Mega Rice Disaster

On the drive between Palangka Raya and Banjarmasin you might notice a conspicuous lack of two things: forests and rice fields. The former is alarming since this area was once a densely treed home to orang-utans. The latter is tragic because the promise of rice destroyed the forest, leading to one of Indonesia's largest environmental disasters.

In the 1990s President Suharto decided to boost Indonesia's food production by converting one million hectares of 'unproductive' peat forest into verdant rice fields. After the trees were cleared and 4600km of canals dug to drain the swamps, 60,000 transmigrants were relocated from Java to discover one small but important detail Suharto overlooked: nothing grows on the acidic soils of drained peat.

As peat dries it collapses and oxidises, releasing sulphuric acid into the water and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Further, when it rains, compacted peat floods. Catastrophically. When it stops raining, dried peat burns. Unstoppably. During the powerful El Niño drought of 1997, mega fires released over one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the environment.

Today the area remains a wasteland. Some transmigrant communities have turned to illegal logging to try to make a living. Oil-palm companies eye the land for planting. Local NGOs try to block the drainage channels in a noble attempt to right the horrific wrong. Meanwhile Indonesia continues to import over one million metric tonnes of rice every year.