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Indonesian farmers voice virus lockdown fears

More than 10 million face starvation if Widodo implements extreme measure to combat Covid-19, they say.

Indonesian palm oil farmers have appealed to President Joko Widodo not to impose a total lockdown as suggested by several parliamentarians to combat the spread of the coronavirus. 

Palm oil farmers in Riau on Sumatra collect palm fruit to be transported to a factory. About 10 million palm oil farmers will be affected if the government imposes a lockdown because of the coronavirus. (Photo courtesy of Palm Oil Farmer Union)

If one is implemented, it will impoverish about 10 million farmers and could cause unrest, they say. 

Several legislators are pushing for the government to follow the lead of Malaysia and the Philippines and impose a lockdown because social distancing has proved ineffective in preventing the virus from spreading.

Widodo, however, said confining people to their homes would not be his priority. Instead, he would focus on several measures to keep the economy running by urging governors, regents and mayors to provide basic food supplies for people on low incomes.

"We [the government] must help laborers, daily workers, farmers, fishermen and small businessmen so that their livelihoods remain intact," Widodo said on March 26.

Palm oil farmers fully agree, saying a lockdown in Indonesia would cause chaos in their industry.

"A lockdown will further complicate the life of palm oil farmers because it will hamper distribution and even eventually lead to the closure of palm oil factories,” the Indonesian Palm Oil Farmer Union said in a statement issued on March 26.

It said that if farmers stop harvesting, palm oil factories would shut down and they would face starvation. 

“The global Covid-19 pandemic has caused the price of palm oil to drop and exports to China, Saudi Arabia, and Europe have been affected as they have been severely hit by the coronavirus outbreak,” union general secretary Mansuetus Darto told UCA News.

Before the outbreak, the price of palm oil fruits was US$0.14 per kilogram but the price has plunged to $0.08 and could fall further in the coming weeks.

“So, we urge the government not to look at a lockdown as an option,” Darto said. 

Iwan Himawan, a palm oil farmer from Pasir district in East Kalimantan, said selling palm oil at a cheap price is better than selling none at all.

Himawan, who has two hectares of palm fruit, said what he feared most from a lockdown is that it would cause conflict among local people. “When factories in our region are closed, it will spark anger,” he said. 

Divine Word Father Frans Sani Lake, director of the church-run Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation group for the Kalimantan region, said a lockdown can only be applied if the needs of farmers and laborers are met by the government.

“The government must consider well the lockdown option and give priority to our people, particularly the vulnerable such as farmers and laborers,” Father Lake told UCA News.

As of March 26, Indonesia had recorded 893 Covid-19 cases and 78 deaths. 


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