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As Indonesia gears up for elections, activists brace for an environmental sell-off

A baby Sumatran elephant in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Rhinos are not the only endangered species who benefit from the presence of RPUs. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • This year, Indonesia will hold elections for governors, district heads and mayors across 171 regions, many of them home to vast natural resources.
  • Environmental activists are worried that, as in previous election years, the campaigning this year will be rife with corruption, as candidates take kickbacks from plantation and mining operators in a quid pro quo for permits and other favors once in office.
  • A key factor in the issue is the greater autonomy that local leaders enjoy managing their lands and resources, to the extent that they can even skirt some of the controls imposed by the central government.
  • The central government has made assurances that its processes now are more transparent and accountable, making potential abuses at the local level less likely. Activists, though, are unconvinced, citing a longstanding lack of strong enforcement.

JAKARTA — Environmental issues in Indonesia will once again be both bargaining chip and valuable stake this year as the country prepares to hold sweeping elections, according to an environmental outlook released last month by the country’s main environmental watchdog, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).

Voters in the world’s third-largest democracy will head to the polls in June to vote for 17 provincial governors, 115 district heads and 39 mayors. Up for grabs: control of natural resource-rich regions, including in Indonesian Borneo, Sumatra and Papua.

Elections at the local level in Indonesia have long been marred by corruption: business lobbies bribe their favored candidates with the expectation of a quid pro quo once in office; incumbents engage in pork-barrel programs and blatant vote-buying schemes; and in each region, the promise to permit the plunder of natural resources — timber, coal, land, water — forms a central part of each candidate’s platform.

“In this political year, there will be a great amount of money circulating,” says Even Sembiring, the policy assessment manager at Walhi. “So we have to remain alert.”

An illegally logged tree in Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Habitat loss played a critical role in reducing rhino populations, but most experts now believe the species’ low birth rate is a more pressing problem. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Decentralizing corruption

A key aspect of Indonesia’s vibrant, if imperfect, democracy is the decentralization of power from Jakarta to the regions, introduced after the downfall in 1998 of the late dictator Suharto. Under Suharto’s New Order rule, it was the central government that handpicked local leaders and wielded control over land and resources nationwide, farming out governorships to loyalists, and lucrative timber, mining and plantation permits to cronies of the regime.

With decentralization, residents in each city, district and province were for the first time allowed to vote for their own leaders. These leaders, in turn, were granted the autonomy to manage their lands and resources largely independent of the central government; the idea being that local leaders understood local issues better than officials in Jakarta could.

But the decentralization of power also brought with it the decentralization of corruption. Where once crony capitalism was limited to the élites in the capital, now prominent local figures and businesspeople indulge in cash-for-favors schemes with candidates who need to find a way to repay the hefty campaign costs borne by the political parties backing them.

The cost of running for mayor or district head reached 30 billion rupiah ($2.1 million) in the 2015 elections, according to data from the Ministry of Home Affairs. The bill for a gubernatorial ticket was significantly higher, at 100 billion rupiah ($7 million).

In the years since decentralization, dozens of mayors, district heads and governors have been jailed on corruption charges, according the 2015 annual report from the KPK, the anticorruption agency. Of the 66 implicated in graft between 2004 and 2015, 24 were busted taking bribes and six were accused of wrongful issuance of permits to exploit natural resources. (The rest of the cases involved budget fraud and embezzlement of public funds.)

Interviews by the KPK with 450 out of the 794 candidate pairs in elections in 2015 found that the pressure on candidates from benefactors was widespread: Three-fifths of the tickets said their backers had demanded favors or rewards in exchange for funding. First on donors’ wish lists: access to business permits.

Coal mined in East Kalimantan being transported by river barge. Almost half of of Indonesia’s coal production comes from the province. Photo by Tommy Apriando for Mongabay-Indonesia.

Forest conversions

The number of business permits issued at the local level, including for exploiting natural resources, tends to spike a year before elections, and again a year after.

Similarly, the amount of forested land converted to plantations and mining concessions also increases in the run-up to elections, according to data from Walhi. The authority of local officials to redesignate forests for commercial exploitation is easily abused, says Walhi research and environmental law head Zenzi Suhadi.

Technically, the power to convert forest status lies with the central government, specifically the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. But local leaders can effectively do the same by revising local zoning plans, usually at the behest of existing concession holders, to include forested areas that these operators want to include in their plantation or mining operations.

The figures from the year before the 2015 elections, in which voters chose nine governors, 30 mayors and 224 district heads, show the loophole being exploited vigorously. In 2014, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry ordered the conversion of 4,950 square kilometers (1,910 square miles) of forest for “other-use” purposes, or APL, where oil palm plantations and mines are permitted to operate.

That figure in itself was more than five times higher than in other years, before or since, but was dwarfed by the 32,000 square kilometers (12,360 square miles) ordered converted as part of zoning revisions at the local level nationwide.

“If we’re talking about partial forest conversion from the ministry, then we’re quite sure that the ministry will not carelessly issue [permits] based on what we’ve seen these past two years,” Zenzi tells Mongabay, adding that local officials are a different story: “They justify the conversion by saying that it’s in the public interest, while in reality it’s for plantations.”

A textbook example of how this power can be abused is the case of Annas Maamun, the former governor of Riau province in Sumatra — one of the most extensively deforested provinces in Indonesia, and a heartland of the palm oil industry.

Annas was arrested in 2014 for taking 2 billion rupiah ($147,000) in bribes from a palm oil businessman to rezone swaths of “production forest” in the province as “non-forested land,” in a ploy to legitimize the plantations already operating there. In 2015, a court convicted him of corruption and sentenced him to six years in prison. An appeals court in 2016 upheld his conviction and added another year to his sentence.

A recent investigation by Mongabay and The Gecko Project, an initiative of the U.K.-based nonprofit Earthsight, examined the case of Seruyan district in Central Kalimantan province, where former district chief Darwan Ali gave plantation licenses to 18 shell companies owned by his relatives and cronies. They, in turn, quickly flipped the companies to some of the world’s biggest palm oil firms ahead of Darwan’s re-election campaign. The article was the first installment in a series on the practice more broadly.

Licenses issued to companies owned by Darwan Ali’s family and cronies threatened to turn the southern reaches of Seruyan, on the island of Borneo, into one vast oil palm plantation.

Zoning abuses

Between 2009 and 2014, local leaders across 22 provinces proposed the conversion, through zoning revisions, of a combined 122,500 square kilometers (47,300 square miles) of forest. Nearly two-thirds of that land has since been converted, leaving some 44,500 square kilometers (17,200 square miles) of forest hanging in the balance.

Zenzi says he believes there’s a real risk that this year’s elections will provide businesspeople and candidates with the impetus to peddle more kickbacks to clear this conversion backlog.

“There’s good leadership within the [environment] ministry,” he says, “but we’re worried that the ministry is failing to pay attention to the maneuvers by these companies, because these [44,500 square kilometers] are still at risk of being converted.”

Walhi has identified several regions where it says extra vigilance is needed because of the large potential area left for forest conversion. They include districts within the provinces of East Nusa Tenggara, West Kalimantan and North Maluku.

A key river in Sekalak village, in Sumatra’s Bengkulu province, has been polluted by chunks of coal and soil deposition reportedly coming from mining company PT Bara Indah Lestari which operates nearby. Photo by Dedek Hendry/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Mining surge

Forest conversion for plantations is just part of the story. Mining permits also tend to be issued in spades prior to elections, according to the NGO Auriga Nusantara.

Of the more than 13,000 mining permits issued by local governments from 2004 to 2016, three-quarters were issued within a period two years prior to and two years after local elections, the group found.

“Regions where mining permits are issued one year prior to local elections are those that are rich in resources, such as East Kalimantan, Riau, East Java, South Sulawesi, West Nusa Tenggara and Papua,” Auriga Nusantara researcher Muhammad Iqbal Damanik tells Mongabay.

Iqbal says this year will likely be no different, and adds that authorities should pay extra attention to the provinces of South Sumatra, East Kalimantan and West Kalimantan, where 3,000 mining permits that are due to expire. “Companies will try to secure the extension of their permits [before they expire] in 2018 and 2019,” he says.

He also warns of potential for corruption in the auditing of existing mining permits.

A review in 2014 by the anticorruption agency, the KPK, identified problems with 40 percent of the nearly 11,000 mining licenses issued by local officials in 12 provinces, including South Sumatra. Such licenses were deemed not to be “clean and clear,” meaning they failed to comply with prevailing regulations on environmental impact assessments, payment of taxes and royalties, or proper registration of concession boundaries and corporate information.

The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources instructed governors to review these licenses before January 2017. Those found to be “clean and clear” would then have to be submitted for another round of review by the ministry, while those that failed again were to be revoked.

“After [January 2017], there should have been no more licenses recommended by governors to obtain ‘clean and clear’ status,” Iqbal says. “But we found that some companies were still applying for a status upgrade as of November 2017 — and some of them got it.”

He says he’s concerned that some local leaders eyeing re-election are dangling the possibility of “clean and clear” approvals for mining companies in exchange for substantial kickbacks. “There’s a tendency for [bribery] in this process because we’ve found some local officials asking for money from companies” seeking to have their permits cleared, Iqbal says.

Many rural Sumatrans see orangutans not as important endangered species to be protected, but rather as garden and farm pests. Local organizers like Rudi Putra and T.M. Zulfikar are building a homegrown Sumatran conservation movement that relies heavily on litigation over the potential loss of Leuser’s ecosystem services. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

Enforcement woes

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar says her office is increasingly vigilant about forest conversion through unlawful issuance of licenses as well as changes in zoning plans.

“The process now is very prudent and careful, with on-the-ground reviews and background analysis of the license proposals, which compels us to be extra careful,” she told reporters in Jakarta. “So in general, it’ll be difficult to commit corruption through licenses. Furthermore, information now is very open and lots of people communicate directly with me and my officials to report [any indication of corruption].”

The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources has acknowledged the surge in mining licenses being issued around election years, but says there’s nothing to be worried about because the issuing process is now more transparent.

For the environmental watchdog Walhi, though, these assurances are not enough.

“In light of this situation, we’re urging the president to issue a moratorium on palm oil licenses soon,” says Zenzi, the group’s head of environmental law. “This moratorium has to be stern in saying that forest conversion has to be stopped and existing forest conversion licenses have to be [re-]evaluated.”

In the wake of devastating forest and land fires in 2015, due in large part to the clearing of peat forests to make way for oil palm plantations, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced in 2016 a moratorium on new palm oil and coal mining licenses. To date, however, the moratorium has still not come into force; Jokowi hasn’t yet issued the presidential decree that would undergird it.

The announced moratorium is itself billed as a continuation of a 2011 forestry moratorium, which banned new permits to develop in primary forests and peatlands. That ban was initially slated to run two years, but has been regularly renewed. Activists, though, argue that it hasn’t been effective in protecting Indonesia’s remaining rainforests because it fails to stipulate any punishment for violators.

Law enforcement, says Walhi policy manager Even, is of prime importance in preventing environmental corruption in this election year — and the others to come — and ensuring that the forest moratorium is truly enforced.

“The president has to use law enforcement agencies to ensure that the illegal practice of forest conversion doesn’t happen in election years,” he says.


Banner image: A baby Sumatran elephant in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Rhinos are not the only endangered species who benefit from the presence of RPUs. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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