Court action fails but protests continue

Down to Earth No. 51, November 2001

The prospect of widespread planting of genetically modified crops in Indonesia is causing alarm.

In September, 72 Indonesian NGOs grouped under the NGO Coalition for Biosafety and Food Safety lost their legal challenge against the Indonesian minister for agriculture, Bungaran Saragih, and PT Monagro, the Indonesian subsidiary of US-based biotechnology multinational, Monsanto. The NGO court case was aimed at annulling an agriculture ministry decree issued February 2001 (No. 107/2001) which permitted the limited release of Monsanto's genetically engineered cotton - NuCOTN 35B or "Bollgard" - in seven districts of South Sulawesi province (see DTE 50 and DTE 49 for more background). The total area planted with GM cotton in South Sulawesi province is 4,310 hectares, according to the minister.

The court decision will be welcome news to Monsanto and other biotech companies eyeing seed markets in Indonesia. But the NGO Coalition has warned against the application of GM agriculture before its environmental and health impacts have been fully understood. With produce from supposed trials being sold on the open market, there is already widespread concern about the uncontrolled movement of GM seeds and produce. Coalition member Konphalindo argues that the lack of regulation on biosafety issues mean that Indonesia is in danger of becoming a "dumping ground" for other countries to dispose their GM produce. There is no labelling scheme for food imports, for instance, meaning that consumers have no way of telling whether or not they are buying GM food.

The Coalition is calling on President Megawati Soekarnoputri to fulfil a promise made in April this year to review the policy on the application of genetic engineering in the country. The NGOs want a 5-year moratorium on trials of GM crops and sales of GM produce.

The environment ministry, which has been sympathetic to concerns in the past, continues to advocate a precautionary approach to GM agriculture, as set out in the Carthagena Protocol on Biosafety (see DTE 49).


Unlimited planting plan - "throughout Indonesia"

Now, Bungaran Saragih, who retains his post in Megawati's new government, is planning to go ahead with unlimited planting of Monsanto cotton in Sulawesi, by extending this year's decree. The plan was announced shortly after the results of the first GM cotton harvest came in. These showed, according to figures publicised by Monsanto and the government, that 10% of the planted area produced 800 kg/ha; 60% produced 2,000 kg/ha and 30% produced 3,200 kg/ha. PT Monagro Kimia, Monsanto's Indonesian subsidiary, said the yields (1.5 tonnes - 3 tonnes/ha) were three or four times higher than conventional varieties. The company said this was the first commercial planting in the tropics and the average results matched or exceeded those achieved by small-holders in South Africa and China.

The NGO Coalition points out that 70% of the locations did not live up to the results promised by Monagro - of 3-4 tonnes per hectare.

Nevertheless, Bungaran said the use of the GM cotton was improving farmers' productivity. "Up to now there is no proof that the plants are causing losses to farmers", he said. Moreover, in three to five years, the crop could be planted all over Indonesia: "If there is no proof that transgenic cotton destroys the environment or causes losses to farmers, there is no reason to stop farmers from planting it and the government will develop it throughout Indonesia," said Bungaran in August.

The minister sees the planting of GM cotton as a way of reducing Indonesia's reliance on imported cotton. Indonesia imports around 50,000 tonnes of cotton and produced only 12,000 tonnes itself. The imports cost around $1 billion a year.


Crops burned

The minister's claim that there is no negative impact on farmers ignores the fact that in some areas farmers have been sorely disappointed by the results of planting GM cotton. Reports of pest attacks started emerging in June (see DTE 50). In September around 100 farmers in Kajang, Bulukumba district, were reported to have burned around 50 hectares of crops in protest over the poor results. According to a report in the Indonesian language weekly Tempo, farmers who destroyed a 1 hectare plot said they felt cheated by the seed supplier, and were refusing to pay for seeds and equipment provided. These were supposed to be paid for after the harvest. They burned several sacks of harvested cotton and pulled up and burned remaining plants. Some farmers complained that the crops had been attacked by pests and had produced an allergic skin reaction. One landowner said the farmers had previously planted maize and kidney beans on the land, but had been persuaded to plant the cotton with promises of bountiful harvests. They had experienced losses of around Rp 5 million as a result.

Monsanto's country director Hans Bijlmer accused NGOs of being behind the burnings. This was rejected by NGOs who said the accusations were merely an attempt to divert public attention from the fact that the crop failed. NGOs in Sulawesi have warned that the introduction of the GM seeds is causing conflict in the area between pro and anti-GM cotton farmers. In August WALHI South Sulawesi called for the provincial governor to ban further planting of Monsanto GM cotton, since it was causing "horizontal" conflicts.


Farmers' union speaks out

The North Sumatra Peasants' Union (SPSU) has stepped up protests against the introduction of GM agriculture into Indonesia. It has accused the agriculture department of becoming Monsanto's 'agent' in Indonesia because the department only promotes the positive aspects of GM crops, but does not give information about the long term or short term negative impacts on farmers, health and the environment.

The SPSU, which promotes sustainable agriculture as part of a wider push for agrarian reform, objects to GM agriculture because it increases farmers' dependency on multinational seed suppliers and fails to address basic needs - like land rights - as identified by the farmers themselves. It accuses Monsanto of using subsidies and favourable initial prices to draw farmers into a dependency on the company's seeds and pesticides.

The SPSU is urging the North Sumatra provincial government to use its authority under regional autonomy legislation to refuse all GM crop trial offers from multinational and Indonesian companies; to refuse to become an agent or tool in these companies' campaigns; and instead to facilitate the strengthening of independent farmers' organisations. The SPSU has also called for all information about possible GM crop trials in North Sumatra and other parts of Indonesia to be made public.

According to Pesticides Action Network Indonesia, trials of Monsanto cotton are being carried out in Central Java and will expand to East Central Java in future.


Yogyakarta protest

Farmers and students protesting against chemical fertilisers and genetically modified seeds handed over four mini dung-heaps to scientists meeting in Yogyakarta, late October. The 200 protesters were from the Alliance for the Sovereignty of Central Java and Yogyakarta farmers. They urged the scientists attending a meeting of the Association of Improvement Breeding Science (Perhipi) to pay more attention to the needs of farmers and resist co-option by big companies who dictate the use of chemical fertilisers and GM seeds. The protesters held placards saying "Monsanto and Transgenic, go to hell!" and "Monsanto's allies are the farmers' enemies". (Kompas 25/Oct/01)



An urgent action letter-writing appeal was circulated by the NGO Coalition in August to support the legal action to annul the February decree. DTE sent letters to Bungaran Saragih, with copies to President Megawati, and other members of the government, but has received no reply. The letter raised concerns about the hasty introduction of GM crops and drew attention to the concerns of farmers. For news of further action please contact

(Source: Kompas 10/Oct/01; Jakarta Post 8, 18, 21/Sep/01; PAN email 21/Sep/01; Statement by NGO Coalition on Biosafety and Food Safety 27/Sep/01; SPSU press releases 29/Aug/01; 13, 15&24 /Sep/01; Media Indonesia 27/Aug/01; 19/Sep/01; Tempo 14/Sep/01; DTE letter to Minister of Agriculture etc, 4/Sep/01.

See also summary of recent events, compiled October 2001, by PAN AP: contact: