Indonesia’s Failed Mega Rice Project

NASA imagery of pollution plume over Indian Ocean from Indonesian fires, 22 October 19


In late 1997 and into 1998, the peat swamp forests in principal Kalimantan, Indonesia, on the island of Borneo erupted in flames, sending plumes of smoke over Sumatra, Singapore, and Malaysia. although the fires in the swamps of imperative Kalimantan had been a few of the worst, peatlands and forests stuck hearth across Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra that yr. according to a few scientists’ estimates, the amount of carbon dioxide that Indonesia’s fires spewed into the ecosystem in overdue 1997 become equivalent to someplace between 13 and 40 percentage of global annual carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Coinciding with the overthrow of Indonesian President Suharto, the Asian economic crisis, and an particularly dry El Niño 12 months, 1998’s best typhoon of environmental and political upheaval thrust Indonesia’s peat swamp forests into countrywide and global cognizance.

NASA imagery of pollution plume over Indian Ocean from Indonesian fires, 22 October 1997

at the center of this environmental crisis changed into the Mega Rice task. in the early 1990s, President Suharto predicted the peat swamps of vital Kalimantan as the appropriate panorama for a task establishing in depth, Javanese-style moist rice production, which changed into aimed to strengthen Indonesia’s fledging food self-sufficiency and feed the u . s . a .’s 200 million people. while indigenous organizations in coastal Kalimantan had long cultivated rice the use of tidal irrigation, this native farming gadget became a ways extraordinary from the irrigated paddy rice cultivation discovered in Java. however, the densely populated island of Java, Indonesia’s political middle and fertile proverbial breadbasket, was dropping rice paddies to business development. Suharto’s administration appeared to offset declining rice manufacturing via commencing new agricultural land in Indonesia’s “outer islands,” or all of the islands beyond Java and Bali.

View of canals excavated in peat wooded area for Mega Rice task, significant Kalimantan, 1997

Canals and early rice paddy, prior to fires, Mega Rice venture site, 1997

A Singapore-primarily based agribusiness company, PT Sambu, boasted of fulfillment in growing coconuts and pineapples commercially within the peatlands of southeastern Sumatra by way of counting on an complicated community of dikes and canals to govern tidal flooding. regardless of the reality that the ecosystems of Sumatra and central Kalimantan aren’t analogous, the businessmen talked Suharto into planning extensive wet-rice cultivation in Kalimantan primarily based on the reality that they had efficaciously cultivated peatlands commercially. They have been later appointed as contractors in the Mega Rice task. Scientists and engineers from numerous outstanding Indonesian universities have been commissioned to layout pieces of the mission’s canal-based infrastructure, although Suharto and his advisors sought little input from experts regarding the venture’s potential for fulfillment at the grand scale they imagined it. a few Indonesian and foreign scientists quietly notion that the Mega Rice project would never paintings however few dared to speak out against President Suharto, a harsh silencer of critics at some point of his 35-12 months reign.

Canal creation began all at once in past due January of 1996. throughout 1996 and via 1997, the Ministry of Public Works, with guide from the Ministries of Transmigration, Forestry, and Agriculture, coordinated numerous thousand eastern-made excavators and tens of lots of workers to dig 6,000 kilometers of canals and clear plants throughout a million hectares of peat swamp woodland. As a part of Indonesia’s long-walking transmigration application, kind of 40,000 Javanese and Balinese farmers were each given 2.5 hectares of land to transform the deep, acidic peat soil into lush agricultural fields for wet rice cultivation. Few of these transmigrants harvested a lot rice, however. The nutrient-terrible peat soils have been in the long run unforgiving, and maximum Javanese and Balinese farmers had been ill-organized for this peatland surroundings. despite the task’s reliance on smallholder farmers, the Mega Rice challenge become major a failed commercial scheme. authorities planners had vastly puffed up the volume to which small farmers should control a complex ecological machine.

Aerial view of transmigrant housing and canals in the Mega Rice mission website online, principal Kalimantan, 1997

Javanese transmigrant housing and subsistence gardens, Mega Rice mission site, 1997

In past due 1997, after a 12 months of drought triggered by a sturdy El Niño/Southern Oscillation cycle, fires commenced burning underground, via the peat soil itself. Tropical peat soil is unstable organic count composed of decomposing tree trunks, leaves, and roots. Left undisturbed, the soils lie at the bottom of forested, waterlogged swamps at some stage in the tropics at depths ranging from much less than one meter to over 15 meters. Carbon is surprisingly concentrated in peat soil and is highly solid if the soil is saturated with water. however whilst tropical peatlands are tired across a large hydrological vicinity, as they have been within the Mega Rice undertaking, the soil undergoes speedy biogeochemical oxidation, emitting great quantities of carbon dioxide into the ecosystem.

Smoldering peat soil in rice paddy, important Kalimantan, late 1997

The mission is now referred to as one in all the biggest environmental failures in Indonesia’s records, no longer best because it enabled massive peat fires however additionally due to the fact the assignment—the goal of which become large-scale irrigated rice cultivation in the peat swamps—produced almost no rice. Following the failure of the Mega Rice mission and the unprecedented peat fires, a coalition of overseas and Indonesian scientists mobilized to behavior great research at the greenhouse gas garage and emissions functionality of tropical peat soil. This facts-based totally knowledge, reflecting the worldwide precedence for climate change studies within the twenty-first century, reconceptualized the peatland landscape as a full-size carbon source and consequently a global environmental danger.

the way to cite

Goldstein, Jenny. “Carbon Bomb: Indonesia’s Failed Mega Rice venture.” surroundings & Society Portal, Arcadia (Spring 2016), no. 6. Rachel Carson center for surroundings and Society.

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