JAKARTA, APRIL 18, Reuter – Seventy-five thousand Indonesian farmers go to school this week to learn to wage war on a rare insect that is wreaking havoc with the rice crop and politics.
At stake is the world’s leading ecologically based pest control programme.
The loss of 186,000 tonnes of rice so far this harvest to the tiny white stemborer has stamped a giant question mark over integrated pest management (IPM), which minimises pesticide use by teaching farmers to let good bugs eat bad bugs.
"The stemborer outbreak won’t affect our policy. We are still totally committed to IPM," Agriculture Minister Wardojo said in an interview.
He and other ministers are reconsidering a radical 1986 ban on organophosphate pesticides, which indiscriminately wipe out every bug in their path.
It was another tiny pest, the rice brown plant hopper, which triggered the ban when it swept across Java, Indonesia’s rice bowl, destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice.
Specialists blamed massive pesticide use then for killing the fast-breeding hopper’s natural enemies.
"Reports about crop failure were pouring in, there was a catastrophic bang and we found ourselves with a presidential decree and a national IPM programme," said Peter Kenmore, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s rice IPM programme in Asia.
"It was simple thinking,"said Frans Tsai, an executive at Ciba-Geigy AG, a Swiss pharmaceutical firm that once provided all the government-subsidised pesticide in Indonesia. "If one chili makes a hot sambal sauce, four chilis make it four times as hot. If this much pesticide is effective, more will be more effective. There was definitely overuse."
President Suharto has in 24 years in power turned Indonesia from the world’s largest importer of rice into a land that can feed its population of 180 million alone. It now produces about 45 million tonnes of rice a year.
"If a voice comes up saying self-sufficiency is threatened, Suharto’s reputation as the saviour of the country is lost," a rice researcher said.
"It is such a political issue because it’s rice," one said.
One ploy in the hands-on IPM training programme, which aims to reach 2.5 million farmers by 1995, is to teach them the dangers of pesticides by filling their spray backpacks with red paint.
"They say they are careful, that when they spray they just get the plants. But when they do it with paint they see that it gets all over them, all over the ducks in the paddy fields, all over the kids that bring them their lunch," a trainer said.
"And they’ve stopped calling it medicine. It’s poison now."
Farmers meet once a week to wade knee-deep in paddies, counting bugs and recognising the good from the bad.
One policymaker said the government was sending mixed signals on the issue by tying loans from state banks to a package that includes other types of pesticide.
"On the one hand you have IPM. On the other you have this credit package, loaded with pesticide. It’s a 180 degree turn from the government," a U.S. pesticide company executive said.
Farmers said they were confused by having to buy pesticide even when their field inspections showed they didn’t need it.
"What do you do, throw it away? We are not people to throw away something we pay for. So it gets used," one farmer said.
IPM specialists say it is use of these pesticides in fertile north Java, producer of a 10th of Indonesia’s rice, that allowed the long-dormant stemborer to eat its way back to prominence.
"It’s a major messing with the ecosystem," one said.
Minister Wardojo said farmers could choose to leave the pesticides out of the package, but farmers said pressure from local officials taking a cut from pesticide sales was strong.
The reappearance of the white stemborer, virtually unknown since Dutch colonists left Indonesia in 1949, is grist to the mill of chemical firms who say the IPM strategy is uninformed.
"IPM means using only what you need, only when you need it, and we support that," said Dino Sozzi, Research Manager of Ciba Geigy. "Organophosphates have their drawbacks but they are the best compound against stemborer in an advanced stage."
IPM officials, scrambling to organise crisis training sessions for 75,000 farmers in the hardest hit areas, believe pesticides must be used to cope with the outbreak but want to teach farmers to use judgement rather than a panic button.
They fear if organophosphates get the go-ahead it will lift the lid on a Pandora’s box that may threaten the survival of the whole IPM programme, the only government-decreed one in the world.
"We can do all the research we want, but the final decision will be a political one," a rice specialist sighed.