March 31, 2017 Print

Just over two years ago, destructive floods in the Indonesian province of Central Java spurred a debate over federal regulatory policies on forestry and trade. Following the disaster, Jakarta-based Atlas Network partner the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS) published a study arguing that the country could reduce deforestation by strengthening communal property rights. Flooding remains a critical issue in Indonesia, with 35 flood-related deaths and 31 serious injuries recorded since 2007. A recent CIPS study turns to the effects of flooding on potato crops in Central Java, and proposes reforms that can make villages safer and bring farmers out of poverty.

“Recent studies conducted by the Wonosobo local government show that potato farmers contribute to soil erosion that triggers these disasters,” writes Hizkia Respatiadi, a researcher for CIPS, in the study. “Driven by price incentives they continue planting potatoes even though the short roots of these plants do not stabilize the soil on volcanic slopes. Farmers need alternative sources of income in order to prevent erosion and to reduce the risk of floods and landslides.”

The study details how government policies encourage excessive growing of potatoes, poor methods of production, and a convoluted bureaucracy for crisis management, damaged further by a protectionist trade policy. In it, they drew attention to how the downsides of federal management of forestry contribute to these crises, providing solutions that advocate for more involvement from local governments and for community control over forestry.

Together, these studies conclude that empowering local communities is a more efficient way to prevent and manage disasters at the local level, and explain that protectionist restrictions on food and other goods into Indonesia hurt the people they are intended to help.

Tariffs and other import restrictions led to price surges in rice in 2015, sending a million people into poverty. Producers of goods such as cocoa, minerals, meat, crude palm oil, and sugar have suffered from waning markets as prices rice.

Potatoes are inexpensive to produce, require a relatively short period of time to grow compared to other crops, and have high yields, Respatiadi points out. Farmers love them.

“The central government's trade policies to bar imports of potatoes, and thus drive prices up, have incentivized farmers to continue planting potato crops — to the detriment of their environment and safety,” explains Anthea Haryoko, communications and fundraising manager for CIPS.

The crop itself is unfriendly to the soil, and the cheaper, faster “vertical farming” method preferred by farmers only exacerbates erosion. In addition to calling for freer trade, the study suggests diversifying the crops, specifically with those that will better accommodate the soil.

“[V]illagers need to apply the central government’s community forestry policy and use newly granted property rights to manage state forest resources,” Respatiadi writes. “By doing this, they gain additional sources of income while preserving the nature.”

This approach has succeeded in the scenic village of Desa Sembungan. Members of CIPS met with the leader of a business cooperative in the area who led the push for greater collaboration between the village and Perum Perhutani, the state-owned enterprise that manages state forest estates in order to facilitate local nature tourism.

“Before, they were like any other village in the area — barely earning a living as farmers, and very poor,” Haryoko said. “This village is an example of how including local communities in property rights decisions can be transformative. Most of the residents [of] Desa Sembungan now have their own businesses related to the local tourism, through hostels, street food vendors, and guides. And you can really see this transformation from villagers formerly living in dilapidated wooden shacks to concrete two- or three-story homes now rented out to tourists.”

Welcoming these other sources of income can prove to be a strong defense against destructive floods, landslides, and other hazards of nature. Farmers in the province have a self-afflicting romanticism with potato farming, Respatiadi notes, given its success in the 1980s and ’90s. It can be difficult to persuade them to try working in other industries or even planting other crops. By shifting attention away from potatoes and bolstering incentives for communal efforts toward tourism and other activities, however, villages can become safer. As demonstrated by Desa Sumbungan, they can also pull people out of poverty.