Institute for National and Democratic Studies

Where’s Our Tempe?

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Jakarta—If you ever came to Indonesia, probably you’ve tasted tempe or tahu, or both. Tempe and tahu are traditional foods, made from soybean, and worked by home industry or small-scale medium economies (SMEs). Because it’s nutrient and cheap, tempe and tahu are favorite foods for almost every family in Indonesia. For centuries, tempe and tahu had become daily supplement of rice. Usually we can find tempe or tahu everywhere and everyday. But now, after price of soybeans increased, tempe and tahu are hard to find.

The uncertain condition on the soybean world price predicted will still continue until June 2008 or even more. Impact of this increases not only down upon the poor families as the biggest tempe and tahu consumer. It also influence to 85.000 of tahu-tempe home industries with 112.000 workers.

Now, thousand of home industries had bankrupted, hundred thousand were been sent their workers home or forced to be laid-off. The same impact also happened to other industry that also use soybean as the raw materials, like tauco, kecap, and woof. So, pressure of this are not only attacking the food security of the poor families, but also treating job security for hundred thousand workers of the tempe and tahu home industries.

Government said that there’s nothing can do to decrease the price of soybeans. Increasing demand and decreasing supply of soybeans in the world market had powerfully determined the increasing price of soybean. “It’s a global phenomenon, when the world is globally facing food-crisis,” explain President Yudhoyono.

According the Chicago Board of Trade, from January 2007 to January 2008, world price of soybean was increased 59 percent or from US$ 284.8 per ton to US$ 481.3 per ton. There’re several factors mentioned: First, world supply of soybean is decreasing. US as the major soybean supplier had converted the land of soybean to corn as an adaptation to the biofuel trend. Second, world demands of soybean are increasing, particularly after China buy up almost 12 times of their annual demand. And third, price speculation of soybean played by some giant corporation like Cargill, which had stockpiled the supply.

In some sense, Yudhoyono are correct but he doesn’t explain the whole situation, particularly the domestic situation that is his first responsibility. In fact, domestic price of soybeans was increased almost double than world price or more than 110 percent. In almost all provincial region in Indonesia, soybeans price were increased since Rp 3.500 in January 2007 to Rp 8.000 in January 2008.

So, there are some potential questions; why we had to depend on import? And, why the price of soybean in domestic market was increased more than 110 percent, while the international price only 59 percent? Last, what should we do?


Since 1975, Indonesia had been depended the national demand of soybeans from the world market. Now at least, 61 percent of the soybeans stock in Indonesian was came from import. It’s needed to fulfill the domestic demand of soybean that reaches almost 2 million tons per years. Until now, Indonesia can only produce 39 percent of total soybean that been needed. This data were use by Yudhoyono to remove import dues of soybeans from 10 percent to zero.

This policy combined with price subsidy policy and increasing production by preparing special arable land in Central Kalimantan that will use only for soybeans. The price subsidy was aim to support tempe-tahu home industry. Almost Rp 200 billion (almost US$ 21 million) were prepared for this and each home-industry could have subsidy Rp 1.000 for each kilogram of soybeans. Despite a concrete data of number of tahu-tempe home-industry that needed to be subsidized, which the government still doesn’t have, this policy also need to be signed by parliament.

People can call this as a ‘crash-program’ in a literal sense. Which means, these programs are, in fact, potentially brings more damage or crashed the domestic production of soybeans. There’re no solution that can be provide from these but only become a speculation. The crucial question can be address on ‘market mechanism’ which is, again, had chosen as a fundamental policy to resolve the problem.

These policies strongly deny the reality and argumentation that mention that the international market mechanisms are the most suspected element that brings food-crises in the world today. Instead ‘expectative-speculation’, there’re no other things that can be obtain from the world market. Despite all debates of benefit and detriment of world market, the three decades reality of soybeans import-dependent prove that market liberalization had only destructed the national agriculture and food production rather than to solve the food-crisis.

Market liberalization only brings benefits for a few; which are some corporation that works in the food import-export activities. One among them is PT Cargill Indonesia, a part of Cargill International, biggest and the giant company based in United States who had a most influential pressure to the world food market. Bloody hands of Cargill, responsible for the expansion of palm-oil plantation that ruined the tropical forest in the hearth of Kalimantan.

As the biggest food-importer company, Cargill have a powerful role in playing the price of imported food commodities. In January 25, 2008, while people in Indonesia were restless by increasing price of soybeans, Cargill been catch by police had illegally stockpiled at least 13.000 tons of soybeans in storage in Surabaya, East Java. It uses to be part of 22.000 tons of soybeans that had been imported in 2007. Then, at least two weeks after, another soybean-importer company had found stockpiled 50.000 tons of soybeans. Though, those soybeans should be distributed last years.

Liberating market, particularly in food and agriculture, without considering such situation like mentioned above has a same meaning that Yudhoyono giving the hearth of the poor people to feed a voracious lion. What can people expect from it? Nothing! This only explicitly explains of whom does President Yudhoyono work to? For sure, it was not to serve the people.

Other question also can be addressed to the price subsidy policy. It is not about the policy are need to be signed by parliament or not, but on the effectiveness of the subsidy. How can the government decide a policy while they still did not a concrete data to calculate how many subsidies is needed? And how the limited subsidy can be effectively reach the most vulnerable elements of tahu-tempe home-industries. Again, this policy is very speculative.

And the last question is about the government plan to increase the production. Ministry of Agriculture Anton Apriyantono said that government had a plan to increase the production. Beside the price of soybeans are increasing, and peasants are expected would response it by planting soybeans in the next planting season, government also prepare to develop a special arable land for soybean in central Kalimantan. The background of this policy is because traditionally, soybeans are only a “side-crop” after rice and corn. Most of the peasants were not motivated to produce soybean because its price are cheaper and its market are smaller than other crop.

So, according to government, Indonesia needs to produce soybeans more intensive than before. But, how can the government provide a necessary labor to work in the area is still questionable. First, there is no guarantee that, even the price of soybeans in the world market is high, the peasant are willing to plant soybeans in their land. Why? By in average only have less than 0.3 hectares arable land, most of the peasant structurally did not have sufficient power to determine the crop that they had to plant in the next planting season. Particularly since market liberalization also creates a worse effect to the supply of fertilizer and other goods that needed in agriculture.

Second, developing a specific agricultural area, only to be used only for soybeans, could emerge the situation such in other monoculture-agricultural areas; which is the dependency of the peasant to the support from outside-factors (wages and supply of basic needed goods). Despite needed a large number of labors; this agricultural system will systematically breaking the traditional subsistence agriculture and in the end pressing the demand rate of food in the domestic market. Can our government manage this condition? Unfortunately, there’s no good practice that can be learn from our historical lesson on this.

Despite the question on effectiveness, those policies also expensive in the term of financial cost and potentially bring the lost for the people. In fact, what the government must do is simple; which is doing what other government done to secure their national interest: using their constitutional authority, dictate the market, to decrease the price. Government should realize that market could never fix damages that create by its mechanism, government policy always needed on this. Is not that hard as imagine?

People’s Food Sovereignty

If we look deeper, the soybeans crisis is a symptom and a concrete explanation of the basic and fundamental features of the twin-crisis in the neocolonial states, which are lackness of domestic production and domestic market that flooded by imported dumping commodities. It’s fundamentally caused by overproduction in the world market of commodities and quasi-economic growth in the financial sectors, as the biggest result of the fundamental contradiction in the world monopoly-capitalist system.

In fact, the today crisis is not only happening to soybean, but also occupy wider sectors like rice, corn, wheat-flour, egg, cooking-oil, etc. Almost all had structurally same explanation with the soybeans case and the common factor that brings the food crisis in Indonesia is caused by market liberalism and particularly in Indonesia combined with the backwardness of the agricultural production.

The combination of those had affected the structure of land-use in agricultural sectors, whereas in one side agricultural area to produce food are remain backward and getting smaller and in other side the agricultural area which produce raw materials for industry (palm oil-plantation) are growing and getting bigger and bigger. These created big-land ownership in one side and in other side force a large number of poor-peasants suffer into deeper misery.

Therefore, Indonesia not only needs a practical but also a set of a comprehensive solution. What’s the solution? How it can be done? And what’s the priority? All those questions should be answered by depend on the ability and the need of the people. But before talking on the method, firstly we need accomplish basic or ideological orientation that we should reach; which is to rebuild the people sovereignty as a fundamental requirement to solve these multifaceted crises.

The term of ‘people sovereignty’ that related with the theme that we discuss now is a set of concept that called “people’s food-sovereignty”. This is not a rhetoric-ideological, but a set of practical method based on comprehensive analytic that conceptualized by people, can easily work by and for the people. Fundamental consideration of the people’s food sovereignty is the right to food that now accepted by the world as one of fundamental rights of the people in a comprehensive ways.

This is not only talking on the security of supply and advocates the purchasing powers of the most vulnerable, but also pushing the need of sustainable agriculture which was become the requisite of permanent and adequate supply of food. This concept is strongly opposed the market orientation in the food and agricultural production and defend the need of domestic protection of the food and agricultural product.

In the term of sustainable agriculture, this concept also reject the use of genetic modified organism and promoting local seed that been known had more friendly with environment. This concept also to campaign the need to reduce the use of chemical fertilized and promotes the adaptation of organic fertilizer. The use of GMO and chemical fertilizer not only damaged the environment but also created dependency of the poor peasants. So, it’s also not socially friendly for the peasant community.

Genuine land reform and national industrialization are the basic foundation of its. Genuine land reform is meant to remove all feudalist barriers that for centuries kept the peasant in poverty and backwardness, national industrialization is meant to speed up the production to reach the national self-sufficiently. Those two are practice and assert the popular aspiration of the people.

By rebuild the people’s food sovereignty based on genuine land reform and national industrialization, we are not only can brings tempe and tahu back to our kitchen, but also a foundation of national development and prosperity. ***

Jakarta, February 11, 2008

Syamsul Ardiansyah

Written by INDIES

February 17, 2008 at 8:35 am

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