by Bambang Purwanto
JAKARTA, July 11 (Xinhua) -- The Indonesian government is preparing a food estate in Pandih Batu sub-district, Pulang Pisau district, around 147.4 kilometers from Central Kalimantan Province's capital city of Palangka Raya.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Thursday visited the area. The president has given directives that the food estate development project would be managed by Minister of Public Works and Public Housing Basuki Hadimuljono, Minister of State-Owned Enterprises Erick Thohir, and Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto.
According to Hadimuljono, the food estate would cover a total area of 164,598 hectares. At the initial phase, some 30,000 hectares of the area would be planted in October this year until March 2021 during the rainy season.
"We are preparing for the planting season from October to March. The Ministry of Public Works and Public Housing will improve the irrigation channels, while the Ministry of Agriculture is preparing other aspects so we can start planting from October to March," Hadimuljono said.
The prospective food estate is located in an area where a peatland development project was developed during former President Soeharto era (1967-1998), he said, adding that it is situated between the Kapuas River and the Barito River in Central Kalimantan.
In 1995, late President Suharto ordered a number of ministers to work on 5.8 million hectares of land in Kalimantan to increase the national rice production outside Java Island.
However, the development plan, known as the Peatlands Project, stopped following the fall of Soeharto in 1998, in addition to graft practices and the failure in the environmental analysis on the project.
Of the total land for the current food estate project, 85,456 hectares have become paddy fields planted by local farmers.
Meanwhile, the remaining 79,142 hectares were overgrown with shrubs that require land clearing.
Hadimuljono said the food estate was expected to become a modern agricultural center with technology supports, and therefore, it needs skilled laborers who would be prepared by the Ministry of Defense in a non-military program.
The Indonesian Defense Ministry's spokesman Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak said in addition to preparing trained personnel, the ministry would also serve as a leading sector in the effort to strengthen the food estate project.
The food estate was expected to become Indonesia's strategic logistics reserves that would be handled by personnel of the National Armed Forces, Simanjuntak said, connecting the estate with the COVID-19 pandemic which has paralyzed the economic and social sectors in various countries and threatened food availability.
Long before the pandemic outbreak, some Asian and African countries left the agriculture to develop the industrial sector.
"Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has alerted us that after all what we need most are shelters and foods," Simanjuntak said.
The local people welcome the food estate development plan.
According to Edy Pratowo, head of Pulang Pisau district, the development of food estate would help improve the economy of local farmers.
"The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could trigger a shortage of food reserves," he said.
Pratowo expressed hope that the food estate program could maintain Indonesia's food reserves, and increase national agricultural production.
Meanwhile, University of Palangka Raya's researcher Kitso warned that the project should not damage the environment as it is located on peatlands which are physically and chemically unsuitable for rice farming.
According to Kitso, not all plots of the land for the project can be used for locations to grow paddy because among them are those with peatlands more than 50 centimeters deep and are very risky to the environment.
Forcing peatlands more than 50 centimeters deep to become paddy fields would cause such natural disasters as fires that occurred in 1996 and 1997, he stressed.
In addition, he continued, up to now the groundwater in Pulang Pisau district and the Kapuas River still contain acid, making a number of fish species, especially shrimp, very difficult to find in the river.
He suggested that the central government be wiser in choosing areas for food estates to avoid recurrence of failures in previous projects.
However, Syamsuddin, Head of Central Kalimantan's Agricultural Technology Assessment Center, said the concern of some parties on the environmental impact would not occur.
"This project will not disturb the environment because we are not working on new lands, but optimizing the existing ones," he said.
He pointed out that his side has been intensifying the existing lands along the year of 2020 to increase the cropping index so as to make the lands more productive.
This year around 30,000 hectares would be cultivated, consisting of 20,000 hectares in Kapuas and 10,000 hectares in Pulang Pisau.
Indonesia's Central Agency of Statistics noted that the area of paddy fields in Indonesia continues to decline due to land conversion into industrial areas.
The record in 2018 showed the paddy fields in the country has an area of 7.1 million hectares, down compared to 7.75 million hectares in 2017.
The planned food estate was expected to extend rice fields in Indonesia and increase the national food production.