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Indonesian governor latest official busted for bribes in environmental case

Some of the islands in the Riau Islands province. Image by Axel Drainville/Flickr.

  • Three local officials, including a governor, have been arrested and charged for allegedly taking bribes in a land reclamation project.
  • The businessman behind the project in Sumatra’s Riau Islands, who has also been arrested, planned to build a resort and tourism site on reclaimed land in a bay designated as protected.
  • Observers say that projects involving land reclamation activities are prone to corruption.

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency has charged a governor from the island of Sumatra with bribery in connection to a land reclamation project, in the latest high-profile case of environmental graft in the country.

Nurdin Basirun, who heads the Riau Islands province in the Malacca Strait, was arrested on the night of July 10 at his home after allegedly transacting a bribe. Three other people have also been charged, including the head of the provincial marine and fisheries department, Edy Sofyan; the department’s head of capture fisheries, Budi Hartono; and Abu Bakar, a businessman alleged to have bribed Nurdin.

The governor is alleged to have taken the equivalent of at least $11,300 in bribes through a series of bank transfers made by Abu Bakar via the two fisheries department officials. Investigators from the Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK as it’s known by its Indonesian initials, seized a further $47,300 in various currencies at Nurdin’s house.

KPK officials say the bribe was linked to a permit that Nurdin issued in May for a 10-hectare (25-acre) reclamation project in the province’s Piayu Bay. The first transfer was recorded on May 30; the permit was issued May 31.

KPK deputy commissioner Basaria Panjaitan, seated, holds a press conference in Jakarta on July 11 to announce the arrest of the Riau Islands governor, Burdin Basirun, for allegedly taking bribes to approve a land reclamation permit. Image by Indra Nugraha/Mongabay Indonesia.

Abu Bakar had sought the permit to build a resort and tourism site in the area. However, the area is designated for fish farming, because it’s technically a protected forest.

Basaria Panjaitan, a deputy commissioner at the KPK, said Nurdin had suggested that Abu Bakar state in his land reclamation proposal that he would build a restaurant on top of the floating cages used for fish farming. She said Edy helped the businessman forge the supporting documents needed for the permit application.

“Bribery has happened many times at the local level, and the KPK has found local officials taking bribes in exchange for issuing permits that benefit stakeholders with vested interests,” Basaria said.

“Investments are supposed to be free from corruption and shouldn’t damage the environment,” she added.

Bintan Buyung Hariyanto, the head of the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen’s Union (KNTI), said corruption was rampant in projects involving land reclamation activities throughout the country.

The Riau Islands government had previously proposed 114 sites for reclamation activities, but dialed the number back to 42 sites after the KPK had run through the proposal.

“Land reclamation projects are prone to corruption and will eventually become a threat to the livelihoods of fishermen and to the coastal environment,” Bintan said.

Riau Islands Governor Nurdin Basirun. Image courtesy of the Riau Islands government.

Nurdin’s case marks the latest arrest by the KPK of a senior local politician accused of taking bribes for issuing permits for environmentally destructive activities. In March 2018, KPK prosecutors won a conviction against the governor of Southeast Sulawesi province, Nur Alam, for abusing his authority to grant mining licenses. Nur Alam is now serving a 12-year sentence for his crimes.

More recently, this past February KPK officials charged Supian Hadi, the head of East Kotawaringin district in the Bornean province of Central Kalimantan, also for taking bribes to issue mining licenses.

Banner image of islets in Riau Islands province by Axel Drainville via Flickr

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on July 11, 2019.

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