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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Indonesia Mega Rice Disaster

Air Date: Week of

Indonesia is a huge carbon polluter. That’s largely because of massive destruction of the carbon-rich peatlands underlying its tropical forests. Now some are trying to stop carbon emissions from that damaged land, and give local people a leg up at the same time. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Indonesia is the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Only the United States and China generate more of the climate-disturbing gas. But unlike these industrial giants, in Indonesia, millions live without electricity. Most of the carbon the nation emits comes from natural sources and an ill-conceived government scheme. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet traveled to Borneo - or Kalimantan, as Indonesians call it - and has this report on survivors of the failed scheme and hopes for a solution.


LOBET: “Peat swamp forest” - it’s an uncommon landscape.


LOBET: For millennia, 100 inches of rain a year soaked the soil here - so much rain that it ran into rivers then submerged the forest floor itself. Underwater, choked off from air, fallen plant material compacted into peat.

SUWIDO (via Indonesian Translator): Peat is a type of soil. It’s made up of plants and it forms over millions of years submerged in water.

LOBET: That’s Pak Suwido Limin, one of a handful of experts in tropical peat.


LOBET: With his boot, Pak Suwido digs at the peat soil. Up close, it’s packed with whole twigs and roots, not decomposed at all.

SUWIDO (Translator): You can see - these are roots, this is wood - you can see what it is made of. You can see the decomposition is not complete - this is still wood.

LOBET: All this intact plant material means this soil holds a wealth of carbon. Left a few more million years, it might become coal. Peat soils are the largest terrestrial carbon source on the planet.

SUWIDO (Translator): The amount of carbon in tropical peatlands is very high, about 50 percent. So yes, this is a carbon treasure trove, especially in Borneo here - some of the peat is 50 feet thick.

LOBET: Indonesia is especially blessed with these carbon riches. The country has more tropical peatland than anywhere else on Earth. But even though it’s been raining here, there’s something strange. In places, the land is smoking, smoldering.

SUWIDO (Translator): When it’s drained out and dried, since it’s full of wood and fiber, it burns just like paper. If we want to prevent this from burning, we have to keep it wet.


LOBET: But this land hasn’t been kept wet. In the 1990s, Indonesia’s President Suharto cast his gaze on Borneo’s thick peat forests. What he saw was unproductive land. He wanted to create millions more rice paddies, enough rice for all Indonesians. The cultural center of his country, Java, had no more land. Borneo seemed empty.


LOBET: So the forest in Central Borneo was cut. And officials traveled to crowded, rural Java, armed with attractive offers. Rice farmers like Sania and Sumarno remember what those government visitors said.

SANIA (Translator): There was someone coming to our village and then asked for people who want to do the transmigration program. They said that we will get some houses, lands - and we would be supported for some months.

SUMARNO (Translator): They said if you are willing to be a transmigrant, then you can have a big piece of land in Central Kalimantan. In Java, our land was tiny.

LOBET: The Indonesian government has moved people ever since the Dutch were in charge. But this migration plan, named the Mega Rice Project, was much bigger. It involved two and a half million acres of land. Yet almost as soon as the trees were cleared and the settlers arrived in this bleak landscape, it was clear the government had spectacularly miscalculated. Land, and people, would pay the price.

SUMARNO (Translator): The water was so acid that when you use it to shower, it hurt your eyes. It made them sting - you had to add limestone to it.

LOBET: To make the swampland workable, the government excavated huge ditches, 50 feet across, to drain water. But when the cutaway soil was exposed to air, minerals such as pyrite oxidized, creating sulfuric acid - too harsh for growing rice, or for much else, Sania says.

SANIA (Translator): The water is so acid. It’s not good for washing, for drinking, and for daily needs. The government supported us with three wells to run the village but it’s far away.

LOBET: Besides the lack of fresh water, the new migrants were soon caught in an epic storm. The Asian financial crisis slammed Indonesia, drying up the government’s ability to provide electricity or fertilizer to the migrants.

At the same time, a powerful El Niño event in 1997 made for record drought that helped send the farmers’ fires out of control. Fire is the cheapest way to clear brush here. Sixteen million acres burned. Shafu Law is another transmigrant.

LAW (Translator): I had hopes for my family, but then came the dry season and the fires. I lost five acres of rubber trees. I planted the rubber trees because the water was too acidic to grow paddy rice. The problem is, this area is natural peatland and the project was improperly planned.

LOBET: Those 1997 fires spread far beyond Borneo. A quarter of a million people across Southeast Asia sought help at hospitals for respiratory problems. Planes were grounded. The fires released megaton clouds of soot and carbon dioxide equal to six or seven percent of global emissions for that year.


LOBET: Now, in these migrant villages, out-of-control fire is routine. In a place that was once a dripping forest, these kids have known smoke every year of their lives.


LOBET: The consequences of the Mega Rice Project reach deep within lands claimed by Borneo’s original Dayak people. For three thousand years, Dayak villages had lined the blackwater rivers here. People trapped fish in forest ponds, tapped rubber from latex trees.

OBE (Translator): Before the Dutch colonists, before the Japanese in World War II, we lived here. We got our furniture, our houses, our fish, our mushrooms, everything from the forest.

LOBET: Diwi Obe Tabat and his nephew Eddy Sunoto are Dayak farmers and community leaders in the village of Kalawa, not far from the rice project. The Kalawans have managed to preserve a 25,000-acre ancestral forest nearby, in the face of repeated pressures.

SUNOTO (Translator): When outsiders came with logging, we rejected logging. We found an illegal sawmill, and we destroyed it. We rejected a palm plantation. We believe the forest is worth more than a one-time harvest.

LOBET: How they’ve been able to keep a forest standing amid so much bare land, they say, is with help.

SUNOTO (Translator): We are the only ones who have untouched forest left - and untouched animals. The forests are actually our ancestors. They are protected by a force, by djinns - the spirit of the headwaters of the Kahayan River.

One time, four people came here to do a logging job. They saw a vision of a man with a beard down to here. He told these four people to go away, and they fled.


LOBET: But though they’ve managed to protect their forest, the Kalawans have not been able to protect their rice fields and precious rubber trees. With the water-absorbing rhythm of the swamp forest broken, fire and flood reach here too. One casualty, says Diwi Obe Tabat, is their self-reliance.

OBE (Translator): Until 1996, we in Kalawa here have actually never been to a market to buy rice. We only started buying rice in 1997 after the big fire. The land wouldn’t retain water anymore, so when it rained, the water came down and flooded us and all our paddies would die. That was caused by the Mega Rice Project.


LOBET: There were people who warned the Indonesian government, back in the 1990s, not to go forward with the Mega Rice Project. One was the peat soil scientist we met earlier, Pak Suwido Limin.


LOBET: On the side porch of his tall handbuilt house, a Hill Mynah bird calls to him “Bapa Rio” - that’s “father of Rio” in Dayak.

BIRD: Bapa Rio!

SUWIDO (Translator): I told them that if they lowered the water in the peat forest by digging canals, it would ruin the ecosystem. The wetlands would become dry lands, and the dry lands would become wetlands. Everything would become one washed-out monotone.


LOBET: Now researchers like Pak Suwido have to figure out how to address the problems wrought by the Mega Rice fiasco. His home is a haven for international researchers concerned about carbon emissions from the peat. With help from European donors, Pak Suwido trains and pays local Dayak firefighting crews. In addition to the giant canals excavated for the rice project, there are also hundreds of smaller ones hacked into the peat with chainsaws by illegal loggers to float their logs out. Suwido pays local people to build dams across these small trenches too.


LOBET: Traveling in this landscape is really challenging, so researchers revived a tiny old timber company rail line.


LOBET: In the wet season, the little rails sit above the water. This is how firefighters and scientists get in to their forest research station.


LOBET: The first thing you see when you climb off the train is a photo display: orangutan, bearded pig, long-tailed macaque, Sumatran pit viper, clouded leopard - just a few of the animals spotted in the forest here. A narrow board, no more than five inches wide, leads into the forest. So one foot in front of the other, Mohammed Idrus and Agung Restu Susanto, two of Pak Suwido’s associates, lead visitors half a mile in to see how they’re actually trying to reflood the forest.

SUSANTO (Translator): Mr. Suwido has his own method of creating dams. First he uses wood posts and then he fills up the space in between them with white rice sacks filled with peat soil.

IDRUS (Translator): We’re actually expecting that when the water comes through, the old dried leaves will all pile up here and decompose, and this small canal will be permanently shut.

LOBET: Idrus and Agung, and the rest of Pak Suwido’s team associated with the University of Palangkaraya, have now built nearly 400 small dams on ten canals. There are hundreds of miles of canal to block here. So this is only a start. But Idrus says, it is a start.

IDRUS (Translator): I’m very happy to take care of the forest and consider it my home. And I don’t want anyone ruining it. Maybe if we grew the forest back it would be like back in the day when there were many fish.

LOBET: “Maybe if we grew back the forest…” When you see the exposed ground, smoldering even after a rain, that sounds like a pipe dream. Yet such a dream is taking hold in the regional centers of power here.


LOBET: In the night market in the regional capital of Palangka Raya, vendors hawk roasted peanuts, Dayak pride T-shirts, even a ride on a foot-powered carousel. And plans are taking shape here for how a massive restoration might be undertaken. Nick Mawdsley has a background in biology and forestry. He and 40 experts in fields from hydrology to microlending drafted a master plan in 2008. Based on that, Mawdsley estimates that 700 million dollars would be enough to block up many of the canals, reflood land, and fight fire.

MAWDSLEY: And if we can stop there being that level of fire, it means that people’s rubber plantations won’t get burnt. We will probably see the forest regenerating, and so maybe in five to ten years, we’ll begin to see something that looks more like a forest in these sort of really deep peat areas.

LOBET: Just a few months after that master plan was finished, the Indonesian government pledged to cut more than a quarter of its carbon emissions from land. Then last year, Norway committed one billion dollars to help Indonesia reduce carbon emissions. No one is sure how much carbon is being released from the destroyed peat forest, but everyone agrees the amount is so large that it’s globally important.

MAWDSLEY: So if we want to try and reduce emissions, and we want to do this quite quickly, then actually these peatlands here are actually a pretty good place to start. I think this will probably be the world’s largest effort to rehabilitate a degraded peatland and lowland area that’s ever been attempted. So it is big. A lot can be achieved - within five to ten years, we can get major changes with the right investments coming in here.

LOBET: And now it looks like the right investments are coming in. In January, this province was chosen as the first target for Norway’s restoration money. Just about everyone here stresses this must be a locally driven effort that addresses the day-to-day needs of local people. Scientist Pak Suwido warns foreign donors and NGOs ought not do what they’ve done before: ignore the expertise of Indonesians who’ve watched the whole Mega Rice scheme boom, bust, and burn.

SUWIDO (Translator): The idea of development should be to empower the locals. People come in with all their big money, but if they don’t involve the local people, that is not development.

LOBET: Perhaps done right, Indonesia could turn the scene of a massive misjudgment into a setting for the development it was seeking all along, with the planet as beneficiary. In the meantime, Central Kalimantan is here, stripped and burned, gushing carbon into the sky. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.


Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet narrates a video about peat soil in Borneo.



The only comprehensive plan ever made for addressing Indonesia’s Mega Rice disaster

Few tour companies can get you into the Mega Rice area, but this one can.

Article featuring the work of Pak Suwido Limin

Scientists working to protect Central Kalimantan peatland as orangutan habitat


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