Indonesia to sign biosafety instrument

Down to Earth No 62  August 2004

NGOs in Indonesia have worked hard to convince their government that it should do more to protect farmers and consumers from the risks of genetically modified crops. Now their efforts have borne fruit.

Indonesia's parliament began the process to ratify the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in July 2004 - a move that should ensure greater protection against the potential negative impacts of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Protocol, which came into force in September 2003, commits parties to ensuring that "the development, handling, transport, use, transfer and release of any living modified organisms are undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the risks to biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health". A key element is the precautionary approach, which provides for preventative measures where negative impacts have not been scientifically proven. The protocol also sets out an "advance informed agreement procedure" to help countries make informed choices before agreeing to the import of GMOs.

Indonesian civil society organisations, which have been pressing for ratification of the protocol for several years, welcome the move. They hope that, after ratifying the protocol, Indonesia will then consult the public to draft regulations on GMOs and strengthen the agencies involved in regulating GMO research and use. Tejo Wahyu Katmiko of Konphalindo said ratification would also give consumers the right to information. Up to now, consumers have had inadequate protection from GM products, whether legal or illegal, he said.


The Sulawesi cotton fiasco 
Indonesia has had an unhappy experience with growing GM crops commercially so far. In December 2003, the government announced the end of 2 years of commercial GM cotton production in South Sulawesi, which had resulted in crop failure and indebtedness for farmers and the hurried exit of the seed company. US-based multinational Monsanto stopped supplying seeds to farmers in the province in February last year and closed down its office there, saying its cotton business in Sulawesi was no longer economically viable. The company was also faced with the prospect of legal action by farmers.

Bt cotton was grown commercially in South Sulawesi in 2001 and 2002 by farmers who were told by Monsanto and local government officials, that they would achieve much higher yields than they did with non-GM varieties. Despite a vigorous campaign by concerned NGOs and farmers groups to stop the import and sales of seed, the Minister of Agriculture belatedly issued a decree to approve the limited release of Bt cotton in seven districts. This was challenged in the courts by the NGO Coalition for Biosafety and Food Safety on the grounds that the decree did not consider the consequences of using GM products. It also violated the 1997 environment law because no environmental impact assessment was conducted. The court ruled against the Coalition later in 2001 and the case is currently awaiting a hearing at the Supreme Court.

During the first year, the South Sulawesi Bt cotton crop suffered from the effects of drought and was attacked by pests the seed was not designed to resist. As a result, yields were much lower than expected. Farmers who had bought the seeds on credit ended up indebted to the company. 70% of the 4,438 farmers growing the cotton could not repay the credit. Researchers found that farmers planting Bt cotton had lower incomes in 2002 than farmers planting non-Bt cotton.

"The company didn't give the farmers any choice, they never intended to improve our well-being, they just put us in a debt circle, took away our independence and made us their slave forever. They try to monopolise everything, the seeds, the fertilizer, the marketing channel and even our life."

(Santi, Bt cotton farmer, South Sulawesi, FoE International*)

Then the company doubled the price of seeds in the second planting season, while the selling price for the cotton crop decreased. The indebted farmers were obliged to agree to the higher prices because the company could refuse to buy the crops if they didn't.

Some angry farmers refused to buy more seed and burned the cotton fields in protest; others felt they had no choice but to continue with Bt cotton. In the end, many farmers refused the pay the outstanding credit and demanded compensation for the losses from Monsanto.

Monsanto has admitted that the US Justice Department is investigating its operations in Indonesia. Specifically, it is looking into allegations that a Monsanto employee facilitated an improper $50,000 payment to an Indonesian government official in 2002. The alleged bribery was uncovered while the Justice Department was following up a disclosure by Monsanto, of financial irregularities in its Indonesian business operations. The US's Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits bribing of foreign officials and can impose a maximum fine of $2 million per violation while an individual faces up to five years imprisonment.

(See Lim Li Ching, How GM crops destroy the Third World 29/April/04 at for a good detailed summary of the Sulawesi Bt cotton case, plus DTE 57DTE 51DTE 50; & DTE 49 for more background.

Other sources: Post 7&12/Jul/04; Berita Bumi 15/Jul/04; 'Kronologis Komersialisasi Kapas Transgenik Bt di Indonesia', Berita Bumi8/Apr/04 -, AP 22/03/04; Wall Street Journal 22/Mar/04; See also: Jhamtani H. Bt cotton in Indonesia: a case for liability, Paper presented at the Third World Network side event: Liability and Redress: Lessons from Real Life, during the First Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, 26 Feb 2004, Kuala Lumpur, quoted in Lim Li Chang, above).

*Friends of the Earth International. Genetically modified crops; A decade of failure, Feb 2004 and Lim Li Ching, How GM Crops Destroy the Third World, Talk to Independent Science Panel Briefing, House of Commons (London), 29 April 2004.

Other GM crops in the pipeline 
In May, a civil society group including farmers organisations and NGOs, the People's Coalition for Food Sovereignty (KRKP), urged the Indonesian government to follow Venezuela's example of rejecting GMOs in the country's agricultural system. But despite its bad experience with GM cotton, the multi-billion dollar biotech industry is unlikely to leave Indonesia in peace. According to Asia's key biotech research agency, ISAAA, GM corn, peanut, soybean, potato and rice are under development in Indonesia and limited field-testing has been done on herbicide resistant corn, cotton and soybean as well as insect-resistant corn, cotton and potato.

Indonesia is one of an expanding list of 21 countries worldwide growing GM crops, joined last year by the Philippines and Brazil. The leading GM crop growers are the US (42.8% of the global area of GM crops) followed by Argentina (13.9%).

(Source: ISAAA: Bumi 12/May/04 

For background on ISAAA see DTE 49)

For ISAAA's tables on GM crops in Indonesia and approved crops go to and click Indonesia in table.


FAO slammed for pro-GM bias
A report issued by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has drawn sharp criticism from NGOs who say it presents a biased view of GM crops and serves as a public relations tool of the biotech industry. A letter signed by 650 civil society organisations worldwide, addressed to the report's author, said the report failed to recognise the inherent problems with GM crops which lead to the industrialisation of agriculture and the concentration of wealth and threaten agricultural biodiversity. See for the full letter and reply from the report's author.


The right to food
The NGO BioTani PAN Indonesia, has criticised the Indonesian government over its lack of commitment to the United Nations Millennium Development Goal to halve global hunger by 2015. Indonesia is a member of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Inter-Governmental Working Group (IGWG) on the right to adequate food, but, along with other Asian countries, has contributed little so far in the way of practical solutions. The IGWG has the task of elaborating voluntary guidelines on the right to adequate food, but, according to BioTani PAN, Indonesia and other members are not putting the basic human right to food ahead of narrow national interests. (BioTani Indonesia Foundation/PAN Indonesia 5/Jul/04;


FAO Seed Treaty comes into force
Meanwhile, NGOs gave a qualified welcome to the FAO's International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which came into force June 29. The Treaty's aim is to guarantee agricultural biodiversity and equitable benefit sharing from its sustainable use. Indonesia has not yet signed or ratified the treaty. (See and UK ABC Special Report 29/Jun/04 on