Two Years of Food Estate in Siria-Ria, Facts and Reflections

Since President Jokowi launched it in June 2020, the Food Estate program in Humbang Hasundutan has been running for two years. Initially, many people were optimistic about this National Strategic Project because it was narrated as a way to face the risk of a food crisis in this country. Excessive development competing with each other was carried out, and funds were poured into the procurement of various agricultural equipment, fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds. Almost every day central officials flock to Humbang Hasundutan. Most farmers who are members of the Food Estate program are also optimistic that they will be lucky, especially since agricultural capital is 100% subsidized by the government. In an instant, the land that was once filled with shrubs and some pine trees was transformed into an agricultural expanse of shallots, garlic, and potatoes.

The story began to change when the first harvest was conducted in early 2021. The government on the one hand claimed that the first harvest was a success, while the farmers said the results were less than satisfactory. The framing of most media also supports the government’s claim. But the facts on the field cannot be denied.

Many problems occur in addition to crop yields that most farmers find unsatisfactory or far from expectations.  In addition, there were non-transparent practices in the formulation of the contract and the formation of the Joint Business Cooperative (KUB). The initial agreement was for farmers to sell their crops to the KUB with a scheme whereby 60% of the proceeds would be returned to the farmers, 30% would be retained by the KUB for capital for the second phase of planting, and 10% for administrative costs at the KUB.

Unfortunately, this sharing scheme did not go smoothly. All farmers who marketed their products at KUB had to bite the bullet. To this day, there is no clarity on the 30% of the sales proceeds retained by KUB for second planting capital. No one is responsible for this uncertainty. Reportedly, the management is also hard to find. This means that farmers are losing 40% at KUB from the sale of their products.

Lack of Interest in the Second Stage Planting

In the second planting, Farmers’ interest in joining the Food Estate program began to wane. There are several reasons why many farmers are reluctant to get involved in the second planting.

First is the change in the Food Estate development scheme or mechanism. In the first planting, the government-subsidized agricultural capital by almost 100%. With such a scheme, even if the yields were far from expectations, the losses were not 100% borne by the farmers. The biggest loss is borne by the state from the state budget, which is sourced from the people as well.

In this second planting, farmers must use their capital or cooperate with companies as off-takers. Not all farmers have enough capital to continue planting under this new scheme. To try their luck in this second planting, some farmers pawned the land certificates that were handed over by President Jokowi through the certification program at the end of 2020. “Schooled”, as they call the land certificates that are pledged to banks through the low-interest KUR (Kredit Usaha Rakyat) program.

“Now, almost every day BRI and Mandiri Bank come to offer KUR to us,” said a woman, Boru Lumban Gaol. But she still refuses to borrow from the bank, fearing she won’t be able to repay like some of her friends.

In fact, according to a village official who did not want to be named, in mid-May, officers from one of the banks in Dolok Sanggul came to collect from farmers who had defaulted on their loans for several months. There was almost a commotion. He is worried that in the future the process of shifting land ownership in their village will accelerate because they are unable to pay their debts to the bank.

One of the risks of the certification program is that it shifts the meaning and value of land from historical and social value to economic value. The land is only seen as an economically valuable production asset. So far, communities in the Food Estate area that still uphold customs, including communal land management, have interpreted land sociologically and historically. Usually, indigenous people never know the exact size of their land. All they know is the natural boundaries and agreements with boundary neighbors. This is different from today, where measurements are taken using meters and calculated in rupiah. Certification brings farmers’ lands closer to the market, which is difficult for them to control.

Secondly, apart from limited capital, another contributing factor is the lack of transparency in contractual arrangements between companies and farmers. Ms. Simbolon, for example, explained that during the drafting of the contract, they were only presented with a contract that was already filled out and only needed to be signed. Learning from their disappointment with the unclear and non-transparent management of KUB, some of the farmers chose to plant their land with other products that are not FE program crops, such as corn, chili, and cabbage. They feel more fortunate to grow these products.

Siria Ria current Food Estate

There was something different when walking through Siria-Ria Village on Friday, May 27, 2022, compared to two years ago when this village was visited by many state officials, such as the President of the Republic of Indonesia and several Ministers. From the end of 2020 to mid-June 2021, the Food Estate area in this village was busy with farmers working in the fields, and the FE area was filled with onion, garlic, and potato plants. This time only one or two people were seen, there was no bustle indicating that this area was a Food Estate location. 

Not only does it look quiet, but most of the land is also overgrown with grass or weeds. At some points, there are corn, cabbage, and a few coffee plants. There are only a few onion and potato plants. We were interested in stopping by a small coffee shop, owned by Mrs. Boru Simbolon. Besides selling coffee and tea, the shop also serves gomak noodles and chicken soup.

“I haven’t sold much since morning, because many people don’t work in the food estate”, she said when I asked her about the progress of her shop.

“Now the only company here is PT Parna Raya, and even that rarely comes. Many landowners manage their own land without working with the company,” he explains.

Her husband, clan Lumbangaol, is working in the onion fields. “Holan saotik nama hu lean hami dikelola Food Estate. Mabiar hami rugi muse, alana sistemna sonari bibit ingkon dibayar dung panen. Sementara di pembibitan pe nunga godang na gagal (Only a small amount of land that we handed over is currently managed by the Food Estate. We are afraid of failing again because now the system is that the seeds must be paid after harvest. Whereas in the nursery alone many have failed)”, he said.

The woman added that they are currently part of a farmer group that cooperates with PT Parna Raya. Unfortunately, according to her, there are several obstacles to cooperation with the company. The biggest problem is the delay in planting, where two months earlier the land had been managed, composted, and mulched, but the company did not give instructions to plant. Based on their local knowledge and experience as farmers, delays in the planting process will lead to losses at harvest time, while they are obliged to pay for the seeds after harvest.

In addition to the delay, another issue is the unclear direction from their mentor. In this pattern of cooperation, they must submit to the direction of the facilitator.  This farming pattern is very different from what they have practiced so far. In their small hearts, they actually protest against some of the directions, such as seeding time, dosage, and others that are opposite or different from what they are used to practicing. But they are bound by a contract so they have to follow the directions of the company they are working with.

Because of the delay in planting, they decided to withdraw some of their lands from the Food Estate program and plant it with maize and cabbage independently. They had to think about how to cover their obligations and daily needs.

Neglected Infrastructure

After talking at length about their two-year experience of being involved in the Food Estate program and their hopes for the future, we continued our journey to several points in the Food Estate location. We enjoyed the wide, smooth road to the Food Estate land in Siria-Ria.  There is still an announcement board for the 1000-hectare Access Road Development (Food Estate) project carried out by PT Karya Murni Perkasa with a budget of Rp 69,974,145,150.21. Local residents say the owner of the road construction company is Harry Lumbangaol, a politician businessman from Humbang Hasundutan who lives in Medan.

This name is indeed familiar to the people of Humbang Hasundutan. He currently serves as Chairman of DPD II Golkar in Humbang Hasundutan Regency. In the last regional election, he failed to be nominated by his party which preferred to appoint the incumbent.

The people of Siria-ria really appreciated the construction of the road because access to the garden became better. However, some of the men we met at the coffee shop were suspicious of the construction of the wide road. “If it was only for our land, I don’t think the state would have built such a good road, because the road to the village is still small and not good. So the road is not for us, but it looks like there is something else to aim for”, said a man from the Siregar clan.

A doubt that could be true, given that the road to the village that hundreds of families travel every day is not as good and wide as the road to the Food Estate area.

We occasionally stop to observe the changes that have occurred in the Siria-Ria area after two years as a Food Estate location. Many broken Wavin-branded water pipes are crossing the Food Estate area. In almost every field, there are many broken water pipes scattered along the roadside. We tried to turn the water faucet to a point where the water pipes and faucets were still intact. Unfortunately, the tap did not release water. We learned from a farmer from the Pandiangan clan that the water pipes have not functioned at all since they were built. 

The uncertainty of the sustainability of the FE program has encouraged farmers to manage their land independently.  According to them, they were not involved in the installation of the water pipes on the land, so they did not know the position or location of the water pipe connections.  This ignorance caused several water pipes to break and be damaged during land cultivation. They also did not feel any loss from the broken water pipes because they have never functioned since they were built.

Mr. Pandiangan is no longer part of the FE farmer group. On his family’s six hectares of land, he grows coffee, corn, andaliman, and young plants.  He hopes that this program can continue, but of course with new policies that are more beneficial to farmers. In the first planting, according to him, they did not suffer any losses, because everything was subsidized by the government. But in the second planting, the system is independent or in collaboration with the company. This pattern is very unfavorable to farmers who are members of FE. This is exacerbated by cooperation contracts with companies that tend not to be transparent and disadvantage farmers.

From Mr. Pandiangan’s land, we returned to explore other areas in the Food Estate location. Apart from a lot of abandoned land, we also found three abandoned buildings. The buildings were built in 2020 for a multifunctional warehouse for shallot commodities. One building was built with a budget from the Ministry of Agriculture’s state budget of around Rp. 196 million. So the three buildings could cost around 600 million rupiahs.  The condition of the building is very concerning. The roofs were damaged, the floors had holes, and the doors were broken, so we could enter freely. In one of the buildings, we found piles of dozens of sacks of rotting onion and garlic seeds. Unfortunately, farmers are struggling to find seeds to plant, but in a project aimed at strengthening food, we found seeds that had not been distributed and were rotting.

FE program in the midst of unfinished agrarian conflict – doc. ksppm 2022

Unfinished FE and Agrarian Conflict Program

Still in the Food Estate area, not far from the hut where President Jokowi held a meeting with the Siria-Ria community in 2021, an announcement board was staked. “THIS LAND IS THE ADAT LAND OF SIRIA-RIA VILLAGE ACCORDING TO SK NUMBER: 138/KPTS/1979”, reads the announcement board.

We also met the head of the customary institution, Op. Mangapul Siregar. We got the story of a long struggle in the past that ended sweetly. Previously, we had heard this story in bits and pieces. From 1971-1979, the people of Siria-Ria Village fought for their land to be removed from the Forest Zone. At that time the New Order government launched a pine planting program in their village and other villages in North Tapanuli (at that time their village was still incorporated in North Tapanuli). They call it a bloody struggle because so many people were tortured and imprisoned by the authorities at that time. Some even died as a result of the incident. The women walked to Tarutung, carrying red and white flags, demanding that their land be returned and that their husbands and sons be released from prison. The struggle at that time finally caught the attention of the central government.

The peak occurred in 1979. TNI Admiral (Ret.) Sudomo, who at that time served as Commander of the Security and Order Restoration Command (Pangkopkamtib), finally intervened to resolve the conflict. As a result, the Regent of North Tapanuli at that time issued Decree No. 138/KPTS/1979 concerning the Recognition of the Customary Land of the Siria-Ria Population over the Sigende, Parandalimanan, Parhutaan, Adian Padang, and Sipiuan Areas covering an area of 794.6 hectares with an attached map.

Unfortunately, after more than four decades, the community was again confronted with the state’s Forest Estate claim on much of the area they fought for in 1979. They found out about this after a demarcation by the Food Estate integrated team was carried out in 2021.

Not only is there a conflict with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, but horizontal conflict is also inevitable with the people of Parsingguran I Village. Since being used as a food estate area, part of the customary territory they fought for in 1979 has been claimed by neighboring villagers as their village area. In October 2021, the District government and BPN socialized the certification program in the area they call “Sigende” to the residents of Parsingguran I Village. The indigenous people of Siria-Ria Village protested to the regent and BPN because the area is their customary territory, so it is not appropriate to give it to residents who are not members of their indigenous community.

This conflict has been going on for more than a year. The indigenous people of Siria-Ria Village have also made various efforts to resolve this conflict. However, according to them, the government has been very slow to respond to this conflict. The potential for horizontal conflict is quite large.

“The land conflict should be resolved first, then the Food Estate program should be implemented. Because since this program came into existence, more and more people have claimed the customary territories that we are fighting for as their territories. Even though we are brothers. Don’t let there be any more regional spills in our village,” said the Head of the Customary Institution.

This condition is indeed very unfortunate because it repeats itself every time a major development comes to the territory of indigenous peoples. The government unilaterally determines any development without ever conducting meaningful consultations with the communities around the project. As a result, agrarian conflicts emerge while old conflicts remain unresolved.

The government should have first clarified land ownership, both from the government’s perspective and from the perspective of local communities.

A broken pipe that has never been used – doc. ksppm2022


The current failure of the Food Estate Program in Siria Ria actually reaffirms the failure of various food policies in Indonesia in the past. It also confirms that the government is unwilling to learn from these policy failures, instead repeating them over and over again.

The Food Estate Program as the face of contract farming will never benefit farmers.  Contract farming as a partnership program between entrepreneurs and smallholders aims to provide benefits to the parties involved in the contract. This will only be realized if the power of both parties is equal. The problem is that in contract farming as practiced so far, the position of the company is always higher and stronger than the position of smallholders. The principle of mutual benefit is not realized in the contract farming practiced in the Food Estate program.  Instead of realizing food security and the welfare of farmers, it is undermining state finances. This story of failure will continue to repeat itself if the government continues to force the practice of contract farming patterns.

There are many problems in the contract farming system that harm farmers. First, contract drafting is not transparent. Farmers are not involved from the start in formulating the content of the contract, which includes the products to be grown, the period, the management system, and marketing. Everything is determined by the company. By doing so, farmers automatically lose sovereignty, not only over their land but also over their products, consumption, prices, and traditional agricultural knowledge.

Second, is the loss of the state’s role in protecting farmers. Agricultural sustainability is left to market mechanisms. The government favors companies through its policies. Farmers are left to face off against companies whose goal is profit accumulation. Mutual benefit and risk-sharing are just slogans of the contract farming system. In practice, it is difficult to realize the inequality of various resources between companies and local farmers.

Third, who actually benefits from the FE program? We can see that farmers get nothing but better roads and land clearing. But isn’t the provision of road infrastructure and agricultural facilities the responsibility of the government? Will the government only improve road infrastructure and agricultural facilities if there are big projects like the Food Estate that provide benefits to companies?

The implementation of the Siria Ria Food Estate program for 2 years confirms that the government’s alignment is not with family farmers who have played an important role in maintaining food stability, but with food industry companies that want and are already involved in the Food Estate program.  The Food Estate Development Program is just a red carpet for the presence of various large-scale food industries in the Food Estate area.  The provision of good and wide roads and the provision of irrigation networks over the past two years are only to facilitate or make it easier for companies to develop their businesses.

The Food Estate Program is a way for companies to get unlimited access to land, cheap labor, seed markets, fertilizers, and pesticides as well as infrastructure financed by the state budget. In the end, it is the companies that benefit the most. Seeing the series of failures that have occurred from the past until now, it is time for us to voice to the government to no longer continue other Food Estate programs in the archipelago. To maintain food security and sovereignty, the government should focus more on developing an agricultural system based on strengthening local farmers, by guaranteeing farmers’ rights to land through true agrarian reform, improving agricultural infrastructure in rural areas without discrimination, and making it easier for farmers to develop local food products.

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