Indonesia had once proclaimed itself as an “agrarian nation” or farming nation. After all, the landscape of the country is very fitting for farming: fertile land, a tropical climate, and high rainfall. However, lately the term “agrarian nation,” which used to be inherent in the country’s identity, is not as appropriate. Indeed, given current trends, it may well be that before too long, the term will no longer be associated with Indonesia at all, having disappeared along with farmers in the country who are gradually, but consistently, fading away.
For many reasons, being a farmer in Indonesia today is not a wise choice.
Firstly, agricultural land in Indonesia continue to be undermined by the interests of big business. Business people with large amounts of money, both local and international, are vying to purchase thousands of hectares of lands throughout Indonesia. Their companies destroy green forests and agricultural land to plant palm oil or rubber. Worse, their activity is welcomed with open arms by the government because the presence of these companies can increase state revenues through taxes and also reduce unemployment. Consequently, the government feels the responsibility not only to support the activities of these firms, but also to protect them from all sorts of ‘interference.’ The government has little care for the forests that are being burned, the animals that are losing their habitat, and more so, the fate of farmers whose lands are being taken away.
It is therefore not surprising if farmers are now experiencing a significant decrease in productivity because many of them do not have any more land on which to grow crops. The increasing costs of living combined with slumps in the price of agricultural products such as rubber have successfully forced farmers to sell their lands to plantation firms. Meanwhile, the policies of the Indonesian government, which continues to import food from abroad, have made the conditions of farmers even more messy.
The second factor is that agricultural lands in Indonesia often become a source of conflict. The Human Rights Commission reported in 2012 that, of the many conflicts involving companies in the country, those related to agriculture were at the top of the list. What does this mean for farmers? The number of conflicts signals how much desperation these farmers feel. Farmers are always in a weak position whenever dealing with companies with respect to land disputes. Their complaints to the government might lead to discussions, but rarely (if ever) to solutions. Complaints are likely to be met with rifles held by the police or armed forces. Therefore, it is not surprising if in the conflict between companies and the farmers, casualties are always among the latter. Throughout 2014, for example, as noted by the Serikat Petani Indonesia (Indonesian Farmers Union), 90 farmers were victims of violence and persecution. That does not include 89 farmers who were ruled criminals.
Third, pursuing a prosperous life as a farmer is often considered as a daydream in Indonesia. Farmers in Indonesia seem to have been systematically impoverished. Besides the fact that agricultural lands are increasingly being undermined by companies, the Indonesian government is often hands-off concerning efforts to improve the welfare of farmers. They were left to fend for themselves without any help or assistance such as fertilizers or agricultural tools, or even education about farming techniques. If anything, such aid is only felt by certain groups of farmers who have strong connections with the authorities. The rest, especially small and poor farmers, really have to fend for themselves as if they were not part of a country that once prided itself as an “agrarian nation.”
It is not surprising if today many farmers choose to leave their fields for other jobs. In the last decade, there was a significant decline in the number of farmers, which fell from 44 percent of the total working population to 32.9 percent. The Agricultural Census (Sensus Pertanian) in 2013 also noted a similar trend; in that year the Total Household Farming (RTUP) fell by around 5.1 million households compared to a decade earlier. If more proof is needed, we could go the the outlying villages in Sumatra, Java, or Borneo, where villagers flock to plantation companies to become company workers because there is no other option for survival. Meanwhile, judging from the real wages of farmers in Indonesia, their toils are only being rewarded with 37,000 rupiah ($2.7) per day, far from a living wage.
This very unfortunate phenomenon is ironic when we look at the fate of farmers in other countries. In Europe, the United States, and the developed countries, farmers can live prosperously. The farming industry is managed properly and are supported by the government through various pro-farmer policies and agricultural subsidies. More importantly, farming in these countries is not considered a lowly profession. Many farmers have high educational backgrounds, even post-graduate education. This is because the profession of farming has promising potential.
The declining prestige of being farmers in Indonesia is certainly not a small problem. If this continues, the agricultural sector will slowly die and the country that was once proud of its “agrarian nation” slogan will continue to import foods from outside. Hence, before it is too late, the government needs to seriously work to improve the fate of farmers in the country. Farmers need to be given assistance with different subsidies and technologies. They should also be educated about modern farming so as to be able to fill the stomachs of the country’s populations with food produced in Indonesia itself.
Indonesia’s young generation should also be encouraged to go to the field and to learn agricultural science. Even more importantly, there need to be efforts to improve the position and attitudes of those who have been very pro-large corporations. The government must realize that farmers are the backbone of the country. Without them, it is impossible to win back the slogan “agrarian nation.”
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Manchester in the U.K.
Muhammad Beni Saputra is a writer from Indonesia. He received an MA in American Studies from the University of Manchester in the U.K.