Prosperity, pollution, and the green revolution

 Greg Fanslow   |  
Retired farmer Darmono surveys the concrete pipe factory that replaced his rice paddies 2 years ago.

Retired farmer Darmono surveys the concrete pipe factory that replaced his rice paddies 2 years ago. (Photo: Greg Fanslow)

The logic of the Green Revolution—spurred by the introduction of modern high-yielding crops in the 1960s—was that food security was the most important factor in social development. That logic paid off with food supplies that have outpaced the dramatic population growth and urbanization across Asia for the last 30 years.

The fertile lowlands of Java are hardly new to intensive agriculture and the Green Revolution in East Java didn’t change the landscape as radically as in other places. The rich volcanic soils and large floodplains of Java have lent themselves to intensive agriculture since at least the 14th century, when the two century reign of the Hindu Majapahit Empire began. At its peak, this empire controlled an area larger than present day Indonesia, with its success largely attributed to irrigated agriculture in East Java’s lowlands.

By the 1960s, with Indonesia now a republic, Java continued to be the country’s rice basket, producing about two-thirds of the country’s rice on roughly half the nation’s rice fields.

However, the Green Revolution would be something dramatically different, even in relatively bountiful Java. In the 1960s, traditional practices yielded about 3 tons per hectare in irrigated lands and 1.25 tons in nonirrigated areas. With the full-scale implementation of the Green Revolution through the BIMAS, or “mass guidance,” program, the Suharto regime invested heavily in every facet of rice production. Ultimately, according to David Dawe, an economist with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the new approach roughly doubled production in both irrigated and nonirrigated systems. And, other improvements in postharvest storage and transportation would have meant an even greater increase in rice on the market.

People who had relied on traditional belief systems and local knowledge to direct their crop management were thrust into the modern world. Yields would more than triple in just 25 years, chemical fertilizer and pesticides appeared on the scene, and society joined the global cash economy.

Along with the technical achievements that put more rice in the fields and food stores of farmers, the Green Revolution also brought a social and environmental revolution as higher yields sustained a rapidly increasing population.

The more-is-better logic of the Green Revolution lent itself to correspondingly simplistic and heavy-handed implementation— especially in Indonesia under the Suharto regime.

Almost 50 years later, things have changed. Although food security was and continues to be the major indicator of overall prosperity, increasing population and urbanization mean that the environmental dimensions of prosperity are important too. In addition to insufficient food availability, overexploitation of resources and environmental damage are also becoming important constraints to human well-being. The unprecedented intensification that came with the Green Revolution brought fertilizers and pesticides and, with them, the potential to dramatically reshape the environment.

Anwar Arif, a civil servant and farmer in the town of Trawas—a small highland town that was heavily marginalized by the Suharto regime—echoed sentiments commonly expressed by agriculturalists in Java. He explained Javanese history in terms of three dominant emotions: confidence during the Sukarno regime (1945- 67), fear during the Suharto regime (1967-98), and confusion under the current young democracy.

“Under Sukarno,” explains Anwar Arif, “the local governments were strong and had relatively free reign to make policies and decisions that were rooted in local traditions. Production wasn’t high, but people felt a sense of confidence that their local leaders were aware of their needs and people tended to trust that recommendations were appropriate.

“Under Suharto, the power of local leadership structures was viewed as a threat to economic development by the stridently anticommunist government. The regime aggressively replaced local leadership structures with centrally controlled decision making.”

As food security became a major concern during the Suharto years, the government’s BIMAS program replaced traditional ways of passing knowledge between generations with networks of scientists and agricultural extension (training, technology transfer, and communication) workers. This era was characterized by dramatically higher yields, but with the high social costs of a poor human rights record and a sense of loss of cultural identity among many farmers.

While the government may have officially allowed farmers to choose which crops and varieties to grow, Anwar Arif and others say that resistance to abandoning traditional varieties was considered tantamount to insurrection. Efforts to maintain traditional practices were often smothered by excessive use of chemicals or fields of traditional varieties were sometimes burned if discovered.

 The outcome of the Suharto era is, understandably, a lot more bad feeling toward the Green Revolution than yield figures alone might suggest.

 In the new Indonesian democracy, people are left with the complex and difficult task of recreating the democracy and local responsiveness of the Sukarno era with the production potential of Suharto’s technological approach.

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