Forest Infernos and Food Self-Sufficiency

The Mega-Rice Project (MRP) — the conversion of 10,000 square km of peat forest into rice paddies — that was adopted in Indonesia in 1997, was a mega-failure. It produced hardly any rice because the peaty soil lacks the requisite minerals. Instead of spurring farming, the draining of the waterlogged forest with a 6,000km network of canals fuelled fire…. It was the biggest environmental disaster in Indonesia’s history.  Burning peat in 1997 on Kalimantan and the nearby island of Sumatra generated the equivalent of 13-40% of the average annual global emissions from fossil fuels. The MRP was abandoned in 1999 but its legacy endures in the infernos that have ravaged Kalimantan almost every year since.

As work begins in 2020 on the new plantation, is history poised to repeat itself? The government says it has learned from the past. Nazir Foead of the Peatland Restoration Agency says that tractors will steer clear of what remains of Central Kalimantan’s pristine peatlands…but the rest is covered in “shallow peat”, no more than 50cm deep, and so can be cultivated without cataclysm, he says.  Environmentalists are not convinced… Smouldering swamps belch vast amounts of carbon. In 2019, the fires that swept Indonesia emitted 22% more carbon than the conflagration in the Amazon rainforest did. 

But the government argues it must go ahead with the plantation, and quickly, in case covid-19 brings about food shortages… For decades the political elites “have been chasing this ideal of food self-sufficiency”, says Jenny Goldstein of Cornell University. Prabowo Subianto, the defence minister, is one of its greatest champions.

Excerpts from For Peat’s Sake: Indonesia’s Environment, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

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