Opinion

Empowering farmers, ensuring
national food security

Appreciation of Indonesian farmers is often far less than is merited by their important role as guarantors of an adequate food supply for all Indonesian citizens.

Just take a look at the amount of subsidies given to farmers compared to the subsidies for owners of luxury cars and motorcycles. This year, the government reportedly has allocated only some Rp 13.9 trillion (US$1.47 billion) for the agricultural sector and nearly Rp 216.8 trillion for fuel subsidies.

It is due to the minimal attention paid to this sector that agricultural research and development — as an example — has not developed well in Indonesia. Agricultural study is a second choice for many Indonesian students.

Meanwhile, many agricultural graduates prefer to work behind a desk in urban areas rather than devoting their knowledge to helping farmers in remote areas. Many of them even work at jobs that have nothing to do with agriculture.

Regrettably, it is not only the government that pays little attention to farmers and the agricultural sector. The public, politicians, media, scholars and NGO activists also have an indifferent attitude to the fate of our farmers.

When the government planned to reduce fuel subsidies recently, many expressed their opposition and even put strong pressure on the government to stymie the plan. But when farmers cried for help because they could not afford to buy subsidized fertilizers due to limited stocks, who cared?

Farmers work in very high-risk conditions. Who will cover their losses if flooding hits their paddy fields or plantation areas? Who will help them if they fail to harvest their rice because of water shortage? And the worst thing is that they frequently have to sell their products at a low price at harvest time due to overwhelming surpluses because the State Logistics Agency (Bulog) has no capacity to buy their stock.

 Indonesia is ranked No. 64 on the 2012 Global Food Security Index, out of 105 countries surveyed by the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) that was released on July 10. It is ranked No. 5 among ASEAN countries after the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.

The survey was sponsored by DuPont, a multi-national agricultural, petrochemical and household goods producer, and aimed to identify affordability, availability, quality and safety of food in each surveyed country.

One of the recommendations from the speakers at the ASEAN Media Forum on July 27 in Singapore was that the Indonesian government has to develop and improve infrastructure: irrigation facilities, roads, bridges, etc. to help farmers improve their productivity.

This recommendation only confirms reports from various regions that many farmers complain about lack of irrigation facilities. There are many old irrigation facilities, mostly constructed during the Soeharto era, that need serious repairs so that they can function well. With a poor irrigation system, farmers can not optimally exploit their rice fields as they have to rely only on rainwater to grow rice.

Indonesian farmers and the agricultural sector in general really need serious attention not only from the government but also from all members of the nation as stakeholders in the agriculture sector — not least as consumers of their products.

Any time the government provides inadequate facilities to farmers, we need to speak up to help them achieve their rights. Why did many people speak up when the government planned to cut fuel subsidies, but were quiet when the government did not provide enough subsidies for farmers?

Organizations that claim to represent farmers need to be more genuine and sincere in voicing farmers’ aspirations, and not just use them for their own political interests.

No one denies that the agriculture sector plays a vital and noble role. This sector is not only the source of living for some 40 million Indonesian farmers and their families, but is also responsible for providing food to more than 230 million citizens of this country. After all, 15.3 percent of Indonesia’s GDP also comes from this sector.

The indifferent attitude toward farmers will be a time bomb for the country’s effort to pursue national food security. Unlike other members of society, farmers, who mostly have limited educations, do not persist in voicing their aspirations.

Therefore, they need others to voice their aspirations for them. Currently, more and more farmers, particularly the younger ones, prefer to leave their villages and find other work in urban areas because they think that working on farms has no future.

Hiroyuki Konuma, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) assistant director-general and regional representative for Asia and the Pacific, says the high rate of urbanization threatens global food security. More than half of the world’s 7 billion people now live in urban areas. He predicts that this urbanization rate will continue to grow.

Farmers desperately need support to improve their welfare and productivity. They not only need subsidies for fertilizers and pesticides, but also reliable irrigation facilities to ensure that their crops get adequate water to grow throughout the year.

Don’t let farmers be condemned to their unfortunate fate, longing for a previous era when they felt they were paid more attention by the government. The days when former president Soeharto spent a long time talking about agricultural issues with them.

Specifically, research to find better varieties of seeds would help farmers. George Hadi Santoso, country manager of DuPont Indonesia, has said the use of technology could double farmers’ productivity.

Unlike urban workers, who frequently voice their aspirations to policy makers, farmers will simply stop working on the land if their jobs can no longer guarantee the daily needs of their families.

So let us voice the aspirations of those voiceless farmers before they find other works.

The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post. He attended the ASEAN Media Forum, discussing Global Food Security Index in Singapore on July 27, 2012

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