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Few eco commitments and suspect funding for Indonesia presidential hopefuls

  • The second debate in Indonesia’s presidential campaign, scheduled for Feb. 17, will address environmental issues.
  • Activists say that both President Joko Widodo and his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, have shown little commitment to tackling pressing issues such as reining in oil palm expansion, ending deforestation, or fully recognizing indigenous rights.
  • In addition, both campaigns are heavily funded by donations linked to the mining and palm oil industries, while top campaign officials also have business holdings in these sectors.

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and his rival in this year’s election, Prabowo Subianto, are expected to address the issues of environmental protection and management during the second of their scheduled debates on Feb. 17.

Nearly 200 million people are eligible to vote in a repeat of the 2014 election, when Widodo defeated Prabowo by 6 percentage points, the narrowest margin of victory in Indonesia’s democratic history.

While much of the rhetoric on the campaign trail leading to the April 17 ballot has been dominated by economic and religious issues, the candidates will have to deal with the perennially thorny issue of the environment.

Indonesia is home to the third-largest span of tropical rainforest in the world and one of its most expansive marine ecosystems, along with the wealth of biodiversity conferred by both. However, its forests are fast disappearing, mostly for oil palm and other monocrop plantations, as well as mines and timber. Indonesia is also the second-biggest source of the ocean’s plastic trash crisis, after China.

Forest biomass loss in Indonesia from 2001 through 2013. Sumatra appears to have the highest levels, in orange. Image by Global Forest Watch.

The stakes are particularly high for both candidates, with environmental activists calling them out for taking campaign funding from businesses seen as responsible for environmental damage, such as mining and plantation companies.

Jatam, an NGO that monitors the mining industry, earlier in the week published research that looked into the sources of funding for each campaign. It found 86 percent of the nearly $4 million in donations reported by the Widodo campaign at the start of the year was linked to big mining and energy companies; while 70 percent of the $3.4 million reported by Prabowo’s team could be traced back to fossil fuel businesses.

There’s also the fact that many of the advisers and close confidantes the candidates and their running mates have surrounded themselves with have interests in companies whose activity is what Jatam calls “problematic.” Among them is Luhut Pandjaitan, Widodo’s close adviser and the coordinating minister overseeing mines and palm oil — who also happens to own a slate of mining and palm oil companies.

“The debate will just be full of nonsense,” Merah Johansyah, Jatam’s executive director, told Mongabay. “How can we trust the candidates’ commitments to provide clean energy when they are surrounded by businessmen from fossil energy?”

An aerial view of the PT Borneo Indobara coal mine in South Kalimantan. Image by Daniel Beltran/Greenpeace.

Jatam reported in 2016 that at least 44 percent of land in Indonesia had been allocated for mining concessions. The country’s mining industry has long been plagued by corruption, regulatory violations, and environmental and social damage.

In addition to Luhut, other high-profile figures with mining and energy businesses in Widodo’s inner circle or campaign team (often both) include his current vice president, Jusuf Kalla, who is barred by term limits from running for re-election; coalition partners and media magnates Surya Paloh and Hary Tanoesoedibjo (the latter is also the Trump Organization’s Indonesian business partner); and Aburizal Bakrie, who controls the oil company widely blamed for triggering a devastating mud volcano in East Java.

The president himself studied forestry and made his fortune manufacturing and exporting wood furniture. In office, he’s rolled out measures to address environmental issues, including forest fires, illegal fishing, clean energy, indigenous peoples’ rights, and peatland conservation.

With regard to commodities, the Widodo administration has embraced a nationalist position: criticizing the European Union over a planned phase-out of palm oil in biofuels, nationalizing extractive companies, and forcing local coal miners to allocate much of their production for domestic consumption.

While Widodo and his running mate, aging cleric Maruf Amin, don’t have known interests or holdings in the mining and plantation industries, the same can’t be said for their opponents. Prabowo, a retired special forces commander, has business interests spanning from oil and gas to palm oil, to forestry and mining.

His running mate, Sandiaga 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 PT Aetra Air Jakarta, which provides half of Jakarta’s piped water, but sold his stake after being elected deputy governor of Jakarta in 2017.

Among Prabowo’s supporters with direct involvement in mining businesses, per Jatam: Hutomo Mandala Putra, a son of Indonesia’s former dictator Soeharto and ex-brother-in-law to Prabowo; Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo’s brother; Sudirman Said, a former energy minister under Widodo; and Zulkifli Hasan, the speaker of the national bicameral chambers and former forestry minister.

Besides holding stock or sitting on boards, some of these individuals also served these interests by abusing their power in office to ease mining expansion, Jatam says.

Merah said he expected the debate to force the candidates to address how their financial connections to the extractive businesses would affect their policies to protect Indonesia’s environment and rich natural resources from exploitation. He said that another specific issue that needed to be addressed was the environmental management of waste from the massive Grasberg copper and gold mine operated by PT Freeport Indonesia, in which the government recently took a controlling stake.

“If the candidates don’t address these cases, then it’s a fake debate. It’s just a discussion for mining businesses, not a debate to save the environment,” Merah told Mongabay.

Both presidential tickets have ties to figures with interests in mining and palm oil companies. Image courtesy of Jatam.

Another report tries to quantify both Widodo’s and Prabowo’s commitments to the environment by scrutinizing each campaign’s published policy statements.

Out of 260 elaborated in Widodo’s policy statement, 20 percent pertained to environmental issues, according to the report by the Madani Foundation, a green NGO. This includes points on sustainable management of forests and peatlands; equality in land ownership; law enforcement for environmental crimes; renewable energy; and greater recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights.

But Madani also noted that Widodo failed to declare commitments to better management of oil palm plantations, ending deforestation, resolving land ownership conflicts, planning for villages in forest areas, and preventing and eradicating corruption in the natural resources sector.

Another key topic missing from the policy statement was the passage of an indigenous rights bill, which Widodo had previously vowed to pass when he ran in 2014. The president’s failure to make good on that and other pledges to indigenous communities has seen Indonesia’s main advocacy group for indigenous peoples, AMAN, declare that it would not endorse his candidacy this time around.

Madani executive director Teguh Surya, who co-authored the report, said Widodo’s current plans lacked measurable targets compared to his 2014 pledges.

An activist stages a protest against palm oil in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Madani’s report on Prabowo doesn’t paint the challenger in a favorable light either. It found about the same proportion, 18 percent, of stated commitments to environmental issues in his policy statement. But Prabowo’s policy statement runs much shorter, at just 148 points. They touch on sustainable forestry management, equality in land ownership, environmental law enforcement, and renewable energy.

There was no mention of how to protect peatlands, manage palm oil, tackle industrial pollution, or uphold indigenous peoples’ rights.

The Madani report also highlighted a pledge by Prabowo to restore 880,000 square kilometers (340,000 square miles) of “damaged” forests and lands — an area double the size of California — by converting them into industrial forests (typically for pulpwood and timber), restored forests, and food-plant forests. Sri Lestari, a researcher at Madani, said such a plan raised a red flag because of the potential for land disputes and an increase in land degradation if implemented.

Lowland rainforest in Indonesia, home to the third-largest span of tropical rainforest in the world (after the Amazon and the Congo Basin). Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Indonesia’s electoral commission says the upcoming debate will be run differently from the previous one, which was widely panned for being soft on the candidates, who received the questions in advance and weren’t subjected to follow-up questions.

This time they won’t know the questions in advance. Among those asked to draft the questions are Nur Hidayati, the national director of the Indonesia Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s biggest green NGO; Arif Satria, chancellor of the Bogor Institute of Agriculture; and Dewi Sartika, secretary general of the Agrarian Reform Consortium.

Ratri Kusumohartono, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, welcomed the changes to the debate format, saying she hoped they would allow for a deeper discussion of the issues and give viewers a better idea of where the candidates stood.

She said she also expected the candidates to commit to ending deforestation and land clearing through permanent legislation rather than the series of patchwork moratoriums and regulations issued to date. “They also need to be clear with how they will implement their commitments,” Ratri said.

While Indonesia’s voters are the debate’s primary audience, Indonesia’s wealth of natural resources and prominence as a greenhouse gas emitter also makes it a matter of international interest. Indonesia has vowed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent by 2030 (or 41 percent with international assistance).

Ratri said Indonesia had received plenty of foreign aid for its climate projects, including a $1 billion commitment from Norway under the REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) scheme.

“With that amount of funding, it’s important for donor countries to learn how each candidate plans to use these special foreign donations for environmental projects,” Ratri said.

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