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Indonesian agriculture plan sparks environmental storm

At least 150 groups say a move to turn huge swathes of peatland into a massive food basket would be disastrous

Indonesian agriculture plan sparks environmental storm

Environmentalists say a plan to turn hundreds of thousands of hectares of Indonesian peatland into an agricultural bread basket is a disaster waiting to happen. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP)

More than 150 environmental groups have called on the Indonesian government to abandon plans to convert hundreds of thousands of hectares of peatland in Central Kalimantan to grow food crops, saying the move would have catastrophic consequences for the environment.

Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo last week said the government wants to set aside about 300,000 hectares of peatland for agricultural purposes to meet domestic demand for food, and boost exports. 

His comments were met with a tidal wave of criticism from at least 155 environmental groups across Indonesia, including the church’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) in Kalimantan, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, Greenpeace and the Alliance of Indigenous People of the Archipelago.

In a June 12 statement, they called for an immediate halt to what was being called the Food Estate Project, saying peatland is not meant for agriculture. 

They said most peatland fires that have blighted the country and the region over many years were caused by agricultural activities.

The plan would likely result in much needed resources going to waste and cause more forest fires, they said. 

Previous attempts to convert such land instigated during the time of Suharto were stopped by his successor as president, Bacharuddin Habibie, because it proved more disadvantageous, they said.

“We urge the government to not repeat the same mistakes by rolling out another such project in the region,” the groups said.

If the government wants to boost agriculture, help local farmers by teaching and providing modern techniques and technologies.

“We also call on the government to stop evictions on agricultural land to pave the way for infrastructure, mining and palm oil plantations, a policy that has not been in the public interest,” they said. 

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Rusmadya Maharudin from Greenpeace Indonesia said more than 260,000 hectares of peatland are burned every year across the country, destroying ecosystems and adding to climate change.

Frans Sani Lake, director of JPIC Kalimantan, said the government does not need to destroy such pristine nature and called on the government to help farmers boost yields from existing agricultural land.

He feared that wiping out peatland like in previous years would result in more palm oil plantations and mining. “It will create another ecosystem disaster, which will have a devastating effect on local people,” he said.

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