Garlic Shortage Shows That Indonesian Agricultural Independence Is Distant Dream

Workers peel imported garlic from China at the Tanah Tinggi market in Tangerang, Banten. (JG Photo/Rezza Estily)

Workers peel imported garlic from China at the Tanah Tinggi market in Tangerang, Banten. (JG Photo/Rezza Estily)

The government’s anti-monopoly watchdog recently found evidence of deliberate non-distribution of shallot and garlic by major importers, an act that catapulted prices of the two commodities throughout the country. It also alleged that the maneuver coincided with the enactment of a regulation that limits the import of horticultural produce into the country. Should the commission’s findings be borne out by further proof, it would irretrievably highlight the incompetent delivery of policy by the government and the sheer lack of vision within its ranks on matters of agricultural management.

The ministries of agriculture and trade, which promulgated Regulation 60 of 2012 limiting and in some cases banning the import of certain horticultural commodities, are rightly charged with incompetence as they failed to anticipate the consequences of such a policy. The regulation itself is laudable in the sense that it encourages agricultural self-sufficiency as well as empowering local farmers to confidently grow commodities that they know will find a ready market.

However, the ministries should have foreseen that the regulation would find great opposition from importers at home and indeed in exporting countries, both of whom stand to lose a great deal from the regulation’s enactment.

In fact, the United States formally submitted its objection to the World Trade Organization early this year in an attempt to force the Indonesian government to revoke the regulation. Domestically, the deliberate non-distribution of garlic and shallot appears to be both a slap in the face for the government in a showdown to reveal how “illogical” the regulation is, as well as a warning for the government that without the cooperation and good will of the import cartel, no policy would have any change of success. It is improbable that the think thank within the government was not aware of such possible maneuvers to sabotage the regulation. The government may be forgiven for failing to prevent the US move at the WTO, yet it is mind-boggling to realize that there were no preventive measures against the blatant and indeed unlawful intransigence of the import cartel.

The fact that the government appeared to have been caught off-guard as it helplessly watched the prices of the two spices most used in Indonesian kitchens go up threefold. If anything else, the government was made to look inept and unprepared, hence incompetent in delivering its own policy.

Before the implementation of Regulation 60, the government should have anticipated trouble by stockpiling commodities susceptible to manipulation by industry cartels. If the government had done so, it would have been able to call the importers’ bluff when the latter tried to cut off supply by means of non-distribution.

Yet it was not until the problem became manifestly dire that the Ministry of Trade announced the import of 29,136 tons of garlic by the government to drive down unwieldy prices in the market.

The government is also apparently devoid of any vision regarding the future of agriculture in the country. Regulation 60 seemed to be a desperate attempt to stall the death of the decaying Indonesian agricultural sector in the face of stiff global competition and the overweening influence of import cartels.

The last few years have seen the rise of agricultural imports and with it the decline of local agricultural output. As much as 80 percent of the national consumption of garlic, for instance, was once comfortably met by local farmers but now, according to Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Hatta Rajasa, the figure is down to 5 percent.

Thus, undeniably, the state of our agricultural sector is dismal. The agricultural policy for the last two terms of the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apparently failed to reverse the systemic neglect by the previous governments.

And, like it or not, the road ahead is harder still. Any move to “protect” our farmers by limitations on import will likely be met with opposition abroad under the pretext of free trade and anti-dumping principles.

The irony of the current situation is that the countries that are likely to cry foul at Indonesia for wanting to rebuild its agriculture are possessed of far more efficient and developed agricultural sectors than us.

The issue of agricultural independence will certainly not go away. A sovereign nation that is beholden agriculturally to others cannot surely be called wholly sovereign. Agriculture will always be important as it deals with the food that we eat. And it seems, in our case, it will take some guts by a far-thinking leader to take definitive actions to ensure the independence of our future food sources.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer based in Surabaya.