KUALA LUMPUR, July 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indonesian government plan to develop a huge farm on Borneo island would likely increase planet-warming carbon emissions and forest-fire risks, while missing its goal to improve food security, environmentalists warned on Friday.
To avoid predicted food shortages caused by restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, Indonesia’s agriculture ministry last week announced plans for an estate covering more than 164,000 hectares (405,000 acres) in Central Kalimantan province.
The farm will grow rice, fruit and vegetables, and keep animals, a ministry spokesman said.
The targeted area includes land already cleared as part of a high-profile attempt by former President Suharto to achieve rice self-sufficiency in the 1990s, according to local media reports.
The autocratic leader’s mega project decimated swathes of peat forests on Borneo and proved disastrous due to the ill-suited peat soil.
Arie Rompas, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, said the new, expanded farm, if established, would lead to further peat damage and drying, boosting emissions and fire risks.
“The government is simply repeating old mistakes, and will trigger a new round of ecological chaos,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Home to the world’s third-largest tropical forests, Indonesia has more than 15 million hectares of peatland - an area twice the size of Ireland - mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo and in its easternmost province of Papua.
Ancient peat soils are particularly flammable when dry and are a major site of the annual fires that send toxic haze across Southeast Asia, causing respiratory and other health problems.
Peatland contains huge quantities of carbon in the form of organic matter, which has accumulated over thousands of years, and provides nutrients for plant growth.
When drained or cleared by fire, the carbon is released into the atmosphere where it traps heat, driving climate change.
“If the government continues to push this project, they are building a bleak future,” Rompas said.
Over the past two decades, the peat forest cleared for the abandoned mega rice project was largely left fallow, turning into degraded scrubland, said climate scientist David Gaveau.
Rice cultivation is not possible on peatland more than 2 metres deep - like most of the land cleared for the rice project - he said, while growing other food crops has largely proven unsuccessful.
“This region is the epicentre for almost all of the really big uncontrolled peatland fires,” said Gaveau, adding that the land needed to be restored to prevent fires breaking out.
Following particularly intense peat fires in 2015 - which researchers say caused up to 100,000 premature deaths - Indonesian President Joko Widodo set up an agency in 2016 to restore about 2 million hectares of damaged peatland.
To avoid more land degradation and fires, environmentalists this week urged the government to invest in restoring the farm project area on Borneo by replanting trees and crops to keep the peatland wet - instead of trying to grow more rice.
“Planting unsuitable commodities on carbon-rich peatland that require draining would exacerbate the already massive health and climate crisis,” said Tezza Napitupulu, an environmental economist at World Resources Institute Indonesia.
“Ensuring food security and access to nutritious food can be done without further jeopardising the environment,” she added.
Sustainable agriculture could involve growing native species like bitter melon, horse mango, sago and water spinach, which are suited to wet peat conditions and do not require land drainage, climate researchers said.
Indonesia's environment and forestry ministry did not respond to requests for comment. (Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)