Battling to beat the rice crisis

Indonesia is cutting exports in a bid to ensure sufficient rice supplies.
(Ester de Jong/IRIN)

Indonesia's Java island is so lush with rice paddies it is hard to believe the threat of a shortage could exist here. Yet the island nation of 235 million people has taken drastic steps to avert a crisis amid soaring global prices of the staple crop.

In a bid to become self-sufficient in rice production, the government in 2006 launched a programme, Ketahanan Pagan, to plant 10,000 sqkm of additional paddy. Under the scheme, farmers received incentives to expand and improve planting areas, especially in eastern Indonesia.

However, the programme is not up to speed and less than 10 percent, or 590 sqkm, has been added so far, according to Hilman Manan, director of the directorate of land and irrigation management, Ministry of Agriculture, and in May, the government implemented a ban on rice exports to ensure domestic demand is met.

Indonesians on average consume roughly 130kg of rice a year, surpassing demand in Thailand, the Philippines and neighbour Malaysia.

"We only imported 1.2 million tonnes in 2007, that's not that much," said Bayu Krisnamurthi, deputy of the Coordinating Ministry for Agriculture. "Not if you compare it to the 32 million tonnes Indonesians eat every year."

The government is planning to spend US$2 billion this year on subsidies for farm loans, fertiliser and seedlings, which should be "enough to become self-sufficient", Krisnamurthi said.

Indonesia has not had to import rice this year, but it still risks becoming a major importer again because it is dropping behind in agricultural investment and technology, while fertile farm land is being sold off for housing. The high cost of fertiliser is forcing farmers to cut back, which results in a decline in crop yields.

Land issues

The ability to boost rice production will depend on finding available land on Java, home to half the vast archipelago's population.

Success will "really depend on where the government wants to create rice fields", said Mahyuddin Syam, country head of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). "Land outside Java is less fertile and it is not so easy to open up land."

For a time in the 1980s, during the Suharto government, large subsidies were provided for farming that enabled Indonesia to become self-sufficient in rice. But a loss of income from oil and gas production made it impossible to maintain those expensive policies. In 2007, Indonesia was one of the top 10 global rice importers, according to the IRRI.

Wet weather helped Indonesia bring in a bumper crop this year, pushing rice production up to a surplus of nearly 1.9 million tonnes, but rather than export the commodity for higher returns, the government has opted to stockpile it.


Photo: Judith de Jong/IRIN
Tonih, 80, who has worked the same paddy for seven decades in Bekasi, on the outskirts of Jakarta

To ensure Indonesian rice is eaten at home, border security has been tightened to prevent smuggling. A decree issued by the Trade Ministry earlier this year bans private traders from exporting rice, even though at current rates they can double or triple their income by selling it abroad.

Improving productivity

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) believes Indonesia could become a net exporter if it used hybrid rice seeds. "Farmers are afraid of trying them, because they are 10 times more expensive than ordinary seeds, but the profit is much higher too," said Benni Sormin, the FAO's deputy country head in Indonesia.

The rice institute is less optimistic about Indonesia's ability to sustain self-sufficiency.

"It depends on the data you use," said Syam, pointing out that Indonesia's farmers have been using the same techniques for generations. "Farmers work the same now as they did a few years ago; my feeling is that this country needs more time to become self-sufficient."

Rice farmers continue to struggle, often toiling the soil for rich landowners, earning the minimum needed to feed their families.

"Rice means life for Indonesians," said 80-year-old Tonih, whose feet are worn from working the same paddy for seven decades in the outskirts of the capital, Jakarta. "I'm tired, so tired, but I have to work."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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