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Environmental issues to be a focus of Indonesian presidential debates: official

Rainforest in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Rainforest in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Indonesia is scheduled to hold a presidential election in April next year, and environmental issues have been guaranteed a spot at the debates in the upcoming campaign.
  • Much of the corruption that besets the country, particularly at the local level, revolves around the exploitation of natural resources and land, making environmental management a key topic for the candidates to address.
  • The April 17 election will be a repeat of the previous vote in 2014, with President Joko Widodo facing off against retired general Prabowo Subianto.

JAKARTA — Presidential candidates in Indonesia, home to the world’s third-largest span of tropical rainforest, will have to address the issues of environmental protection and management in upcoming debates, according to a top election official.

Some 195 million people are eligible to vote in next year’s election that pits President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo against his challenger from the 2014 ballot, Prabowo Subianto. While the economy, religion and social welfare typically dominate campaign platforms and talking points in Indonesia, the country’s General Elections Commission, or KPU, says it will also make room for environmental issues.

“One of the main topics for the presidential debates is environmental issues,” KPU commissioner Wahyu Setiawan said recently. “We want to let the people know how exactly a candidate is paying attention to environmental issues.”

Campaigning for the April 17 election kicks off on Oct. 13 this year, with a series of debates scheduled through April 13 next year.

An election booth in Indonesia. Image by Ikhlasul Amal/Flickr.

Jokowi, who is seeking a second term in office, last week named the country’s top Islamic cleric, Mar’uf Amin, as his running mate. Prabowo, who pushed Jokowi to the tightest presidential election result in Indonesia’s democratic history four years ago, is running alongside businessman and Jakarta deputy governor Sandiaga Uno.

Jokowi has a degree in forestry management and ran a furniture export business before entering politics. As president, he has rolled out measures to address environmental issues, including forest fires, fisheries, clean energy, indigenous people’s rights, and peatland conservation.

With regards to commodities, the Jokowi administration has further embraced a nationalist policymaking position: lambasting the European Union over ban on palm oil in biofuels, nationalizing extractive companies, and forcing local coal miners to allocate much of production for the domestic market.

Mar’uf, in his role as head of the MUI, Indonesia’s highest clerical council, has also addressed environmental issues before. Under his chairmanship, the council issued fatwas, or religious edicts, prohibiting the trafficking of wildlife and the setting of illegal forest fires. But the MUI’s edicts are not legally binding, and there have been no assessments on whether they’ve made any impression on the world’s biggest Muslim population.

Their opponents, meanwhile, have extensive stakes in the extractives and natural resources industries. Prabowo, a retired special forces commander, has business interests spanning from oil and gas and palm oil, to forestry and mining. He and his brother hold stakes in pulp and paper company PT Kertas Nusantara.

Uno is a major shareholder in the investment holding company PT Saratoga Investama Sedaya, whose portfolio includes coal miner PT Adaro Energy, palm oil producer PT Provident Agro, and geothermal plant developer PT Medco Power Indonesia. He also previously controlled a stake in water management company PT Aetra Air Jakarta, which he sold after being elected deputy governor in 2017.

Some of the key talking points expected from candidates during the debates include ways to make streamline regulations, beef up law enforcement, and improve coordination in environmental management between the central and local governments, said Bob Purba, executive director of the NGO Forest Watch Indonesia.

He said transparency in land-use data and permit issuance was a crucial topic that needed to be addressed at the debates.

“What we hope to see [from the candidates] is not only promises to solve these issues, but clear strategies to resolve them,” Purba said.

Corruption by Indonesian politicians, particularly local officials, often centers on the exploitation of natural resources and land, Setiawan said, making this issue a key point of concern for the candidates to address.

“We must pay attention to environmental issues,” he said. “Imagine how devastating it will be if the elected president has no clear program about environmental management.”

Banner image of a rainforest in Indonesia’s Sulawesi island by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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