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Running the risk of crop failure: Govt excuses for food estate threatening environment and Papuan forests (Part 2)

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  • The Indonesian government strips off various environmental regulations to launch a food estate program to boost food production.
  • A company run by cronies of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto uses the program to attract a Rp 33 trillion (US$2.31 million) investment.
  • The food estate program is also targeting Papuan forests. Experts say the plan violates a number of rules and raises multiple conflicts of interest.

This investigative report is published in collaboration with the Gecko Project and Tempo

The location of the food estate proposed the Ministry of the Defense. This location is in the province of Central Kalimantan. Most of the area of the proposed overlap with the orangutan habitat. – Gecko Project

Jayapura, Jubi – The focus of the food estate program was, at first, to promote rice production in the peatland areas of Central Kalimantan. The plan immediately drew heavy criticism from those who worried it would only repeat the disaster that had occurred two decades ago in the same location. At that time, a similar project caused the peatlands to dry up, resulting in massive greenhouse gas emissions and only a small amount of rice yields.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK) dismisses concerns that the latest program will cause environmental damage. In fact, KHLK claims the program aims to rehabilitate protected forest areas that have been illegally deforested, as well as support agroforestry wherein farmers can harvest crops without the need to clear forests.

“We are also committed to ensuring that no Bornean orangutan habitat will be targeted,” said KLHK Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar.

But it was President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo himself who appointed Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto, his former rival in the last two presidential elections, to lead the food estate program. The Ministry of Defense has since cleared the orangutan habitat and turned it into a giant plantation.

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During the same month Jokowi visited peatlands in the southern part of Borneo, the Indonesian Military (TNI) and Defense Ministry officials held a meeting with the local government in Gunung Mas Regency, 150 kilometers north of Jokowi’s visit location. The Indigenous Dayak people there live along large rivers that meander to the south from the mountainous upstream in the middle of the island of Borneo, through the forest and empties into the Java Sea.

The Ministry of Defense was eyeing a stretch of wilderness on the east side of the Kahayan River, which is a living space for local residents. The people gather food, tap rubber, and pick up wood in the forest.

According to the village heads we interviewed, they were invited to a meeting with ministry officials and a high-ranking army officer in July 2021, a month after the food estate program was launched. The people from Jakarta conveyed their desire to open plantations to secure the national food needs. However, they did not elaborate on the plan further. Villagers were not told where it would be located and when the program would start.

Just a few weeks later, Prabowo submitted a request to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to build a food plantation in Gunung Mas, which is the size of almost half of Jakarta. At that time there was no regulation that explained what a food estate area was, let alone how to make it. The results of the satellite image mapping show that during the time the food estate was proposed, most of the targeted locations were actually rainforest areas. Whereas according to the study approved by the government, most of the area is an orangutan habitat.

“They did not inform [that the area] was 33,000 hectares,” said Mine Yantri, a village head who attended the meeting in July 2021. “And we cannot refuse the government’s program”.

The land clearing process in Gunung Mas began in mid-November 2020 when the regulation on food estates was only three weeks old. Though involved in the initial meetings, the villagers around the project site did not receive sufficient information.

Sigo, a traditional leader from the Tewai Baru village, found his usual path to find wood blocked by soldiers guarding the newly cleared land. The villagers, on the other hand, began to accuse Sigo of selling the land without the residents knowing. “I’m in a tight spot,” said Sigo.

The requirement for land conversion, namely the public consultation to establish the Strategic Environmental Study (KLHS), was only carried out by the Ministry of Defense three months later, in February 2021. At that time, more than 600 hectares of land had been cleared.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry presented at the meeting with Commission IV of the House of Representatives in March 2021 that the Ministry of Defense had not yet fulfilled the various provisions required to convert the land. The land targeted by the Ministry of Defense is considered the production forest. The long-standing principle in Indonesian forestry law emphasizes that production forest areas may not be converted into agricultural plantations.

Adrianus Eryan, a legal researcher at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), said such a series of events only strengthen the allegation of violations of forest law in the program. “Many safeguards are simply ignored in this food estate program,” he said.

“The KLHS study is not well established, the community is not involved, and the process is carried out in a closed manner,” Eryan added.

The Ministry of Defense argued that the land clearing was in accordance with the 2018 regulation which stipulated that, in urgent situations, “borrowing and use” of forest areas for other uses without changing their status was allowed.

They said they had “adjusted” later when the food estate regulation was enforced in 2020. The land clearing was carried out “based on instructions from President Jokowi at a cabinet meeting.”

When our reporter visited the project site in August, the land was guarded by soldiers. Moeldoko, the Presidential Chief of Staff, said that the assignment of soldiers is permitted by Law No.34/2004 on the TNI.

We checked that the law required the President to obtain the House’s approval for the deployment of TNI forces. However, we did not find any documents confirming that these conditions were met. Two security experts told us that the deployment of troops for the food estate program was likely to be against the law.

Even though the government has cleared a vast amount of land, only about 30 hectares of land have been planted with cassava as of August. Our reporter saw that many of the cassava trees withered and their leaves turned yellow, not a few of them were dead.

Prabowo has the ambition to plant cassava in an area of more than one million hectares to replace wheat, as an effort to reduce Indonesia’s dependence on food imports. The Ministry of Defense also believes that cassava can be used for various processed products other than food, from biofuels to pharmaceuticals. However, according to Reinhardt Howeler, a scientist who has researched cassava for decades, opening cassava plantations is a strenuous job. Most of the world’s cassava demands are supplied by community gardens, Howeler says, and most cassava plantations with an area of more than a few hundred hectares are very labor-intensive and therefore uneconomical. For Howeler, the cassava plantation of 32,000 hectares was the largest he had ever heard of, about five times larger than the largest plantation he already knew.

Meanwhile, Achmad Subagio, a cassava expert who assisted the ministry’s program in Gunung Mas, said cassava needed intensive care for four months after being planted. He had not visited the plantation site since February.

“If there is no treatment fund, [the cassava] will be skinny for sure,” he added. But the Ministry of Defense rushed into clearing the forest before it even got the budget. Nearly a year after the logging took place, they stated that they are “still waiting for the regulatory process and budget allocation” for the program. (*)

Part 1

Part 3

Reporter: Admin Jubi

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