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Land and water resources development in Indonesia - Ato Suprapto

Ato Suprapto, Director General
Agriculture Infrastructure
Ministry of Agriculture, Indonesia


The agriculture sector in Indonesia is considered by government to be strategic and is a main core of the national development programme. Some arguments for this consideration are as follows:

Indonesia's 1945 National Constitution stipulates that “Land and water and all natural resources underneath are under the control of the government and [are to be] exploited as much as possible for the prosperity of the whole nation.” (Article 33)

The statement “under the control” does not mean physically authorized by the government. Rather that all exploitation of natural resources by any individual or group in the community, including land and water having economic value and social function, will be controlled by the government. Exploitation is undertaken on a sustainable basis and for the maximum prosperity of all Indonesian people.

The agricultural development paradigm took on a new life during Indonesia's recent era of reformation, with a significant transition to cope with the new needs. The paradigm centres in three basic principles: (i) agricultural development should reflect democracy, transparency, accountability, good governance and decentralization; (ii) agricultural development should put first priority on community - based participation, e.g. the role of government is restricted to that of being a regulator, facilitator, catalyst and dynamic force; and that (iii) agricultural development is carried out in accordance with the right or authority as stipulated in District/Regional Autonomous Law No. 22, 1999 including its implementation regulation (Government Regulation No. 25, 2000).


Land resources

Indonesia's total land area is approximately 192 million ha (Puslitanak, 1992). Although the country has an extremely large land resources potential for agricultural development, in fact significant challenges must be faced.

According to the National Statistical Bureau (1998), total agricultural land use in Indonesia - paddy fields, household gardens and orchards, rainfed uplands and drylands, open grass, brackish and freshwater fishponds, swamps, state and private plantations - is about 66 million ha.

Paddy rice accounts for about 11 million ha of Indonesia's total area (Ministry of Public Works, 1998). Depending on the source of water and the provision of irrigation facilities, land is classified as technical irrigation areas (3.4 million ha or 31 percent), semi - technical irrigation areas (1.12 million ha or 10 percent), simple irrigation areas (0.77 million ha or 7 percent), village irrigation areas (2.29 million ha or 21 percent), inland and tidal swamp (1.677 million ha or 15 percent) and rainfed areas (1.77 million ha or 16 percent).

In addition to paddy rice areas, Indonesia also has vast dryland and non - irrigated areas. The total area of dry land in Indonesia is about 57 million ha and is commonly used for such purposes as household yards, rainfed agriculture, upland/plantation and open grassland, while the remainder is neglected as dormant or 'sleeping' land.


Water is a central input for agricultural production. Potential water resources include rainwater, groundwater and surface water.

The amount of water in Indonesia fluctuates by season and is distributed differently among the regions. In general, most Indonesian regions have an annual rainfall of about 2 000 - 3 500 mm (60 percent). Some areas (3 percent) have annual rainfall over 5 000 mm and others having rainfall of less than 1 000 mm annually. This data indicates that Indonesia with its humid tropical climate gets uncountable natural abundance in the form of high rainfall, though in certain areas occasional water shortages or drought takes place.

Indonesia has a total territory of 1.9 million km2 and has an average annual rainfall of 2 700 mm. Of this, only an average of 278 mm (10 percent) infiltrates and percolates as groundwater. The remaining (larger) portion flows as runoff or surface water (1 832 mm). If this water - groundwater and surface water - can be managed properly, it would be readily available with a total amount of about 2 100 mm annually or equal to the discharge of irrigation water of about 127 775 m3/sec.

Total water storage capacity in terms of area in Indonesia is about 13.75 million ha - consisting of lake storage (1.777 million ha or 13 percent), dam and reservoir storage (50 000 ha or 0.4 percent), rivers (2.895 million ha or 21 percent) and inland swamp/polder (9 million ha or 65 percent).


Land resources

To utilize land resources optimally for more productive agriculture, Indonesia must face some crucial problems. Those problems are determined in six different categories:

Transformation of productive agricultural areas into critical land. Critical land formation takes place as a result of mismanagement of productive agricultural areas by ignoring soil and water conservation in farming practices.

Critical agricultural areas in Indonesia have reached approximately 8 million ha (Ministry of Forestry, 1997), consisting of potential critical land of 4.712 million ha (50 percent), semi critical land of 1.893 million ha, critical land of 1.247 million ha (16 percent) and an extremely critical land area of 224 000 ha. The growing impact of agricultural land degradation is seen in the increasing decline of land productivity, reduced hydrological function, and increasing sedimentation that gradually can cause the shallowing process of dams, rivers and irrigation canals.

Marginal land. Generally speaking marginal land is less productive, whether dry - or wetland, due to its formation process and its nature and properties. In Indonesia, marginal wetland is found in swampy peaty land and acid sulfic soils under tidal swamp ecosystems with a total area of about 24 million ha, while marginal dry land is easily obtained in acidic red or yellow podzolic and oxisol soils (about 47.5 and 18 million ha respectively).

Sleeping land. 'Sleeping land' is temporarily uncultivated or neglected land that does not match its previously allocated land use planning classification such as for agriculture, housing, industry and public services. According to the National Land Agency (1988), the total amount of sleeping land in Indonesia is about 1 132 000 ha consisting of uncultivated agricultural land of 1 026 000 ha (55 percent), housing area of 24 000 ha (14 percent), industrial area of 15 000 ha (8 percent), service and others of 9 500 ha (6 percent). The presence of sleeping land is mainly due to factors such as a shortage of labour during land preparation, careless landowners who work in off - farm sectors, distant residence of the landowner, low land productivity and failures of harvest due to pest outbreaks and floods.

Conversion of paddy rice land The rapid process of development has implications for the increasing unavoidable demand for appropriate land. Paddy rice areas are not exceptions. The conversion function of land from agriculture (in this case paddy rice) to non - agricultural land undoubtedly brings about a significant loss to the country, e.g. reducing fertile land, idle use of high cost investment in irrigation infrastructure, the disappearance of rural job opportunities for landless farmers, declining food crop production, and a threatened national food security system.

Ministry of Agriculture data indicates that from 1981 to 1985 and from 1998 to 1999 the conversion of paddy rice land to non - paddy or non - agricultural land affected approximately 246 000 ha. Those conversions are, consecutively, to resettlement (housing): 30 percent, industry: 7 percent, dry land: 20 percent, plantation: 25 percent, fish ponds: 3 percent and others 15 percent. During the five years noted above it clearly deminstrates that the conversion rate is almost 50 000 ha annually. Unfortunately, the majority of rice field conversions (90 percent) takes place in Java (West Java, Yogyakarta and East Java provinces) which account for 60 percent of national rice production. To compensate for the loss of fertile land in Java by developing new land elsewhere (on other islands) outside Java is not easy. In addition to the budgetary burden, most land outside Java is not as productive as that in Java.

Land fragmentation One reasons why agricultural practices in Indonesia are becoming more marginal and difficult to improve efficiency of farming practices is the tendency toward land fragmentation. This fragmentation has caused landholding averages to decrease to only 0.3 ha per household in Java and 0.5 ha per household outside Java.

Land fragmentation tends to occur because of traditional community inheritance systems and is closely related to existing socio - cultural and customary norms or communal values. If the tendency continues, average landholdings will become too small, eventually making them more susceptible to conversion to non - agricultural purposes.

Infrastructure development of optimal irrigated area According to the Ministry of Public Works (1988) it is reported that Indonesia has:

From this it can be seen that there is about 6.3 million ha of unproductive agricultural areas because of the unavailability of irrigation infrastructure and facilities.

Water resources

Even though Indonesia is a humid tropical country with high annual average rainfall, its problems of water resources are still prominent. Some of main problems are:

Rising water demand. There is a strong community demand for water that satisfies the public in terms of quantity - and quality tends to increase. Conversely, because the quantity of available water is relatively constant, competition among sectors such as agriculture, domestic, municipalities and industry for limited water is becoming more intense. Therefore, a policy that wisely arranges the use and distribution of water is indispensable.

Lack of upland/upstream land management. Land management in the upper catchments without consideration to soil and water conservation tends to create critical lands, causing devastating floods and drought in the lower areas. Indonesia at present has approximately 8 million ha of critical agricultural land.

Erosion - related degradation. Water functions such as lakes, rivers, or dams as well as irrigation canals tends to decrease along with an increasing rate of soil erosion creating siltation and shallowing processes.

Population growth. Water pollution tends to increase with population increase and sectoral development that produces pollutant or byproducts.

Inefficient irrigation water management due to irrigation facility damages and inappropriate irrigation water application at on - farm levels can cause uneconomic or over - use of irrigation water.

Extreme climatic change can give rise to flood and drought disaster. Such disasters are often caused by abnormal global climatic changes such as El Nino or La Nina. Long drought periods destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares of paddy rice field occurred in 1991, 1994 and 1997.

Over - pumping of groundwater without considering discharge capacity has created intrusion of sea water and groundwater pollution.

Weak water user associations have reduced the effectiveness of irrigation water management at the on - farm level. To illustrate, it is reported that of 39 000 existing or newly - created water user associations, only 11 000 units (28 percent) were in fact developed enough to function properly.


We have described that the potential of land and water resources is quite available, but in reality there are many complex problems still to face to develop more productive use of land and water resources.

Indonesia's Ministry of Agriculture has determined a vision to cope with the recent national agriculture development policy, e.g. to establish agribusiness systems with competitive power and which are “people oriented, sustainable and decentralized”. This vision must be manifested operationally in viable policies to make the agricultural sector become the core of all sectors of national development.

To enforce the establishment and accomplishment of this vision, strong support from land and water resources development are strategically critical and determine success or failure. Based on these circumstances, the Indonesian government launched a set of general and specific policies on land and water resources development. Evaluating the effectiveness of these policies is continuous, to improve their substance and content depending on actual situations and conditions.

Policy on land resources development

Critical land The policy to prevent the growing increase of critical (degraded) land in Indonesia is to introduce and to develop upland farming conservation practices to farmers. This farming practice emphasizes the maximum use of land throughout the year by considering soil conservation norms and applying soil conservation techniques to improve soil productivity, sustainability and farmer income. This policy is basically taken to recover, maintain and increase the hydrological function, increase agricultural production and improve farmer income on a sustainable basis. This policy and future actions will be continued and improved since its impact is positive and it has multiplier effects.

Marginal land Government policy aims to manage marginal land and carry out land improvement and amelioration to increase land productivity both in uplands and wetland. This policy implemented through some programmes has a certain target - technology transfer and know - how to farmer through intensive extension and training. It is strongly expected that farmers be able to apply the technology by themselves. In future this policy will be developed and improved so that farmers can effectively manage marginal land.

Sleeping land Increasing areas of sleeping land in Indonesia cannot be separated from three factors: the limited (low) availability of labour, land or agrarian law and soil productivity. Therefore, the problem solving approach taken is first to carry out a transmigration programme either for local or general participants, second to develop mechanized agriculture as a comcerpt by using farm equipment and machinery. This policy will be carried out in future by giving strong notice and emphasis on law enforcement (land reform laws) particularly regarding abandoned land. Despite this concern to not let land lie unused, it is necessary for Indonesia to develop an agro - estate approach, that is to develop new land for cultivattion with high economic value crops, owned by commercial companies employing local farmers. In addition to giving guidance and direction, the role of government is to provide credit at appropriate (reasonable) interest. If the potential of 'awakening' sleeping land in Indonesia can be developed effectively, undoubtably the agricultural sector will grow quickly and create new job opportunities.

Conversion of land function The occurrence of land conversion implies fast development in various other sectors requiring land. Nevertheless, if the land required is agriculturally fertile every such conversion will threaten the sustainability of Indonesia's agricultural sector and farming practices. Therefore prevention of land conversion must be seriously considered.

Current government policy to compensate for the loss of fertile land is to develop new agricultural land/riceland outside Java. This effort appears to be minimally effective as the rate of new lands being opened does not keep pace with land which is lost. In addition, the availability of labour outside Java is so limited that land utilization not optimal. Another limiting factor is that developing new agricultural land is quite costly. In considering these constraints, it becomes clear that in future the policy can be improved by developing new agricultural land/rice fields more selectively, and that both newly - irrigated areas and swampland can become productive. In spite of this hopeful policy, a more strict law enforcement policy on land use planning will be adopted.

Land fragmentation Land fragmentation means that with holdings growing progressively smaller and smaller, farming tends to become inefficient in scale. A recent policy step is to consistently apply laws or regulations for not further fragmenting small parcels. Community and government intervention is required. Another approach to counter land fragmentation is to introduce land consolidation through “corporate farming” in which farmers with small farms can join with others to make larger plots and so become more efficient, but without changing their landownership rights.

Staged infrastructure development toward irrigated land. Agricultural land that has not been cultivated optimally due to the absence of irrigation infrastructure will be developed through programmes and projects step by step. Such programmes include new construction and rehabilitation of irrigation networks not only their main system but also on farm level. For upland and rainfed agriculture, pumps, ponds and storage will be introduced.

Water resources development policy

To resolve problems water resources development, Indonesia has taken the following policy initiatives:

To conserve water including preventing water losses and improving the water holding capacity of soil. This is to maximize infiltration and percolation of rainwater into the ground and to minimize loss of rainwater as surface runoff. Percolated rainwater can be stored as groundwater and surface water can be stored in dams or other water storage. Future policy will be directed to increase the number of small - scale dams and ponds to serve as water reservoirs to supply irrigation water during the dry season.

To encourage a national water saving movement with all members of the community as water users. The movement aims to avoid wasteful use of water in all phases of distribution or conveyance. Therefore, the water saving movement is principally an effort to change the attitudes, habits or customs of all levels of the community as well as government employees in order to use water more efficiently. It is not easy to change a certain communal or social habit, therefore the success of the water saving movement will take time. Implementation of this policy will be continuous and consistent to allow attitudes to change.

To carry out reforestation and regreening in upper catchments and to implement soil conservation farming in slope areas.

To improve the operation and maintenance (O&M) of all irrigation infrastructure for optimal functioning. In implementing O&M, the active involvement of farmer or water users' associations is maximally encouraged in order to create a sense of belonging among all users of irrigation infrastructure and facilities that have been built.

To prevent water resources pollution from domestic and industrial waste. Future policy will be law enforcement in the form of a measure to all activities against law and regulation that tends to create pollution problems to the environment/water resources. Dangerous and toxic pollutants from industrial waste must be treated and protected with strong laws or regulations.

To increase the efficient use of irrigation water, efficient water use technology and management should be implemented and developed. Technology that farmers might adopt includes pressurized irrigation (either sprinkler or drip irrigation). In addition, increased water efficiency at the rice plot level of continuous flooding or submersion must be changed to intermittent methods. By applying these techniques crop productivity is not smaller than when continuous flooding is used despite less water being used.

To anticipate climatic changes particularly global climatic abnormalities creating long drought periods (El Nino) and high rainfall or flooding (La Nina), The Early Warning System is being introduced to develop actions and prevention efforts in anticipation of an unexpected disaster so that losses and damage can be minimized. Anticipation approaches include strategic, tactic and operational approach.

To prevent groundwater pollution and seawater intrusion, groundwater pumping must be done carefully in consideration of the recharge capacity. Supervisory systems should be established for implementation by authorized government institutions at provincial, district or municipal level.

To improve the performance of water user associations in managing irrigation water, the efforts taken must empower water users' associations in such ways that eventually autonomous, socio - culturally rooted, and environmentally, oriented are established.


Since the first five - year development plan (PELITA), positive growth of the agriculture sector has been a focus of attention in the overall development of Indonesia. The government vigorously acted to reduce food (rice) dependency from imports and the world market. In the 1960s and 1970s Indonesia was well known as a major rice importing country. At the time of former President Soeharto, it was realized that economic development was much more important than simple political euphoria when the majority of the people were poor - and some were starving.

During the first four development plans (PELITA), investment in land and water resources development mainly emphasized agricultural development, especially food crtops and rice self - sufficiency. Thousands of hectares of paddy rice areas were developed throughout Indonesia on islands outside Java focusing as major developing area. Land and water resources development is essentially inseparable, and have been developed simultaneously. Hundreds of existing irrigation network with facilities and infrastructure not functioning well have been rehabilitated and reconstructed. Many new irrigation networks have also been constructed. In order to manage operation and maintenance irrigation facilities on farm level thousands of existing water user associations have been strengthened and new ones were established.

To ensure the sustainability of water storage capacity of irrigation works, most catchments nationwide were protected through a national regreening project. Many degradated catchment areas have been rehabilitated, reducing erosion and improving their hydrological condition.

Together with land and resource development, other agricultural development policies related to increasing food crop production have been vigorously strengthened. The main focus of policy was on increasing agricultural production through improved agricultural technology based on a selected package of improved seeds and varieties, fertilizers and pesticides. Designing and providing such improved technology packages was done through a national mass guidance programme. Adoptiing technology at the field level was facilitated by appropriate financial packages and subsidized credit channeled through village cooperative units. A large - scale agricultural extension programme using thousands of well - trained field extension workers was introduced to reach people near major - road networks.

Using such land development, irrigation, construction and rehabilitation, and crop intensification schemes, Indonesia achieved rice self - sufficiency in 1984. Government investment in the irrigation sector in fiscal year 1994/1995 reached 338.8 billion rupees or some US$300 million. Rice self sufficiency was maintained until 1993, despite temporary government measures to import some rice as a national buffer stock for market operation in case of rice scarcity - especially during the dry season.

As Indonesia gained confidence in securing its national food supply, attention gradually began to include the industrial sector. Government strategy for promoting industrial development emphasizes both export promotion and import substitution. Looking to the industrial sector as a driving force in the national economy is intended to be supported by a strong agricultural sector. Therefore since the end of the 1980s, government investment in land and water resources development as well as other use of agricultural production inputs has gradually decreased. Since the beginning of the 1990s investment in land and water resources has been mainly focused on improved operation and maintenance of irrigation infrastructure and facilities.

Due to the rapid rate of fertile agricultural land conversion to non - agricultural use reaching some 50 000 ha per year, prolonged drought and flood periods because of global climatic abnormality, environmental degradation, reduced subsidies of agro - inputs and agricultural extension activities, Indonesia's rice self sufficiency began to be unstable. Although rice self - sufficiency was achieved in 1984, rice imports gradually increased. In the 1990s the level of rice imports have grown, reaching some 6 million tonnes in 1998 - or some 20 percent of domestic consumption. Such imports joined the pre - existing monetary and economic problems and growing political instability.

To regain food self - sufficiency, Indonesia has given renewed attention to production, allocating substantial funds both from national budget and from international lenders. Starting from the 1995/1996 fiscal year investment from national budget financed a substantial land and water resource development projevc in Central Kalimantan, the so - called One Million Hectares of Tidal Swamp Development Project. This ambitious environmental project achieved worlwide notoriety by absorbing one billion rupees from the national budget to provide new land to substitute for significant and rising losses of fertile paddy ricefields in Java. However, the project yield is little compared to its expectations. While basic land and water resource development has been attempted what remains is mostly environmental degraded land. This is Indonesia’s worst lesson in what can go wrong in land and water resource development.

In addition to many small projects financed through the national budget, there are many land and water development projects financed by international donors such as the IBRD, JICA/JBIC and the ADB. Since 1990 there have been many major donor supported programmes for agriculture and rural development including land and water resources development projects, such as the IBRD - financed Groundwater Development Project, implemented in 11 provinces from 1993 to 1999; and the Integrated Swamp Development Project conducted in 1994 to 2000 in three provinces.

The Asian Development Bank - financed Upland Farming Development Project was conducted in four provinces from 1995 to 2000. It also financed programmes such as the Second Irrigation Sector Project from 1994 to 2000 and the Sulawesi Rainfed Agriculture Development Project from 1994 to 2000 in four provinces in Sulawesi. All the projects have an objective to increase productivity of land and food crop production by introducing varied techniques, inputs, practices and farm management to contribute to agricultural development, increase farmer income and alleviate poverty in rural areas.

To alleviate rural property commonly inherent with upland areas, a more attention gradually being paid to upland areas that during the last decade getting less attention than lowland/paddy rice area. The policy of focusing rice field as a target of agriculture development tends to cause that a region dominated with lowland generally become more prosperous than that of upland areas. Many villages classified as poor are situated in upland areas. Introduction of integrated upland conservation practices through the Sulawesi Rainfed Development Project exemplifies government efforts to reduce poverty, particularly in rural areas. By this integrated project, high value economic crops and other agricultural commodities such as livestock, estate crops and poultry are introduced. At the same time, rural infrastructure such as farm and village road, drinking water facilities, checkdams and other soil and water conservation structures were constructed on a communal and participatory basis to ensure sustainability of the project activities.

In fact, poverty is also present in urban and suburban areas that grew rapidly during the monetary and economic crisis. Since the rate of economic grow was very low and the exchange rate of the US dollar was so high, many private companies using imported raw materials could no longer survive. Job opportunities became very limited; many people lost their jobs. To provide job opportunities and to alleviate poverty, land (particularly 'sleeping land' around urban or suburban areas) was cultivated extensively by planting short growth period - high value economic crops. This farming practice is usually called peri - urban agriculture.

In terms of national food security, though the investment on land and water resources development is not as big as that of allocated budget in fiscal year 1994/1995, national rice production in the year 2000 has surprising surplus over 2 million tonnes. This surplus mainly resulted from improved intensification, favourable climate and weather conditions, increased cropping intensity and rice planting area and declining national per capita rice consumption (below 120 kg per year). Therefore, rice import policy questions are currently not so urgent, or if so for some reason, it would not likely be during harvest.


National food security on quantity basis meaning self sufficiency of rice remains a major concern of the government until recently. It is realized that investment on land and water resources development has gradually decreased since the achievement of rice - self sufficiency in 1984 in accordance with the staring policy of placing industrial sector as a driving force of national economic growth. Unfortunately, the sufficiency of rice did not last longer indicated by growing import of rice since 1993.

To obtain again sufficiency of rice a strong struggle has been made by the government. Along with overcoming land and water resources problems, some national actions were taken such as increasing the quality of intensification, increasing cropping intensity, expanding planting area, improving agriculture infrastructure and facilities - including improvement of irrigation networks and improving food diversification. Eventually in 2000 and 2001 there was sufficiency of rice with a surplus of more than 2 million tonnes. However, in anticipation of the growing national food demand in the twenty - first century with an annual population increase of about 2 percent, significant budget must be invested in the agricultural sector including on land and water resources development.

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