area in Merangin District for cassava plantations. Based on a study by an organization in Jambi, the area is estimated to be 65,262.76 hectares. A total of 83,040.76 hectares of land in Jambi was proposed to be cultivated through the Food Estate project.

The government should learn from the failed projects carried out by the previous government. For example, the One Million Hectare Peatland Development program during President Soeharto’s administration, the Food Estate project during President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's administration, and the Upsus Pajale project (Special Production Efforts for Rice, Corn, and Soybeans) in 2015-2017, all of which were practically unsuccessful.

Peat and Disaster

The Food Estate project which involves private capital has the potential to clear new land that will destroy the peatlands in Jambi. The peatlands in Jambi have been degraded by plantation and HTI activities, and the Food Estate project will create further damage by draining the peat.

The three districts proposed for the location of the Food Estate have more than 588 thousand hectares of peatlands. The agriculture methods carried out on peatlands so far are not environmentally friendly and the yields are not optimal.

Pantau Gambut's study shows that rice yields from Central Kalimantan peatlands are only 1.9 tons per hectare, and in West Aceh, it is only 1.5 tons per hectare. They are far below the yields from mineral soils in Lumajang (7.2 tons per hectare) and Semarang (7.3 tons per hectare).

Moreover, the monoculture plants from the Food Estate program in Central Kalimantan have caused the emergence of new pests that attack the residents' rice fields so that the harvest is not optimal.

Minister of Environment and Forestry Regulation Number P.24/MENLHK/KUM.1/10/2020 concerning Provision of Forest Areas for Food Estate Development, which has been revoked and merged into Minister of Environment and Forestry Regulation Number 7 of 2021 concerning Forestry Planning, Changes in the Allocation of Forest Area, Changes in the Function of Forest Area, and Utilization of Forest Area, will also trigger new problems. The threat of floods and drought will be difficult to avoid if the forest in Merangin is cleared for cassava plantations.

Conflicts will also occur because the areas targeted by the government overlap with HTI concession permits and customary forest. The government should be aware of the threat of disasters and conflicts.

Maximize the Program

Many parties fear that the Food Estate project will only provide opportunities for private companies to make big profits, while farmers will be marginalized. This is proven by the fact that food corporations gain market share during the pandemic.

The Food Estate project, which is intended to solve the food crisis, will actually cause a land crisis because many new lands will be controlled by corporations.

Without the Food Estate project, Jambi could actually be food sufficient if the government was not half-hearted in helping farmers. Many programs are not implemented optimally and this has an impact on farmers' productivity.

Another problem is that many agricultural lands are converted into oil palm plantations and mines. The Jambi Food Crops, Horticulture, and Animal Husbandry Office noted that at least 17,000 hectares of rice fields in Jambi have changed functions in the last five years.

In 2016, there were 96,589 hectares of ​​rice fields, but in 2020 it shrunk drastically to 79,396 hectares. This means that there are 9-10 hectares of rice fields in Jambi being converted every day. Ironically, the government could not do anything to stop it.

On the other hand, farmers in Pasar Terusan Village, Batanghari District have managed to cultivate 500 hectares of new rice fields independently. The rice fields are also protected by a village regulation that prohibits the conversion of rice fields into plantations or other uses.

Currently, what the government needs to do is calculate the food sufficiency in Jambi from the existing commodities and maximize its production. The government should optimize the agricultural programs to help improve the farmers’ economy, starting from seed sorting, processing, to post-harvest product marketing.

The government must also maximize the yields in Kerinci District, Sungai Penuh City, and Tebo District which have been Jambi's food estates for long.

This is the right moment for the new government to start new changes. It is time for smallholders to prosper and become a priority. The government no longer needs to talk about the Food Estate project.*

*This opinion was written by the Director of Perkumpulan Hijau Jambi and the Coordinator of Simpul Jaringan Pantau Gambut Jambi



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