Apr 24, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Politics and peat: The One million hectare sawah project

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Burgeoning industrial areas in Java have eaten up Indonesian self-sufficiency in rice production. To compensate, an area of peat swamp in Kalimantan a third the size of the Netherlands is being converted to rice land. IRIP NEWS SERVICE investigates.

IRIP News Service

Indonesians have watched a great rush of mega-projects envelop their homeland: the launch of the national aircraft, the Timor car and Dr Habibie's plans to go nuclear. Yet so far smaller projects have transformed the environment more: housing estates and factories around the big cities, industrial estates, toll-roads, golf-courses, hotels and other urban and industrial expansion. The scale of these changes now threatens to obscure one of the New Order's proudest achievements: self-sufficiency in rice.


In the late 1960s Indonesia imported more rice than any other nation. However by 1984, after the government introduced the green revolution rice technology and rehabilitated and expanded the nation's irrigation network, Indonesia achieved self-sufficiency.

Yet at the same time sprawling development projects began eating up the rice fields, including thousands of hectares provided with irrigation between 1969 and 1985. Over the last ten years this process has consumed one million hectares of Java's rich rice fields. As the rice paddies disappeared under layers of cement, so has Indonesia's self-sufficiency in rice.

Urea tablets

Government decisions have exacerbated the problem. When agricultural researchers found that the use of urea tablets as fertilisers increases rice harvests while reducing urea requirements by 36 per cent, the Department of Agriculture promoted the use of these tablets. In 1995 government officials pushed the regions of Java that produce 85% of the national harvest onto the urea tablet program.

State owned factories that produce urea powder withdrew their product from the market and forced farmers to buy urea tablets from a private company, PT Ariyo Seto Wijoyo. Owned by the President's 27 year old grandson, Ari Sigit, the company has a monopoly on purchasing the powder from the state company and pressing it into urea tablets.

However, farmers found the tablets scarce and expensive. The tablets required special tools and additional labour, unaffordable costs for near subsistence peasants. Many preferred to crush the tablets back into powder, often using less than the amount necessary. Last December the shortage of urea tablets led to demonstrations, with irate farmers burning down the head offices of three government sponsored co-operatives in central Java.

One Million Hectare

This year rice production will fall to its lowest level in 15 years. As rice shortages have pushed up prices, Indonesia will have to import about 3 million tons of this staple food. Given the importance of rice in the index that measures prices, this has contributed to inflation.

After months of critical discussion of the problem in the national press, in January the Indonesian government launched another mega-project: the One Million Hectare Sawah Project. With the eclipse of one of his proudest achievements, rice self- sufficiency, President Suharto chose to resurrect an old Dutch plan: converting Kalimantan peat swamp into rice paddy.

The idea is that felling 1.4 million hectares of peat swamp forest for wet rice cultivation will compensate for 20 years of land confiscation and displacement of farmers in Java. Over one million hectares of this forest lies in a single area between the Sebangan, Kahayan and Kapuas rivers in Central Kalimantan. The area is twice the size of Brunei, ten times the size of Singapore, or a third the size of the Netherlands.


Wood production is another important part of the agenda. By 1996 over-expansion of the pulp and plywood processing industries had outstripped the ability of Indonesia's depleted forests to supply wood. The wood supply slumped to almost half of the industry's needs, and the pulp and plywood industry faced a timber famine. In January this year two plywood plants with about 4000 workers stopped operation.

In the face of this shortage, Djamaludin, the Minister of Forestry, announced that Indonesia will have to consider importing logs for plywood plants that could no longer obtain timber from existing natural forests. Then, after meeting the President, Djamaludin changed his mind. Timber imports were no longer necessary: log supplies would increase once the government started clearing forests in Central Kalimantan.

Kompas reported that converting 1.4 million hectares of forest will double the supply of logs in Indonesia over the first three years of the project. As the project will delay the need to import logs for a few more years, it will cover up the crisis in the forest industry by protecting the government from the accusation that it has mismanaged the nation's forests. Not coincidentally, the PT Sambu Group will help implement the project. Bob Hasan, the timber czar and close friend of the president, owns the group.

The cost of the project could run to US$ 2-3 billion. As no international funding agency wants to touch the project, interest from the Reafforestation Fund will provide seed money for the first stage of forest conversion. The Forestry Department has accumulated this fund from the mandatory fees that forest concessionaires must pay the government. In theory concessionaires can reclaim their deposits after they replant trees. However, instead of re-establishing forest, the fund will be used to demolish it.


Transmigrant Javanese farmers, 250 000 families, or up to a million people, will be brought into the area to grow rice. But discussions in the press raise serious questions about the viability of peat swamp farming. For instance, according to a report in Forum Keadilan, Central Kalimantan is in low demand among migrant farmers from Java. Only pineapple and jambu (rose apple) can grow there. The upper layer of the soil is mostly peat, with a depth of more than one meter. In order for plants to absorb nutrients, the peat should be no more than one meter thick for farming.

In Riau province, Sumatra, the World Bank funded a similar project. The farmers were so poor, they encroached into the surrounding forest, felling trees, poaching animals, trapping pythons and owls. Infant mortality rates rose to 289 per 1000 births in some areas, amongst the highest in the world.


Other newspaper reports discuss possible environmental concerns. The peat swamp forest stores water for the dry season and prevents flooding in the wet. Draining the peat land raises water management issues, such as flooding in cities downstream, including Banjarmasin.

As the extensive forest fires of recent years attest, dry peat is also an excellent burning material, and draining the peat land increases the risk of forest fire. The conversion of similar areas in South Kalimantan replaced the biodiversity of the peat swamp forest with secondary Melaleuca and impenetrable Momosa pigra thickets. At best there is some marginal rice production.

The major problem is potential acid sulphate soils. These soils contain iron pyrites that become active upon drainage and acidify, with pHs dropping to below 1-2. These soils are probably widespread in Central Kalimantan, alongside gravel and sandy soils that are very infertile. This explains an earlier Presidential Decree called for the preservation of peat swamp forests deeper than 3 metres for hydrological purposes.

Rice cultivation will be a very expensive and difficult business in this area. Even the most optimistic predictions estimate that the Kalimantan sawah will be less than half as productive as Javanese sawah, requiring huge inputs of herbicides and pesticides, and the construction of an elaborate channel system to drain the peat.

Orang utan

Conservation of Indonesia's immense biodiversity is considered both a national and a global priority. Yet, the project raises many questions for the five primate species, the 140 bird species and the other animals found there. For instance: what will happen to the orang utans living in the area? High densities of orang utans live in the few remaining lowland forest areas of Kalimantan, including the relatively undisturbed peat swamp forests of Central Kalimantan. The orang utan - along with several other endemic species found in the blackwater peat swamps - is now on the red list of threatened animals, and the main threat to the species is habitat destruction and increased hunting.

And what of the local people? According to a report inKompas in March, displaced indigenous people are likely to move into surrounding forest areas, increasing the pressure on these forests.

Given the range of environmental concerns raised, Indonesian forestry experts have called for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to be carried out before the project proceeds. However, as of April, there was no EIA.

Pilot project

Meanwhile a pilot project involving 1000 hectares had begun at Mampai Village, Kapuas District. Kompas reported that due to flooding in the area, only 620 ha of the 1000 ha could be used. Then rats and insects attacked the crops.

Odji Durachman, the Kapuas Bupati (district head) said that the trial project failed. However, Amrin Khar, the Director General of Food Crops and Horticulture declared that the one million hectare project must be successful because the outside world is waiting. A further 10 000 hectares are now being cleared. The Dutch Government's Agency for Land Drainage and Conservation are working as consultants on the project, while two multinationals have sponsored the project: the UK based agricultural giant Zeneca, who provided free herbicides and pesticides for the trial, and United Tractors from the US.

Meanwhile, the public relations section of the provincial government optimistically estimates that the environmental impact of the project will be small compared with the benefits: one million people involved in the production of 3 million tons of rice each year. Forum Keadilan concludes that the need to fill the stomach is sometimes more important, even if sometimes you have to sacrifice the environment.

But must it be like this? Other critics ask why greater efforts are not made to protect fertile rice lands in Java. And rather than establishing transmigrants on peat land with such marginal potential, why not extend technically developed irrigation systems for rice production in other parts of Indonesia? Whatever the conclusion to the argument, experience suggests that if the project continues, in Central Kalimantan the people involved and the environment will pay a high price.

A full account of the project is available from the International Campaign for Ecological Justice in Indonesia by emailing dte@gn.apc.org.

The authors are academics in Australia.

Inside Indonesia 48: Oct-Dec 1996

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