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Indonesia’s new cabinet a ‘marriage of oligarchs,’ environmentalists say

Intact rainforest in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Intact rainforest in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

  • Environmental activists have expressed disappointment with the new cabinet unveiled by President Joko Widodo for his second and final term in office.
  • Among those staying on are the environment minister, widely criticized for failing to crack down on companies violating environmental laws, and the coordinating minister for maritime affairs, who has extensive business interests in the mining industry.
  • The popular and effective fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, was replaced in favor of an aide to Widodo’s election rival, while the new energy minister has a record of championing fossil fuel and palm biodiesel projects.
  • Activists warn that the new cabinet consolidates power in the hands of oligarchs, political elites, and military and police generals, making it likely that environmental protections will be unraveled and violations more common in the name of investment and growth.

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has announced his new cabinet for his second and final term in office, naming controversial figures with strong ties to the extractive industries.

Introducing the new ministers as part of his “Indonesia Advance” cabinet in Jakarta on Oct. 23, Widodo said his focus would be on boosting investments, developing human resources and creating jobs. He also reminded the ministers not to engage in corruption. Two ministers from his first term were arrested and charged in separate corruption cases, while two others have been implicated in other cases. (None of them were retained in the new cabinet.)

“Everybody must be serious in their work. Otherwise, be careful, I might fire you midway,” Widodo said.

President Joko Widodo, front row center, poses for a group photo with his new cabinet at the State Palace in Jakarta on Oct. 23. Image courtesy of the Office of the Cabinet Secretary.

Cabinet posts pertaining to the environment saw a mix of old and new faces. Popular fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti wasn’t retained, spawning the trending hashtag #WeWantSusi on social media. Instead, Widodo introduced the following lineup:

Coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment: Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan

Luhut retains the portfolio he has held over the past five years, which oversees the management of natural resources onshore and offshore, including mines and palm oil. This time he has an additional mandate of “dealing with investment barriers, and realizing huge investment commitments,” Widodo said.

A former military general and close confidante and business partner to the president, Luhut also has significant business holdings active in the natural resources, power generation, and agriculture sectors, through his Toba Sejahtra Group. The NGO Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam) earlier this year published a report showing that Luhut’s coal-mining companies expropriated land from farmers in Borneo, leaving behind dozens of mining pits that they were legally obliged to rehabilitate.

For the next five years Luhut will run point for the administration’s push to expand domestic consumption of palm oil biofuel under the B20 program (a blend of 20 percent biofuel and 80 percent diesel).

“The president gave me a directive to resolve investment problems for petrochemical, B20, and to reduce gas imports,” Luhut told reporters in Jakarta on Oct. 22.

Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan. Image courtesy of the Office of the Cabinet Secretary.

Minister of Environment and Forestry: Siti Nurbaya Bakar

Siti is one of several ministers to retain her post, though her brief this time around seems to be less about enforcing environmental regulations than about loosening them to allow for ease of investment in extractive sectors. She said the president wanted her to ensure the implementation of a bulk deregulation package of 74 laws covering three key areas: investment, location and land, and environmental issues.

“The environment ministry must improve on two of those — helping and supporting investment without abandoning natural preservation,” she told reporters in Jakarta on Oct. 22.

Widodo said Siti would also be responsible for matters related to green industries, social forestry, carbon trading, and forest fires. Siti also said the president had asked her to guarantee environmental protection in the new planned capital city, which will be built in Borneo’s East Kalimantan province, Indonesia’s coal and oil heartland.

Environmentalists, however, are unimpressed by Siti’s performance over the past five years, particularly in stopping forest fires and restoring burned land and peat forests.

Siti Nurbaya Bakar. Image courtesy of the Office of the Cabinet Secretary.

Minister of Land and Spatial Planning: Sofyan Djalil

Sofyan also retains his post in the new cabinet, where he’s responsible for ongoing land certification and redistribution — a hallmark pledge from Widodo’s first term. Under the program, the government is supposed to grant title deeds to more than 90,000 square kilometers (34,750 square miles) of land, with indigenous and forest communities among the targeted recipients, but it’s only achieved a fraction of that figure to date.

Under Sofyan’s leadership, the ministry also continues to stonewall on releasing information about right-to-cultivate permits for plantation and farming businesses, known as HGU permits, even after the Supreme Court ordered it to comply with a freedom-of-information ruling. The HGU documents are vital because withholding them enables land-grabbing, with companies often laying claim to community lands without showing their concession maps.

Sofyan has also held top positions in coal companies, such as PT Berau Coal and PT Berau Coal Energy.

Sofyan Djalil. Image courtesy of the Office of the Cabinet Secretary.

Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources: Arifin Tasrif

Arifin is a new face in the cabinet, replacing Ignasius Jonan. And while he told reporters his job would be to ensure the implementation of renewable energy and reduce oil and gas imports, his track record suggests otherwise. He most recently served as Indonesia’s ambassador to Japan, where he was instrumental in securing a deal between the two countries to develop the Arafuru Sea gas field, known as the Masela block. The agreement was 18 years in the making. Arifin was also a key part of former minister Jonan’s efforts to secure Japanese cooperation for Indonesia’s palm biofuel program.

The $20 billion Masela project will be carried out by Japan’s Inpex Corporation and Royal Dutch Shell. In April, Luhut said he would meet a top Shell executive to discuss the development of the gas field, estimated to hold 18.47 trillion cubic feet of proved and probable gas reserves, or 3.2 trillion barrels of oil equivalent. Indonesia’s current gas production stands at about 1.2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.

Before his 2017 appointment as ambassador, Arifin was chief executive at a slate of state-owned fertilizer companies, including PT Petrokimia Gresik and PT Pupuk Indonesia.

Arifin Tasrif. Image courtesy of Embassy of Indonesia in Tokyo, Japan.

Minister of Agriculture: Syahrul Yasin Limpo

Syahrul is another newcomer to the cabinet, replacing Amran Sulaiman, the cousin of tycoon Andi Syamsudin Arsyad, popularly known as Haji Isam. The president said the minister would deal with food supplies, “incorporate farmers [into a collective],” and increase agriculture productivity.

Syahrul was the first elected governor of South Sulawesi province, and served two terms, from 2009 to 2019. He’s a scion of the Yasin Limpo clan that has controlled top posts throughout the province, including as district heads and local legislative leaders. His sister, Dewie, was arrested on corruption charges by the anti-graft agency, the KPK, in the development of a micro-hydro power plant project.

As governor, Syahrul pushed the Centre Point project in Makassar, the provincial capital, which was hailed at the time as “the first building complex in eastern Indonesia.” The project called for massive land-reclamation activities to create five artificial islands off the coast of Makassar. Local fishing communities have rejected — and attempted to physically blockade — dredging activities for the project, which they say will destroy their livelihoods. In January 2016, Syahrul was sued by the NGO Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) for issuing a permit in 2013 allowing the reclamation to commence despite the developers allegedly having failed to follow the correct procedures.

Syahrul Yasin Limpo. Image courtesy of the Office of the Cabinet Secretary.

Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries: Edhy Prabowo

Former minister Susi Pudjiastuti was widely hailed at home and abroad for her tough, no-nonsense approach to tackle illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in Indonesian waters, including banning (and blowing up) foreign fishing vessels and unsustainable fishing gear. But for his second term, Widodo has chosen to go with Edhy Prabowo, the longtime right-hand man to Prabowo Subianto — Widodo’s rival in the last two elections. (Prabowo himself scored a cabinet post as minister of defense, in a move that has flustered Widodo’s supporters but that the president says is part of efforts to rebuild political unity after a divisive campaign.)

At the time he met Prabowo, Edhy had been dismissed from the military academy for disciplinary reasons. He later served on the board of Prabowo’s paper company, PT Kiani Lestari Jakarta. From 2014 to 2019, he served in parliament as a member of Prabowo’s Gerindra Party, chairing the committee overseeing agriculture and fisheries affairs.

Edhy Prabowo, left, and Prabowo Subianto. Image courtesy of the Office of the Cabinet Secretary.

Environmental activists in Indonesia have previously called for more stringent environmental laws amid the push for big investments under Widodo’s final term. But the makeup of his new cabinet, particularly the posts that pertain to the environment, has prompted concerns of further environmental destruction for the sake of economic growth.

“It seems that there won’t be any new approach in making policies for tougher environmental protection,” Nur Hidayati, executive director of Walhi, told Mongabay by phone after the official cabinet announcement.

She called on the environment minister to enforce tougher punishment against corporations found to be burning their concessions to clear land for planting — some of which are repeat offenders that have faced no serious consequences.

Instead of pushing for investments in environmentally damaging extractive and plantation industries, Nur said there was a huge opportunity for investment in ecosystem restoration (such as burned peatlands or disused mining pits) and climate change mitigation projects that would benefit small and medium enterprises, as targeted by the president.

“It’s the work of the ministers and everyone to influence the president to stop pushing for economic growth through business as usual,” Nur said, adding that the focus on big capital and monoculture had failed to boost growth in recent years, particularly for people in rural villages.

The new cabinet has also raised red flags among environmental activists because of the mix of business and political oligarchs coupled with former military and police generals, said Merah Johansyah, the executive director of Jatam.

He noted that other ministerial posts had been given to people involved in the energy industry, including Johnny G. Plate, who is now the minister of information and technology, and Airlangga Hartanto, the coordinating minister for economic affairs.

Johnny is a close confidante of Riza Chalid, who was named part of Indonesia’s oil and gas “mafia”  and with whom Johnny founded an oil and gas company. Airlangga, meanwhile, has been implicated in a corruption case centered on the development of a coal-fired power plant in Sumatra’s Riau province. Airlangga also reportedly wrote a letter to the president in support of lobby groups that wanted an exemption from a peatland-development moratorium because they had already received a permit to plant on peat that was already drained.

Merah also highlighted the appointment of Erick Thohir, a businessman and Widodo’s campaign chairman, as the minister of state-owned enterprises. Erick is the brother of Garibaldi Thohir, who founded Jakarta-listed PT Adaro Energy, which mines coal and indirectly owns a coal-fired power plant in Central Java’s Batang district.

“The country will be open to any kinds of investment, particularly investment in the extractive industries,” Merah told Mongabay on the phone.

He also questioned the appointment of former national police chief Tito Karnavian as the home affairs minister, saying there was a real danger of further repression of those critical or opposed to dirty and destructive investments.

“A key element in attracting investment is security,” Merah said. “There will be a lot of criminalization of the people who resist investment. Tito could justify it by labeling someone as a radical.

“The new cabinet is a marriage between oligarchs in politics, mining, military, and now the police,” Merah added.

A protest banner on the Welcome Monument in Central Jakarta reads “Good People Choose Good Energy.” Image courtesy of Greenpeace Indonesia.

The expansion of Luhut’s brief to include attracting foreign investment is a sign that Widodo is no longer focused on achieving his key pledge from his first term to make Indonesia a global maritime power, said Ahmad Marthin Hadiwinata, who heads the legal department at the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen’s Union.

Marthin added that the appointment of Edhy, a political appointee, to replace Susi, an entrepreneur with a proven track record in the fisheries industry, indicated that fisheries policies in the future would serve more political interests.

“The livelihoods of traditional fishermen, which make up 80 percent of Indonesia’s fisheries, must be made the top priority,” he said.

On the morning before Widodo revealed his new cabinet, commuters passing by two Jakarta landmarks were treated to the unusual sight of giant banners put up by activists from Greenpeace Indonesia. The posters read, in Indonesian, “Fight Against Forest Destroyers” and “Good People Choose Good Energy.”

Arie Rompas, forest campaigner at Greenpeace, said the protest was a call for Widodo’s new cabinet to reform Indonesia’s forest and coal sectors. Arie said he was disappointed by the reappointment of Siti, who he said had failed at stopping deforestation and forest fires, and of Sofyan, who has consistently refused to publish palm plantation maps.

“It will be very challenging to save the forests in Indonesia, which continue to be threatened,” Arie told Mongabay. “Land-based investment continues to be the agenda in the country for the next five years, and as the oligarchs are now consolidated, it will be very smooth to profit from destroying forests in Indonesia.”

Walhi’s Nur praised the protest led by Greenpeace, even as the activists were arrested by police. She said it was a great reminder for the people that the nation faces threats to its democracy and environment from oligarchs and elites.

“The only answer is the people’s movement,” she said.

A protest sign on the Dirgantara Monument in South Jakarta reads “Fight Against Forest Destroyers.” Image courtesy of Greenpeace Indonesia.

Image banner of an intact rainforest in Indonesian Borneo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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