GUNUNG MAS, Indonesia – The stream that supplied Indah Lestari’s family with fish has dwindled to a trickle since rainforest surrounding her farm was cleared by Indonesian soldiers – leaving behind a barren and eerie landscape that resembles the surface of the moon.
Lestari, from Tewai Baru village in Gunung Mas regency, said she could do nothing when the armed troops seized half her land in late 2020 to make way for a huge cassava plantation meant to help boost domestic food supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We bought this land with our own money that we saved but they just came and grabbed it,” she said inside her small wooden home as she rocked a child to sleep in a hammock, asking to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.
Rattled by COVID’s disruption of global food supply chains and price hikes caused by the Ukraine war, many countries launched policies aimed at bolstering their own supplies and cutting imports.
But in Indonesia, environmentalists say nature and Indigenous people have paid a high price for the government’s nationwide program to develop “food estates”, or large-scale plantations for crops including cassava, rice and corn.
Cassava – a drought-tolerant root vegetable that thrives in tropical climates – is widely eaten in Indonesia, used to make savory snacks, desserts and traditional side dishes such as tiwul, a fluffy rice substitute.
Indonesia is the world’s fourth-biggest producer of cassava, a high-calorie, cheap and nutritious staple that feeds an estimated 800 million people worldwide, largely in Africa. Nigeria is the crop’s top grower, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Climate change impacts – including harsher heat, drought and floods, which can slash harvests, spur new pests and accelerate food waste – are a major emerging threat to global food security.
But in a world where enough food is still produced and yet a growing number of people go hungry, efforts to rethink food trade, aid and speculation, and figure out how to balance nature protection and farming will also be needed, as will climate-smart dietary changes.
Indonesia hoped large cassava plantations – such as the one in Gunung Mas on Borneo – would make it less dependent on rice and reduce wheat imports, giving it an alternative flour for noodles and a new potential feedstock for its fast-developing biofuels sector.
Cassava‘s reliability and export potential would be good for the country’s finances and create local jobs – similar to how palm oil has become a pillar of Indonesia’s economy.
Led by Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia’s food farm push was ambitious – covering an area of 770,000 hectares (1,903,000 acres), more than 10 times the size of Singapore.
It aimed to improve yields on existing farmland, use degraded land and open up new areas for agriculture.
But green groups Greenpeace and the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), which monitored the scheme using satellite images, said of the 23,000 hectares (56,800 acres) of virgin forest earmarked for cassava in Gunung Mas, about 750 hectares (1,850 acres) was cut down near the Tewai Baru village without the consent of Indigenous Dayaks who live there.
A spokesman for the Environment and Forestry Ministry said any converted forest land used in the food estate project was not protected and that government regulations had been followed.
The Defense Ministry declined to comment, but Prabowo has previously defended the food estates project, saying in late June that “we must have our own food production”, while also preserving nature and the environment.
“This is very important,” he said, adding that the programme had adhered to the rules and regulations of regional governments and Indigenous leaders.
Despite the government’s aims, Janang Firman, an advocacy manager at WALHI, said cassava crops planted near Tewai Baru had failed and largely been left to rot, with similar environmental and human rights issues repeated on other food estate projects.
Clearing virgin forest also put Indonesia in breach of its conservation laws and international climate and nature pledges, he added.
Lestari, whose family and village are members of the Dayak people – the once fearsome headhunters with a culture of protecting forests, still grows tropical fruits as best she can on her remaining farmland, amid the white sandy soil and decaying tree trunks.
Only a few cassava plants can be seen growing beside the rusty land-clearing machines left behind by the military.
Without protection provided by the forests – also home to endangered orangutans, she said her village has experienced more regular flooding, which blocks roads, closes schools and damages homes.
“We don’t know where to complain. The head of the village told us this is the land of the country … so we cannot do anything,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The food estate project launched in 2020 is one of several attempts made by successive Indonesian leaders to bolster food supplies for the country’s growing population of 270 million.
A high-profile effort by former President Suharto to restore the country’s self-sufficiency in the mid-1990s under Central Kalimantan’s Mega Rice Project – close to Tewai Baru – failed due to the ill-suited peatland.
Although Indonesia has enough food to feed its people, it lacks variety beyond rice and tastes are changing as the country becomes wealthier.
About half the world’s population depends on rice as a staple food, but it is a water-intensive crop that has far higher emissions of greenhouse gases than cassava.
Cassava can also be grown across Indonesia and be harvested all year around, though it is time-consuming to prepare and has a stigma – at least in Asia – of being a poor person’s food, said Claudia Ringler, director of natural resources and resilience at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
The crop can also be used as animal feed, Ringler said, adding that Indonesia was yet to tap its full potential as a cassava exporter, like Thailand and Vietnam.
But despite cassava‘s promise, she said Indonesia had taken the “lazy way out” by cutting down tropical forests to convert them for agriculture.
“It’s not very difficult to make the case that putting a cassava plantation in the middle of the jungle is not needed for food security,” Ringler said of the Borneo cassava project, calling instead for greater efficiency on existing farmland.
Countries that opt to create large farms to bolster their domestic food supplies must first analyze existing infrastructure and farming, said James Lomax, a sustainable food and agriculture officer at the UN Environment Program.
Indonesia has a huge network of smallholder farmers that should be assessed in order to boost yields, whether by using technology or adopting sustainable, best-practice farming, Lomax added.
For large food estates, he said the basics would be to maintain good soil health, use minimum or zero tillage practices, conduct risk assessments on environmental impacts, and check nearby infrastructure and labour.
Indigenous and local people’s knowledge is a huge resource when looking to improve food production, as is rotation of crops, and diversity in diets, he added.
A varied approach is vital, with no one crop holding the key to food independence, said Angga Dwiartama, associate professor at Indonesia’s Institut Teknologi Bandung.
Cassava, while water efficient and rich in carbohydrates, tends to absorb a lot of nutrients and water from the soil and requires excessive tilling of the soil during harvesting, Dwiartama said.
“We must stop giving a single solution. There is no silver bullet to food insecurity,” he said.
Despite a recent global pledge to reach zero deforestation by 2030 – which includes Indonesia – tropical forest loss last year exceeded 2021 levels.
Indonesia, home to the world’s third-largest tropical forests, managed to keep forest loss near a record low in 2022.
To continue the good work and avoid repeating mistakes made at the Borneo cassava project, it must adopt a jurisdictional approach to boost food supplies, said Iola Abas, a national coordinator at Indonesian green group Pantau Gambut (meaning Peat Watcher).
The food estate program should prioritize the use of degraded lands, she added.
Back in Tewai Baru, village elder Gatis Gara said the cassava project had made a once beautiful community forest “ugly”, demanding the land be returned to the community to grow local foods and be reforested.
“Forests are God’s creation,” the 53-year-old said.
He said he rarely grows or eats cassava. The few villagers who said they had tried cassava grown on the government estate found it bitter and unappetizing.
“Not only did they clear the land but they grabbed the land,” Gara said. “It’s a crime.”
This project was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. – Reuters