Do Indonesians really want more big plantations?

July 04, 2014

MONGABAY. How to best use Indonesia’s land resources? This is one of the more crucial questions facing the Presidential candidates in Indonesia’s upcoming elections.

Both candidates seem to agree that Indonesia needs to increase its food security, for example by expanding the amount of irrigated land and halt conversion of agricultural land into housing and industrial lands. Mr. Jokowi appears to target the conversion of “9 million hectares of unoccupied, degraded lands”, as he was recently quoted to say in the Jakarta Globe. Mr. Prabowo is slightly less ambitious but still seeks to open up of 4 million hectares of land in Indonesia for agriculture and bioethanol production.

I can understand these objectives to some extent, but wonder about the details.

First, agriculture provides employment for over 40 percent of the Indonesian population and around two-thirds of rural household income. Increasing country-wide incomes and reducing poverty therefore has a lot to do with agricultural development strategies. More income from agriculture requires an increase in agricultural yields or expansion of the land area under agriculture. Of these two, the expansion solution seems to be favored by the candidates.

Annual deforestation rate in Indonesia
Indonesia now has the highest deforestation rate in the world, topping even Brazil which has more than five times the natural forest cover. Background photo: rainforest in Sumatra.

The big question, however, is where these new agricultural lands will be found. Sure, on degraded lands, but what does that mean? For example, there could be a big difference between how the Ministry of Forestry would classify a piece of land, and how a local farmer would look at that same piece of land. Someone’s degraded land could well be someone else’s forest garden.

The government’s challenge to recognize what really is degraded land, and by whom it is considered degraded, creates a major potential for social conflict and inefficient land use.

A few years ago my research team asked some 7,000 people in 700 Kalimantan villages what they thought about forests, and under which circumstances they would support deforestation – studies published recently in the journals PLOS ONE and Ecosystem Services.

Plenty of people like the large-scale deforestation that often comes with plantation development. They told us that plantations bring employment, infrastructure, and facilities such as schools. These people mostly live in areas that have already been completely deforested.

On the other hand, 46% of the rural people in Kalimantan we interviewed strongly disliked large-scale forest clearing for plantations. They felt that companies provided insufficient employment, had significant negative environmental impacts, and caused major losses of forest products that people freely obtain from forest.

Peatland cleared for a timber plantation in Riau, Sumatra.

In large parts of Kalimantan with some remaining forest, people feel especially negative about large-scale plantations and indicate significant appreciation of forest services such as flood prevention and the cooling effects of forests.

A lot of these people actually liked deforestation, but only at small scales, sufficient for them to develop their own gardens and small-scale plantations. Interesting, a lot of these people live exactly in what the Ministry of Forestry would likely call “degraded land”, i.e., timber concessions which have been overharvested and illegally logged and of which parts are used for community agriculture.

It seems that many people in Kalimantan, and likely elsewhere in Indonesia, are not at all interested in the grand Presidential plans to clear “degraded lands” for large-scale agricultural expansion. So if the objective is to raise community welfare and reduce poverty, a broader view is required that not only looks at increasing agricultural outputs at all costs, but also considers the scale at which this should happen. Furthermore it is crucial that the Presidential teams do not blindly stare at potential revenues from agriculture but also consider the costs.

Studies in Kalimantan and Sumatra are clearly demonstrating the increasing environmental costs of poorly planned land use. Flooding of lowlands related to forest clearing and peat drainage, temperature increases as high as 8 degrees Celsius on cleared land, and zoonotic diseases such as Leptospirosus that increase with deforestation, are all examples of the high societal costs of ignoring environmental impacts.

The crowns of palm trees in an oil palm plantation.

To make a long story short, once the new president is at the helm, it will be really important to identify clearly what people actually want. Are large-scale plantation companies really the best way to reduce rural poverty? I don’t think so. Instead, helping communities, for example, through technical assistance and micro-financing, to increase their own agricultural yields at smaller scales, would likely be more effective and ultimately reduce societal costs, while maintaining environmental services.

Good planning on the basis of existing data on community perceptions could help prevent conflict and implement the best land use for any particular area.

In that respect it is good to see that Mr. Jokowi announced an expansion moratorium on plantations with social conflict, and plantations that are ecologically unsustainable, as elsewhere reported in the Jakarta Globe.

I understand that Presidential campaigning needs to use simple messages, and maybe behind the simple campaigning slogans, the two Presidential teams have thought up intricate, well-informed plans to achieve their agricultural expansion objectives.

But as I see things now, there is a lot of room for improvement and refinement. This is where science could help policy and decision-making. I really hope that both Presidential teams are supported by top-notch scientists who really understand the complexities of land use. They should tell the future President that behind simple campaigning rhetoric, a carefully thought-out plan is needed that functions a lot better than the land use plans Indonesia has used so far.

For now the question of how Indonesia could most optimally use its vast land and natural resources to efficiently increase social welfare appears to remain unanswered.

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