President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has accused critics of his government’s food policies of having political motives instead of expressing genuine concern about ongoing shortages of staple foods.
He said in Jakarta on Tuesday that he would intervene if the politicization of the crisis got out of hand.
“Some of the critics do actually care about the economy and understand the present economic conditions, but some have ulterior motives that are not always economic,” he said.
“You can understand next year there will be a general election,” he added, suggesting that his opponents were more interested in jockeying for position rather than expressing any real interest in current national affairs.
Yudhoyono said he had instructed his cabinet not to pay too much attention to the negative comments and just carry on with their duties.
The government has come under fire over the scarcity of several food commodities and skyrocketing prices following the weakening of the rupiah against the US dollar, because of its heavy reliance in importing food.
“If political statements get out of hand then I will intervene,” the president said.
“I will explain to the people what the real problem and situation is. On food, we do have a small food surplus and we export that, but it is not enough.”
Yudhoyono went on to explain that the country had been facing shortages of some food commodities, compelling the government to import produce to compensate for the shortfall.
He added that the high prices were caused by the current global economic climate, but stressed that the government was still addressing the problem.
Analysts and critics have accused the government of being helpless in dealing with importers that function as cartels, throttling supplied of much-needed produce such as soybeans in order to drive up prices and exploit the ongoing shortage.
Critics say that part of the problem is the absence of legislation that would allow the government to take meaningful action against the perpetrators.
“Indonesia does not have a law against anti-trust activities,” Rudi Wahyono, a researcher with the Center of Information and Development Studies (CIDES), said during a roundtable discussion on agribusiness in Jakarta on Tuesday.
“Therefore, cartels cannot be legally prosecuted, and this allows unscrupulous businesspeople to collude to keep food prices high.”
Rudi said the government had only focused on meeting demand through imports and had so far failed to make any progress on boosting domestic food production, arguing that imports, no matter how costly, did not free the country from the risk of widespread food shortages.
Data from the Global Food Security Index 2012, released by the Economic Intelligent Unit, showed Indonesia scored below 50, on a scale of 0 to 100, in its food security index, putting it below neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. Three factors highlighted in the study were malnutrition, children’s weight and mortality rate.
Rudi said malnutrition in Indonesia indicated the country had entered a “red zone” because the government was too busy thinking about how to meet food demand and overlooking the importance of becoming self-sufficient.
He said that ideally, the government should prioritize independence through food self-sufficiency programs and prepare strategies to prevent the current food crisis from worsening.
“First, self-sufficiency can be achieved by issuing policies prioritizing small farmers. This can be done through technological innovation and the development of institutions. That way, farmers can grow in line with modernization,” he said.
“We need to establish state institutions and bodies to maintain food and price resilience. Finally, by launching social protection and nutrition drives, we can calculate the public’s needs for iodine, vitamins and minerals.”
CIDES director Iskandar Andi Nuhung said the government’s helplessness in dealing with importers who controlled the food trade had made Indonesia a key target of importers. He claimed these parties were trying to make Indonesia the world’s largest importer of food.
“This makes sense because Indonesia, with its large population is potentially a very lucrative market for food importers,” Iskandar said.
“Allowing the importers a free run to import what they want is not in the country’s interests.”
He added that history had shown that food crises had a close correlation with a country’s sovereignty, saying it was ironic to see the government take the wrong approach by sanctioning increased imports at the expense of local small traders and businesspeople.
Iskandar called on the government to strengthen development of the agricultural sector by increasing the money allocated to the sector.
He also suggested the government needed to get a grip on food policies. Since the implementation of regional autonomy in 1999, Iskandar said there had been areas of policy overlap between central and regional governments, leading to confusion.
“Many regional leaders don’t have very much interest in ensuring food supplies,” Iskandar said.
Rudi said local leaders were more interested in handling non-agriculture sectors that allowed them to generate quick money to pay for the political expenses they incurred during election campaigns.
“What makes it worse is the Agriculture Ministry has been defeated by importers in terms of lobbying. As a result, the government is unable to develop the agriculture sector, which is its responsibility. The importers have even made the ministry their toy by making the country a net importer instead of a producer,” he said.
Rudi cited the case of the US government, which he said had given its full support to its farmers.
“The government of the United States gives its full support to its farmers. The US even gives subsidies for agricultural development,” he said. JG