By Oriz Anugerah Putra, Iola Abas, Clorinda Wibowo (WRI)
from Pantau Gambut

The government has yet to address the flood of criticism and recommendations following a warning from the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) on the national food estate program, which is purportedly aimed at strengthening Indonesia’s food security and anticipating food crisis in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, the megaproject continues to be expedited, as it has now been expanded in four regions, including Central Kalimantan, Papua, South Sumatra and North Sumatra.

The program has also stirred controversy, especially in Central Kalimantan, where a similar project was once implemented during the Soeharto administration.  The One Million Hectare Peatland Development Project (PLG), also known as the Mega Rice Project, once touted as the solution to address food independence, ultimately became a monumental failure that left nothing but trauma to many people, having caused massive destruction of peatlands that triggered repeated fires and suffocating haze. 

Pantau Gambut, together with the Central Kalimantan Forum for the Environment (Walhi) and Yayasan Madani Berkelanjutan concluded that in many ways, the Food Estate program launched by the Joko Widodo administration is not an appropriate policy. The policy is against the General Principles of Good Governance (AUPB) as laid out in Article 10 of Law No. 30 of 2014 on Government Administration. It also fails to take into account the actual food situation in Indonesia, potential threats to natural forests and peatlands, as well as its impact on climate change that threatens the fate of agriculture throughout the nation.

The fast-tracked policy enjoyed many privileges owing to its status as a Strategic State Program. Proclaimed as a national priority, the food estate policy involves multiple ministries and state institutions, including demanding the support and active roles of the State Military (TNI) and National Police (POLRI). A number of technical regulations have been set in place to ensure the project’s ease of implementation, including the Minister of Environment and Forestry Regulation No. P.24/MENLHKSETJEN/KUM.1/10/2020 on the Provision of Forest Areas for Food Estate development.

However, the seemingly rushed policy is considered by many as a less-than-ideal short-term solution to the anticipated problem of food crisis, especially given the devastating environmental effects should the project fail.  Beyond just a quick strategic environmental assessment, the government should have conducted a more in-depth study considering track record of past failures. 

The Covid-19 pandemic crisis should be used as a momentum for the government to correct the course of economic and development policies at the national and regional levels. Improving access to food distribution, improving the quality of nutritious food, eradicating corruption, and improving access to finance for farmers must be prioritized if food issues are truly the government’s priority. Conversion of land for production purposes, especially in forest and peat areas which are a source of food, germplasm, and biodiversity, will be counterproductive in the long run by reducing food production and exacerbating global warming.

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