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Greenpeace to take Indonesian forestry ministry to Supreme Court over environmental data

Haze in Riau Province. Photo by Rhett A Butler

Haze in Riau Province. Photo by Rhett A Butler

  • Greenpeace wants the ministry to release seven different geospatial maps of Indonesia in the shapefile format.
  • The ministry is willing to publish PDF and JPEG versions of the maps, but it says shapefiles can’t be reliably authenticated and could therefore be altered by third parties.
  • Greenpeace contends the shapefiles could quite simply be digitally signed.

Greenpeace will appeal a Jakarta court’s ruling against its freedom of information request directed at the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, setting up an encounter between the NGO and President Joko Widodo’s administration in the nation’s highest court.

Greenpeace wants the ministry to release a range of data pertaining to the management of the country’s natural resources, especially in the forestry, agribusiness and mining sectors. Much of the data is already available as PDF and JPEG files, but Greenpeace is specifically seeking it in the shapefile (SHP) format.

Shapefiles allow for much more sophisticated analysis and watchdogs say it is crucial that they have it if they are to play a monitoring role in the world’s third-largest democracy. Indonesia is less than two decades removed from a military dictatorship historians describe as one of the modern era’s most rapacious and corrupt.

Last October, Greenpeace won round one in the case at the Central Information Commission. But the ministry appealed the commission’s decision to the Jakarta State Administrative Court, and the verdict last month went the other way.

Oil palm plantations border a rainforest in Borneo, a giant island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

At the heart of the dispute is whether it is possible to reliably authenticate a shapefile. The ministry argues that because it cannot watermark a shapefile in ink as it would a JPEG or PDF, the data must remain confidential, lest some rogue actor pass off a doctored version as the real thing.

Greenpeace counters it is quite simple to digitally sign a shapefile using the Kleopatra certificate manager. The ministry could certify and timestamp a document in such as way that any forgery could be easily debunked.

“Even if someone fakes the signature, it can still be detected,” said Greenpeace information technologist Yudho, who demonstrated the process in court. “It’s really impossible to fake.”

He pointed to the 2008 Information Law, which says, “Electronic Signatures have an equal position to manual signatures in general, with legal force and legal effect.”

The ministry has meanwhile referred to the 2011 Geospatial Law, which stipulates that bureaucrats can only release officially legitimate geospatial information to prevent misuse or alteration.

Agribusinesses and extractive companies generally resist disclosure of such data on the grounds that it would disadvantage them vis-a-vis their competitors.

Banner image: Fires burn on a peat swamp planted with oil palm on Indonesia’s main western island of Sumatra during the 2015 Southeast Asian haze crisis. Plantation companies are legally obliged to prevent fires on their land, but observers often struggle to determine whose land is burning because of a lack of transparency in the way of licensing data and concession maps. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

A previous version of this article identified the Greenpeace information technologist by his nickname, Iyoet.


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