President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s decision to develop 164,000 hectares of rice estates in Central Kalimantan is conceptually inappropriate because the policy is predicated on the perception that food security is defined almost solely as rice self-sufficiency.
The huge project is agronomically and environmentally not sustainable because a substantial portion of the rice estate will be developed on peatland, which is for the most part not suitable for growing rice.
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Most independent agronomists and environmentalists have warned that the project will not be sustainable economically and ecologically and will only repeat the big mistake of the mega rice project launched by then-president Soeharto in the same area in the mid-1990s.
However, given Jokowi’s stubborn obsession with achieving rice self-sufficiency, not a single Cabinet member has dared to argue against the new project. Ministers and senior agriculture officials have blindly supported the plan, arguing that the government will learn from the failure of the rice estate project in the past, which wasted huge sums of taxpayer money.
Even the World Bank in its July report on Indonesia pointed out that the large rice estate project is environmentally and economically unfeasible, asserting that the opening of such vast estates will only increase pressure on the land.
The report quoted experts as arguing that peat areas are unsuitable for rice cultivation and the benefits are likely to be limited. On the other hand, deep peat areas are important carbon sinks and the conversion of peatland for agriculture generates large negative spillovers through forest and land fires, pollution and peatland degradation.
Media reports show that in 2019, fires burned across nearly 270,000 ha of land in Central Kalimantan, much of which comprised the former mega rice project area of the 1990s.
Many research studies have concluded that rice and maize production can be doubled and palm oil and horticulture output can be tripled with high-yield seeds and the empowerment of farmers through agricultural extension services and better farm practices in fertilizer and pest and post-harvest management.
We should no longer be so greatly obsessed with achieving rice self-sufficiency. True, the consumption of rice, as the main staple of the majority of the almost 270 million people, should be fulfilled mostly by domestic production because too heavy dependence on imports leaves the nation highly vulnerable to supply shocks given the small number of rice exporters.
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But focusing food policy on rice production to the point of zero imports could hinder the achievement of food security or food resilience in its broadest sense, as defined in the 2012 Food Law. Indeed, it is almost impossible for such a vast archipelagic country with such a huge population to secure full rice self-sufficiency all the time.
The growing urban middle-income population has undergone dietary and lifestyle changes in recent years toward more grains and oilseed commodities, vegetables, fruit, fish and chicken.
Hence, while the agricultural support policy should continue to aim at keeping our dependence on rice imports very low, the government should allocate more resources to the production of other food crops and horticulture.