Indonesian agriculture isn’t as ‘green’ as planned

Indonesia’s agricultural policies aim to reduce the environmental footprint but actions are incomplete, creating a gap between aspirations and reality


Indonesia has embraced sustainable agriculture through a variety of national strategies, such as National Agenda 21, national development programs and a Revitalization Strategy for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, according to a new study carried out also in the Philippines and Viet Nam by a team of researchers led by the World Agroforestry Centre coordinated by the World Bank with support from the Multi-Donor Trust Fund for Trade and Development 2 and The Green Development Support Program funded by the Government of Norway and the Danish International Development Agency.

The team argue that many of these strategies could lead to sound environmental management of export agriculture in the country. However, a mixed set of capacities, together with conflict between conservation goals and local revenue-raising imperatives, has led to inconsistent progress in different provinces.

oil palm, slope, Sulawesi Photo Aunul Fauzi

Monocultural oil palm on hillside in Sulawesi. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Aunul Fauzi

‘Significant improvements have been made to modernize agro-environmental regulations, drawing upon better knowledge and global good practice’, said Dr Beria Leimona, lead author of the study, Indonesia’s ‘Green Agriculture’ Strategies and Policies: Closing the Gap between Aspirations and Application, ‘and instruments that create or correct markets have gained traction but they still seem incipient in their application. Whether or not environmental risks present local or global threats, the capabilities of sub-national governments tends to underpin the choice of instrument for policy’.

To address this, the research team concluded that, ultimately, the Indonesian government should increasingly play the role of enabler of market-based policy instruments and institutional innovation of such instruments, and promoter of voluntary action for environmental conservation, leveraging the use of instruments on private interest and participation, and move away from command-and-control systems.

The study provides an overview of the state of ‘green’ agriculture, the policies and strategies associated with it, commonly-applied instruments and the situation in the field. The research team focused on five commodities that are particularly important based on their competitive outlook and the degree to which they contribute to environmental and social risks: rubber, coffee, cocoa, palm oil and rice.

rice, farmers, Indonesia, Photo Nichola Mitakda

Rice farming. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Nichola Savangga Mitakda

The first four commodities have strong global demand, presenting both a threat for environmental degradation and an opportunity when there is a growing preference among a sub-set of international consumers for sustainably-grown products. Rice is a staple of the Indonesian people, with high domestic demand. In all cases, the environmental challenges are intertwined with social conflict, rural poverty and unstable livelihoods in the face of climate change and socio-political shocks.

To better align the aspirations with reality, the research team recommend that, first, policy makers should strengthen government functions for environmental management, particularly, harmonizing data and standards across sectors under a unified management system. Second, the capacity of sub-national governments’ financial and planning divisions needed to be improved in order to expand successful applications of economic instruments and voluntary approaches. Finally, all levels of government needed to work more closely with the private sector to systematically advance agro-environmental action plans for specific commodities.

rubber, Aceh, Photo Robert Finlayson

Old rubber garden in Aceh. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Through such means, the adverse environmental impacts from these commodities hope to be addressed in reality. The team categorised the impacts into four major areas. First, the expansion of agricultural land and conversion of forests that leads to loss of ecosystem services and biodiversity, mainly driven by monoculture plantations, particularly large-scale estates and clear-cutting operations by timber industries.

Second, the inefficient use of fertilizers, latex-processing operations and palm-oil mills have led to water pollution and soil contamination. The study found that all four commodities featured high levels of problems related to effluent control and misuse of substances.

Third, excessive use of water is leading to depletion of aquifers. Agriculture generally is increasingly at risk from water scarcity. Coffee, cocoa and rice have relatively high water footprints.

Fourth, using land with loose soil and steep slopes for agriculture, deploying parallel-contour ploughing, clearing ground cover and continuing slash-and-burn practices are contributing to soil degradation and erosion. Degradation is most common when farmers are unaware of the perils of poor site selection or when they face limited availability of fertile and flat farming lands. Erosion has been problematic primarily when plantations have been planted on steep slopes.

oil palm, seedlings, Sulawesi, Photo Aunul Fauzi

Oil-palm seedlings in Sulawesi. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Aunul Fauzi

‘It’s worth noting’, said Dr Leimona, ‘that good information is critical for the effectiveness of regulatory instruments in dealing with the challenges to the environment. For example, restricting pesticide use should be coupled with raising farmers’ awareness of the alternative types of these agricultural inputs. Currently, agricultural advisory services, which could pass on such information about better environmental management, remain limited to rice and basic food crops. There isn’t an overall approach to informing all farmers—and particularly tree-based commodity farmers—of the need to “green” agriculture just as an overall policy approach is lacking’.

In summary, Indonesian policy makers need to embark on a proactive but selective approach to greening agriculture in Indonesia. By looking at policy options, evaluating their adequacy for specific conditions of landscapes and learning from their own experience and adaptation of their strategies over time, Indonesians will then be in a better position to meet their own aspirations.


The study was carried out as part of a ‘Greening of Export Agriculture in East and Southeast Asia’ study coordinated by Steven Jaffee of the World Bank.


Read the study

Leimona B, Amaruzaman S, Arifin B, Yasmin F, Hasan F, Agusta H, Sprang P, Jaffee S, Frias J. 2015. Indonesia’s ‘green agriculture’ strategies and policies: closing the gap between aspirations and application. Occasional Paper 23. Nairobi: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).



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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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