Indonesia: Farmers lose in hybrid rice lottery

by GRAIN | 8 Jan 2009
by Biotani and GRAIN

Just under two years ago Indonesia's central government launched a major hybrid rice programme. The plan was to convert over 135,000 ha of prime rice land to hybrid rice production by offering farmers free seeds, which the government would purchase from private seed companies. It was a great deal for seed companies, especially for those with the political connections to access the scheme-- people like Tommy Winata, a local tycoon who had just recently set up a joint venture with a Chinese hybrid rice company.

For Indonesia's farmers, it was a different story. By October of 2007, with the first season of the hybrid rice operation in full swing, those farmers who'd signed up to the scheme were experiencing major problems, and even complete crop failures. Some were burning their fields out of desperation.

"We are like a lottery as the government tests its variety," said one farmer from the village of Dusun Karang Duwet, about 25 km south of Yogyakarta City, Central Java.
in 2008, the government expanded its programme and the seed companies ramped-up their production. In July of that year, GRAIN and Biotani met with a number of local groups, farmers and scientists in Central Java to see how farmers were doing with the latest round of the hybrid rice scheme. As we feared, many more unsuspecting farmers are being drawn into using hybrid rice, with miserable consequences.

One of the ways that the government is promoting hybrid rice is through the Sekolah Lapang-- farmer field schools that were developed years ago in Indonesia to foster integrated pest management practices and build collective farmer knowledge and innovation in rural communities. The 36 farmers of one of these farmer field schools in the community of Samben (Argomulyo Village, Sedayu) were asked by local officials to devote the lands of their school to a trial of hybrid rice. The government offered them freed seeds for the trial from a variety called Intani-2, which is marketed by PT Bisi, a subsidiary of the Thai multinational company Charoen Pokphand. Enticed by the offer of free seeds and company promises that the variety would yield 13 tonnes/ha, the farmers agreed to allocate 5 ha of the 16 ha managed by their school to the trial.

In July, we spoke to Mr. Jakiman, the head of the farmer field school. At that time, he said that the crop was progressing well and there were so far few problems with pest and diseases. The harvest, however, proved to be somewhat disappointing. According to Jakiman, the crop yielded 9.6 tonnes/ha. While it only suffered minor attacks from stem borer, he says that pest and disease pressures were particularly low that season and that there is consensus among the local farmers that hybrid rice is in actual fact highly susceptible to pests and diseases. The farmers were also bothered by not being able to save seed from hybrid rice and the high costs of Intani-2 seeds-- 50,000 Rp/kg compared to 6,000 Rp/kg for the commonly grown IR-64. The subsidised trial did not convince them to continue on with hybrid rice. For the next season, they are going back to IR-64.

At another rice farming area outside of Yogyakarta, we met with a farmer who was growing a Pioneer/DuPont variety of hybrid rice on 1.5 ha, in the Mingas Baru hamlet, Klaten regency. His field was in brutal shape. This was the first year he'd planted hybrid rice and he said his crop was devastated by pests and diseases, so much so that he'd been forced to replant some parts of his field and spend even more on seeds. The main problem was blackbug. He tried using the insecticide Furadan against it, and, when this didn't work, he tried a more expensive pesticide. But this didn't work either.  

He said the company told him he could get between 13-15 tonnes/ha-- twice his normal yield. This is why he decided to buy it, even at a price of 45,000 Rp/kg. This is the first time in 12 years that he has had pest problems like this and the first time his rice crop has failed. This, he said, is the last time he will grow hybrid rice.

Reports about failures of hybrid rice are also coming in from other parts of the country. Abdullah Kamil is a community organiser who has been working with communities in the Kidiri and Nganjuk regencies of East Java since the early 90s when he started doing underground work to oust Suharto. He says that farmers in both regencies recently began growing hybrid rice. During the last season, starting in January and finishing in April, 4,000 ha were planted to hybrid rice in Kidiri and 6,000 ha planted in Nganjuk. The seeds were distributed to the farmers for free, either through government extension programmes or by candidates from the political parties competing for the May regency elections. He told us that 40% of the hybrid rice crops failed and that when the hybrid rice was milled and cooked, it turned to "boiling water"-- i.e. it was very chalky and broken.

The failures of hybrid rice are no surprise to one of Indonesia's most respected rice scientists, Prof. Dr. Kasumbogo Untung, an entemologist at the Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta who was instrumental in developing the country's farmer field schools. He says that he and his colleagues have long been familiar with the problems with hybrid rice, especially its susceptibility to pests and diseases. In fact, he says that he often uses it with his students because it is the only variety that gives students direct access to pests and diseases that, in Indonesia, are only seen in textbooks. Now he worries that the large-scale introduction of hybrid rice will lead to a resurgence of pests like brown planthoper. Dr. Kasumbogo says it is "very regretful" that the government is promoting hybrid rice because it will undo the advances that they made with integrated pest management in the country and cause farmers to increase their use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

"Hybrid rice is a luxurious variety that needs more care than a baby," says Dr. Kasumbogo.

One of Dr. Kasumbogo's big concerns is that the push for hybrid rice is undermining the very basis of the farmer field schools. These schools are supposed to take a bottom-up approach with farmers sharing local knowledge and seeds to improve their farms. With hybrid rice though, the government is using incentives and even directives to get the farmer field schools to plant hybrid rice varieties promoted by private companies. It is a top-down, disempowering process.

While in Central Java, we met with a local NGO helping farmers moving in a very different direction than the hybrid rice scheme. The Sekretariat Pelayanan Tani-Nelayan (SPTN) works with about 2,000 farmers engaged in (non-certified) organic farming.  One of the farmers' groups they work with is Sri Rejki, based in the village of Kanoman. The farmers of Sri Rejki plant only local varieties and follow organic practices, and they've managed to convince many other farmers in their village to go back to planting local varieties. Shortly before our visit, some local government officials had convened an evening meeting with them and proposed that they dedicate 30 ha of their land (basically all of it) to field test a hybrid variety, called Supertoy HL-2, with the government providing the seeds for free. The farmers told them they weren't interested. And it's a good thing too. A nearby group of over 400 farmers that did take up the offer with this variety suffered crop failures. Only after protesting and threatening to sue did the company finally agree to compensate the farmers for their losses.

The Sri Rejki farmers provide a strong example of how farmers can organise themselves to improve their livelihoods. But it is increasingly difficult for farmers across Indonesia to navigate past all the traps being laid by the government and private companies, often in collusion.

(For a detailed analysis of the Indonesian government's promotion of hybrid rice, see Hybrid Rice, Indonesia: State subsidising corporates, by Riza Tjahjadi.)
Author: GRAIN
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