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Indonesia Plans a Massive Food Estate in Jungle-clad Papua

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Download Indonesia wants to turn itself into a global food producer.

To do that the government plans to turn 1.6 million hectares of land, in the eastern most province of Papua, into fields for crops such as rice, corn, soybean, sugar and palm oil.

Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country and jungle-clad Papua is its poorest region.

Supporters of the project say it will reduce Indonesia’s dependence on imports. 

But it has sparked concerns about widespread forest destruction and the marginalisation of local farmers.

Liza Desylanhi went to the proposed site in Merauke to investigate.

In the first of her two part series she hears from the supporters of the project.

 

Isayaz ploughs the ground with a new tractor.

The 20 hectare plot he is working on is a pilot for a massive food estate planned for this swampy area.

Isayaz says this style of farming is new to his people.

Papuans traditionally live off gathering plants and hunting animals in the jungles that once covered the island.

The Indonesian government sent Isayaz to the main Island of Java to learn their way of doing things.

“I learnt a new planting technique called the Legowo System. We fence off the land that is ready for planting and make a boundary. Then we plant the crops in straight rows so that the crops look neat and will grow straight, we make a 40 centimetre space in between the rows.”

He says many Papuans find it hard work as it involves bending down all the time.

They have large bodies he says and complain of knee aches.

But the Governor of this region, native Papuan, Johanese Gluba Gebze, believes things must change.

He has marked 1.6 million hectares - an area one and half times the size of Indonesia’s captial Jakarta - for the food estate.

“You can grow plants in a desert, you can grow even more on land like this. I’m not just optimistic but certain, these plants will grow well here.”

The massive project will take around 30 years to complete.

The government plans to give investors financial incentives such as tax breaks and reductions in customs and excise duty and will also look to make it easy to buy land and move in foreign workers.

The District Secretary of Merauke, Josef Rinta Rachdyatmaka, says they have convinced the central government that they are ready for the project.

“The government is now serious about developing this area. It took three years to convince  the central government  that Merauke has vast stretches of available land and that this project will not disrupt the balance of nature.”

In addition to farming, the project will support a wide range of agricultural businesses, including, sorting, packing and storage.

One million hectares of land will be available to produce food crops such as rice, soy bean and corn.

The rest will be split between plantations, fisheries and livestock.

Investors will have to purchase a minimum of a thousand hectares of land each.

However from the six companies who already have licences, none have started work.

Merauke needs more roads, electricity lines and harbours, says the secretary of the Merauke Capital and Investment Board, Abdul Aziz.

“Infrastructure is everything for investors. They are waiting for easy access. Once that’s in place the food estate will get off the ground.”

But there is no doubt investors are interested.

PT. Medco Group, owned by tycoon, Arifin Panigoro, is researching into what kind of crops are suitable to grow in the area.

And other major Indonesian companies are buying up land.

The Merauke District Secretary, Josef Rinta Rachdyatmaka, is optimistic the region will become the new rice bowl of Indonesia.

According to the government, the estate will produce an extra two million tonnes of rice a year.

But environmentalists, farmers unions and communitiy leaders say this will come at a great cost.

According to Greenecomics, Indonesia would have to clear about 700 thousand hectares of forest, an area 10 times the size of Singapore, to make way for the food estate.

And farmer’s unions say it’s big companies who will profit at the expense of small scale farmers and their families.

There are also major concerns about social unrest as a result of large numbers of migrant workers arriving in Papua.

In next weeks program I will be speaking with opponents of the food estate project.

The United States has called for Indonesia to move forward on autonomy in its Papua region and insisted it would not overlook human rights as it seeks broader relations with Jakarta.

Testifying in a first-ever congressional hearing on the long-simmering conflict, senior US officials pledged to investigate abuse allegations in Papua but said there was no evidence to back charges of genocide.

Last Updated ( Monday, 27 September 2010 11:01 )  

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