Indonesia: struggles for land, and global warming in the here-and-now

 A vivid account of the battle for land in Indonesia has been published by Wildcat, the German communist group, here. It’s well worth reading. The Wildcat activists describe “two front lines” in the struggle for land. First, peasants are fighting for the return of land grabbed under the Suharto dictatorship and handed over to state plantations. Second, they are battling private corporations that grab land, often for palm oil production or for mining – a process that takes a heavy toll on Indonesia’s forests, as well as on those who live on the land.

Peasants who don’t sell up to the corporations, for fear of becoming dependent, face conflict. Wildcat reports: “Once plantations have taken root, other forms of agriculture become impossible. It is impossible to grow paddy in the midst of oil palms – all pests, first of all mice, will devour the remaining fields. In this way the peasants are forced to grow oil palms themselves.” Those who resist face “a climate of mental and physical intimidation” by “the united power of capital, state and the church.”

As if this frightful alliance was not enough, Indonesia’s peasants are among the foremost victims of global warming – not in the future, not according to climatological models, but right now. At least that was the claim made by Indonesia’s deputy minister of agriculture and officials of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) at a seminar in Jakarta in April. (You can access information, including slide presentations, here.)

Attendees at the seminar heard dire warnings of the future effects of global warming on south-east Asian agriculture. For example Ancha Srinivasan, the ADB’s senior climate change specialist, presented an estimate that developing countries in Asia would on average face “18% decline in calorie availability” by 2050 due to higher global temperatures. The loss of cultivated crop area due to sea-level rise will be most serious for Vietnam, with Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines also suffering badly.

Such predictions and computer models are unreliable, though. They can never take into account all the factors that will determine something as complex as calorie availability. More striking than the forecasts were Srinivasan’s claims about the impacts of global warming that have already been observed. He said that in the 1990s, flood-related damage was eight times greater, and direct damage costs from tropical cyclones 35 times higher, than in the 1970s.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these numbers, but none of the assembled agronomists, climatologists or politicians demurred. And other speakers also referred to current – not future – impacts of global warming.

Endah Murniningtyas of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a pro-market think tank, said that climate change is leading to changes in crop patterns as well as more natural disasters. This is reducing agricultural output and compelling countries to hold back production for domestic food stocks that would otherwise have been exported. These climate change effects were only one cause of pressure on agriculture, according to him; others included the conversion of agriculture land for other use. Murniningtyas warned that – as of April – this year domestic food procurement was lower than planned, and lower than last year.

Indonesia’s deputy agriculture minister Bayu Krisnamurti identified “escalating and uncontrolled agricultural land conversion”, along with pressure on water resources and rapid population growth, as “national food problems”. He reported on a series of government policies, such as developing infrastructure and research capacity and diversifying food products, designed to counter the effects of global warming.

The damaging effects of global warming in the here-and-now are not only felt in Indonesia, according to other research. On African farmers – who are among the most vulnerable to global warming effects – there is a fairly heavyweight piece by agronomists and economists, published by IFPRI, here, and a piece focused more on local knowledge and interviews, published by Oxfam, here.

I’ll suggest two things to think about:

1. Struggles for land, and against land enclosure by big corporations, will also increasingly be struggles about management of resources in the face of current global warming impacts, and freshwater shortages with which these are linked.

2. Socialists could deprioritise arguments about the complexities of global warming predictions – which are extremely important, but ultimately only as accurate as any other predictions, i.e. not very – and focus more attention on global warming impacts that have already happened: not only general ones (such as the unprecedented rise in global temperature as a result of greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution), but also the very specific problems facing south-east Asian and African farmers. GL.


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