Tue, 14 May 2002

2002 rice import seen at 1.3 million tons

Adianto P. Simamora, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Indonesia would only need to import about 1.3 million tons of rice this year despite the threat of the drought-inducing El Nino weather phenomenon, a senior official at the Agriculture Ministry said on Monday.

"Even with El Nino, the country's total rice importation will not surpass ... 1.3 million tons," Kaman Nainggolan director for planning and finance at the ministry told The Jakarta Post.

He made the statement in response to a forecast made by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that Indonesia would import some 2.5 million tons of rice in 2002, making the country the world's largest rice importer. The Kompas daily newspaper, which quoted the figure, did not explain the reason behind the surge in importing rice.

"We welcome the USDA forecast as a worthy input, but frankly speaking, I believe such a figure is too high," said Kaman.

He said the ministry was optimistic that this year's unhusked rice production target of 53 million tons would be achieved.

The figure is equal to around 33 million tons of milled rice or roughly the same as the national rice consumption level annually.

Kaman said that a Rp 40 billion (about US$4 million) 100- hectare paddy field project financed by the ministry was expected to be harvested in August, lending more credibility to the 2002 rice output target.

He also said that there was a strong chance that the El Nino weather phenomenon would not occur this year as indicated by the state meteorological agency (BMG).

He said that without El Nino, the country would only need to import around 500,000 tons of rice.

Analysts have expressed worries that the country would have to import a huge amount of rice due to the likely return of El Nino.

The weather pattern, which occurs once every two years to seven years, last hit Indonesia during 1997, when it caused severe drought and serious damage to agricultural production.

In 1997, said Kaman, Indonesia was forced to import more than 5 million tons of rice due to the combination of El Nino and the influence of the economic crisis.

But he said that the condition now was very different with the economy already moving toward recovery.

Rice is the staple food of many Indonesians. Missing the production target will force the country to import rice to meet domestic demand.

Chief of the State Logistics Agency (Bulog), Widjanarko Puspoyo, said earlier that it would import more than 1 million tons of rice this year to anticipate a possible drop in domestic output due to poor harvests and El Nino.

Widjanarko said the country's rice production had been steadily declining since 1998 due to the shrinking total crop area.

Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) showed that the country's rice imports reached 6 million tons in 1998. This figure fell to 4 million tons in 1999, 1.5 million tons in 2000, and 1.5 million tons last year.

The effect of the recent floods and El Nino are predicted to cut back unhusked rice production by between 5 percent and 10 percent.