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Indonesian conservation bill stirs debate over geothermal rigs, private guards

A geothermal power plant in the Ulubelu field in Indonesia's Lampung province, on the island of Sumatra. Photo by Aldio Dwi Perkasa/Flickr.

  • A proposed revision of Indonesia’s 1990 Conservation Law provides a mechanism for companies to obtain a waiver for geothermal drilling in forest areas zoned for conservation, currently off-limits to the industry.
  • Lawmakers are considering a proposal from companies that their security guards be allowed to arrest trespassers in their plantation and mining concessions.
  • The law would include heavier penalties for wildlife traffickers.

JAKARTA – It was supposed to be about cracking down on the illegal wildlife trade, as traffickers move online.

But a conservation bill now making its way through Indonesia’s parliament is drawing fire for stipulations that would open new forest areas for geothermal drilling and empower plantation-company security guards to make arrests.

Indonesia, a heavily forested archipelago country, is home to incredible biodiversity. But poor governance has allowed the trade in rare animals to flourish, especially as the Internet provides new tools with which to connect with buyers.

In 2015, news of the arrest of a smuggler who had stuffed 24 rare cockatoos in plastic water bottles prompted many Indonesians to turn over their illegal pets to the government. Not long after that, President Joko Widodo’s administration announced plans to revise the 1990 Conservation Law, which lays out penalties for traffickers, in order to fight criminal traders.

But some have criticized a recent draft of the bill from the House of Representatives that provides a mechanism for companies to obtain a waiver for geothermal drilling in forest areas zoned for conservation, currently off-limits to the industry.

“This conservation law should have been the last standing fort,” said Nur Hidayati, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s largest environmental pressure group. “Instead there are loopholes that would allow extractive industries to exploit more protected areas.”

The debate over the drilling stipulation comes as President Jokowi, as he is popularly known, aims to increase Indonesia’s electricity generating capacity, with demand in the country of 260 million people expected to double by 2020 over 2012 levels.

At the same time, Jokowi plans to cut Indonesia’s reliance on petroleum in favor of renewable energy sources like geothermal, which releases fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

The rub: a huge portion of Indonesia’s geothermal reserves – the largest in the world – lie in conservation forests.

For some time, the industry has been trying to open these areas for geothermal drilling, arguing that keyhole drilling operations have a minimal environmental footprint. Critics, however, say supporting infrastructure required by drilling rigs, especially road networks built to service them, fragments the forest in a way that can hasten its destruction.

Not all NGOs believe geothermal rigs should be kept out of conservation forests. Indra Sari Wardhani, climate and energy manager of WWF-Indonesia, said it would be better to allow this kind of drilling than for Indonesia to increase its dependence on coal. She believes the conservation law should regulate geothermal drilling in away that ensures it is done sustainably.

“Geothermal is an important energy source for Indonesia to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energies,” she said.

Power plants, she added, should be kept out of conservation forests.

Walhi’s Hidayati argued geothermal should be excluded from the conservation bill, since the industry is already regulated in a 2014 law.

“This bill should no longer regulate things that already has its own law,” she said.

Farmers work a potato farm near a geothermal plant on the Dieng Plateau, on the Indonesian island of Java. Photo by Raditya Mahendra Yasa/Flickr.

Another subject of debate is a proposal from companies that their security guards be allowed arrest encroachers in their concessions, an idea opposed by critics who say it would deepen conflicts with surrounding communities.

Corporate representatives aired the idea at a recent parliamentary hearing, according to Walhi’s Hidayati. The existence of the proposal was confirmed by House member Viva Yoga Mauladi, head of the parliamentary committee overseeing the bill.

“There’s an idea to give limited authority [to private security guards] to make arrests whenever there’s a violation [of the law],” he said. “Violators would be handed over to state officials to be processed according to the law.”

Encroachment is widespread in company concessions, many of which cover huge areas the size of small cities. The same is true in many national parks and other forest reserves, with the government devoting few resources to securing these areas. A massive nature reserve in Borneo has just three forest rangers assigned to patrol it, according to a scientist working there.

Hidayati opposes the idea of empowering company guards. “This is going wild wild west,” she said.

Satrio Adi Wicaksono, forests and landscape restoration manager at the World Resources Institute, a U.S.-based thinktank with an office in Jakarta, said it would be better to encourage partnerships with indigenous and other rural communities to patrol conservation areas rather than rely on private forces.

He also suggested remote sensing and other technololgy could aid law enforcers.

“High-resolution satellite images could be used to monitor deforestation in conservation areas in almost real time,” he said. “It would be great if there was infrastructure that could alert [forest rangers] about deforestation.”


Banner image: A geothermal power plant in the Ulubelu field in Indonesia’s Lampung province, on the island of Sumatra. Photo by Aldio Dwi Perkasa/Flickr.


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