Jakarta. Facing an impending food crisis in the face of the Covid-19 outbreak, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's administration is mulling over a plan to embark on a new food estate project that would clear 900,000 hectares of land in Central Kalimantan and convert them into giant rice fields.
The plan is eerily reminiscent of President Soeharto's one-million-hectare Mega Rice Project (MRP) under his New Order regime, a project that Dayak communities, activists and environmental experts deem a total failure.
Sources from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) and Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (Aman) in Central Kalimantan reported Jokowi's project had been planned before the pandemic to attract foreign investments.
While the intention might sound noble at the outset, we know that large-scale land acquisitions done under the rhetoric of economic development have almost always been counterproductive.
They have led to elite capture – a form of corruption where public resources are used to benefit the elite, exacerbated ecological and socio-economic problems for local communities and caused environmental devastation.
The plan is also likely to test the commitment of the Indonesian government to meet the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) goals under the Paris Agreement.
In the past 23 years, fire and haze in the dry season and flooding in the rainy season have become a "new normal" in ex-Mega Rice Project areas in Central Kalimantan.
President Soeharto issued a presidential decree in 1995 to develop one million hectares of Central Kalimantan's pristine peatlands into rice fields.
Without adequate environmental, social and technological studies, within two years the project had dug 187 kilometers of a central canal connecting three main rivers – Kahayan, Kapuas and Barito, 1,129 kilometers of primary canal, 964 kilometers of secondary canal, 900 kilometers of tertiary canal and 1,515 kilometers of smaller waterways in a total area of 1.4 million hectares – all of which resulted in peat drainage and damage.
President B.J. Habibie terminated the project in 1999, but enormous damage had already been done.
A vast area of pristine forest and wildlife habitat had been cleared and the drained peat continually undergoes oxidation, hydrophobization, compaction and subsidence until today.
The degraded peatlands can no longer function as water storage or hydrological regulator, hence the dramatic fluctuation in groundwater levels, which leads to frequent flooding during the rainy season and fires during the dry season.
The area continues to release vast amounts of carbon emissions and the annual fires release smoke with fine particulates and toxic chemicals, which are inhaled by the people of Central Kalimantan and spread to neighboring islands and countries.
In 2105 alone, 200,000 hectares of peatland burned, emitting around one million tons of carbon to the air, contributing to the global warming of our planet.
At present, there are dozens of oil palm concessions in the ex-MRP area that require peat drainage to a depth of 60-70 centimeters to allow oil palm plants to grow.
Fires are often found inside oil palm concessions, but the companies who own them are rarely charged.
Several companies have been found guilty in court, but only two percent of the penalties have been paid out to date.
In 2016, the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) was established to carry out the enormous task of restoring the degraded peatland.
Although a little too late, it sparked hope for many that the peatland, the communities and wildlife living within it can enjoy a better life.
Unfortunately, the hope was cut short before the restoration of the peatland is even completed.
The current regime appears to have learned nothing from the failures of the MRP and other past food estate projects in Papua, Lampung and South Sulawesi.
Bewilderingly, they seem to be supremely confident of the project's feasibility and success despite not having done any holistic impact assessment or secured Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) from communities living within the project.
Given weak tenurial security all over the country, state-sponsored land development has always posed threats to the rights, welfare, livelihoods and identity of local communities.
In the MRP, numerous violations of rights have resulted from the lack of regulation for land acquisition by private entities – often also exacerbated by bureaucratic corruption at the local level.
In other similar projects, numerous conflicts arise, such as land disputes, exclusion of local participation in the economic activities and erosion of traditional practices, which are often strongly related to local food security and livelihoods.
Land rights are a basic human right, especially for indigenous and traditional communities whose basic survivals are land-reliant, therefore depriving this right could result in a slow genocide.
Adding another layer to this project is the potential interethnic conflict.
The MRP, for instance, caused ethnic-fueled clashes between transmigrants and Dayak people when the government brought in a workforce of 15,500 people from Java, which left local people feeling left behind.
The conflict was rooted in jealousy over unfair treatment by the government, who gave free land certificates and housing to the transmigrants.
Meanwhile, the Dayaks, who have inhabited and cared for the land for hundreds of years, were not given any tenurial security, let alone land certificates or free housing.
Dayak people were also often stigmatized as primitive or backward, as well as excluded from development on their own land.
Indonesia's commitment to the Paris Agreement includes reducing emissions by 29 percent by 2030, and up to 41 percent with international support.
It should be noted that the food estate project will result in land-use changes and further deforestation, which makes up 62 percent of our national emissions.
Eighty percent of Indonesia's emission reduction efforts focus on land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF).
That is why Indonesia has engaged in REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestations and Forests Degradation Plus) implementation.
On the proposed project sites, there are also potential overlaps with existing peatland restoration and conservation projects funded by international donors, including Norway, the Netherlands, Japan and the US.
Donor countries who still have an ongoing memorandum of understanding with Indonesia need to review the potential impact of the project on their existing projects.
Land-based development, such as the food estate project, has always been used to reinstate centralized governance by powerful actors and restrict the devolution of power to local people.
That means recentralizing power and control over lands through a top-down approach.
This status quo reflects the power abuse of state and private actors to retain control over land and forest resources for particular political and economic agenda – masked with the populist rhetoric of empowerment.
Randi Julian Miranda is the founder and chief executive of Handep, a social enterprise that empowers indigenous Dayak women and smallholder farmers through the cultivation of sustainable fashion and agricultural products.
Alma Adventa is the founder of Komunitas Gerakan Melawan Asap, a community movement that helps the victims of forest fire haze and prevents forest and peatland fires in Central Kalimantan.