Wed, 18 Oct 2000

Rice speculators are traitors, says Musa Hubeis of IPB

Farmers are traditionally poor due to myriad reasons, including the government's neglect of agriculture. Musa Hubeis, a professor at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, discussed with The Jakarta Post recently the need of a paradigm shift in agriculture, and of ways to help farmers prosper.

Question: Why is agriculture in such a poor state?

Answer: We all understand that agriculture has always been a labor intensive enterprise carried out on limited lands. This is a mistake in our development strategies as a whole because agriculture has yet to become the backbone of the economy.

All this time agriculture has served as a safety valve for when the country faces difficulties in its macroeconomics. This situation has never been rectified despite the fact that most of our people live on the land.

The (farmers) are neglected. It's so unfair, because the government only pays attention to big businesses who don't even pay their debts. Which shows you that this administration is no different from the previous regimes.

Being a farmer is a strategic occupation even in developed countries such as the United States and Japan and even China -- those countries put farmers at the forefront of their economies.

Unlike us. We talk about (the importance of agriculture) but do not really do anything to develop it. We come up with novel- sounding schemes such as corporate farming -- which is actually not new -- but fail to achieve real progress. Even the current agriculture minister Bungaran Saragih has yet to come up with clear programs designed to help farmers, despite his criticism of his predecessor Prakosa.

The problem is we don't have concepts and action plans. We do a patchy job in handling rice production and distribution. When prices drop, then we are upset. Even now, the Rp 350 billion fund diverted from oil subsidies has yet to reach the farmers despite the fact that fuel prices were increased (more than) ten days ago.

Why is agriculture in such a poor state? We have programs but no progress has been achieved. You can't handle farming like in the old days but rather we need to treat agriculture as an industry (where certain governing economic principles apply).

Why is agriculture neglected? Because people see it in terms of the 4Ds -- Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous and Desperate. But farming should instead be Profitable, bring Prosperity, bring Happiness and be Prospective. The government, decision-makers and society in general may still have a mistaken view about agriculture.

Why have rice prices dropped?

Because we haven't applied modern management concepts -- for instance, we need a better information management system. What we are facing is a recurring problem. We should have been able to make a computerized database about it so that actions can be planned to prevent similar problems in the future. The agriculture ministry has a data center but its data are outdated.

Come harvest time in January and April, we can imagine how our farmers will suffer further (unless the problem is rectified). The ministry usually responds to rice distribution problems with plans for farmland expansion, but I think better management is what is called for.

The second thing to improve is marketing. One of the reasons why farmers can't sell their rice is because of poor quality, and that's because the farmers are not creative in finding better production methods.

So who can help the farmers when they are facing problems?

There are a myriad of ways (of helping farmers). Improving infrastructure, for instance. Simply by adding irrigation, we can increase productivity. Even if we do this, however, there's another problem: we have failed to provide farmers with post- harvest technology.

The use of ani-ani (traditional reaping devices) takes longer and gives smaller yields than huller, although it does give better quality. So farmers use huller and come up with poor quality rice.

Also, how the rice is dried affects its quality -- farmers dry their harvest in their yard, causing contamination from dirt and poor rice quality. Dryers, on the other hand, are expensive.

There are simple measures that can be taken to help farmers, but the government does not seem to be serious in dealing with the problem.

In addition, other parties such as the Bandung Institute of Technology and the University of Indonesia, should contribute to solving the long-standing problems affecting farmers; their engineers and scholars should be able to come up with better technology and know-how to help farmers prosper in their vocation.

What emergency measures can be taken to help farmers suffering from the current poor rice prices?

The government should reallocate oil subsidies to encourage productive activities rather than doling the fund out as charity. Giving farmers money won't help achieve recovery, stabilization and development.

The government should also start funding (creative) investment in agricultural areas. Why not build Internet kiosks in villages so that the children of farmers can learn better agricultural techniques. Improve the human resources in agriculture by educating the children -- create breakthroughs such as shortened junior and senior high school terms but with additional content such as farming experience.

What else?

The government should purchase the farmers' rice stocks. The government has the infrastructure, technocrats and funds to solve this problem. If it refuses to purchase the farmers' rice stocks, then this government really is too much!

Such a refusal would be tantamount to a violation of the Constitution which stipulates that the state is responsible for the people's welfare. It would mean that the government is balking at its responsibility to ensure an adequate livelihood for every citizen including orphans and the poor.

(The previous administration of B.J. Habibie) had issued regulations on rice purchasing by the government. The Abdurrahman Wahid administration can still put those regulations into effect.

What the government can also do is restructure the central bank and revive the agricultural credit schemes. Don't forget that some 70 percent of our people rely on farming -- it provides employment for some 50 percent of the total work force.

The government should introduce low interest credit schemes for farmers, with a grace period of three years, for instance. If necessary, Bank Indonesia should establish a special division to help farmers -- it could later be developed into an agricultural bank.

The poor rice price has been blamed on rice imports. What is your suggestion?

We need to improve the import mechanism, adhering to World Trade Organization rules that imports of some 70,000 tones should be taxed up to 90 percent and 160 percent if the volume is higher. Why can't we be consistent with those rules (rather than lifting import restrictions)? Why are we being so generous to farmers in other countries but so harsh with our own?

Is it because there are so many illegal levies, bribes (pungli) that (some people enjoy) that we seem to be lacking a conscience over the fate of our farmers?

If we wish to continue with the rice imports, use the WTO rules rather than slapping on (individual customs and excise) regulations. People who exploit this issue for personal gain are traitors. They have betrayed the country. They don't have any conscience.

Another step that can be taken by the government is to reactivate the buffer stock function of the National Logistics Agency. Our people still need cheap food, and that is where the buffer stockf can help out in emergencies. (Santi W.E. Soekanto)