Indonesia’s president has ordered the military to assist farmers in planting rice, as the country faces a severe drought and a surge in rice prices due to the El Niño weather phenomenon.
President Joko Widodo, who visited a rice field in central Java on Wednesday, said he wanted to speed up the planting process, which had been delayed by months of dry weather. He urged the army officers to take advantage of the recent rainfall in some provinces and help the farmers with the sowing.
“We want to encourage farmers to start planting rice,” Mr Widodo said in a video posted on the presidential YouTube channel. “It has been delayed due to El Niño, but we want to immediately plant, plant, plant.”
Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, relies heavily on rice as a staple food. However, the prolonged drought has reduced the output of the crop, forcing the government to increase imports and threatening food security.
According to the agriculture ministry, the country’s rice production this year dropped to 30.9 million tonnes from 31.53 million tonnes a year ago. The ministry also said that the planting area for rice had shrunk by 20% due to the lack of water.
El Niño, a periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean, typically causes hotter and drier weather in South East Asia, affecting the output of major rice producing and consuming countries.
The situation has been worsened by a recent ban on non-Basmati white rice exports by India, the world’s top supplier, which has driven up the global rice prices by as much as 45%, hitting the highest level for 15 years.
To cope with the rising demand and the dwindling supply, the state procurement company, Bulog, was assigned this year to import 3.5 million tonnes of rice – making Indonesia one of the top rice importers.
However, the government is also seeking to boost the domestic production by involving the armed forces in the farming sector. Earlier this month, the agriculture ministry and the Indonesian army signed an agreement that includes military personnel helping in farming and using idle army-owned land for rice plantation, with seedlings and machinery supplied by the ministry.
An army spokesman, Julius Widjojono, said that many rice farms were lacking labour as young people flocked to cities to work in factories for better wages. He said that the army could help fill the gap by deploying troops from nearby military units.
Agriculture Minister Amran Sulaiman said that the co-operation between the ministry and the army had helped Indonesia to achieve food self-sufficiency in the past. He said that he hoped that the same strategy could help the country reduce its dependence on rice imports and ensure food security for its 270 million people.