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Deregulation bill hurts Indonesia’s fishers, coastal communities, experts say

  • The administration of Indonesian President Joko Widodo has proposed a sweeping slate of deregulation to boost investment, affecting laws on fisheries, maritime affairs, and coastal and small island development.
  • Experts have warned that some of the proposed revisions will hurt small-scale and traditional fishers, who account for much of the country’s fishing fleet.
  • Coastal communities will also stand to lose out to developers under zoning changes proposed in the bill of amendments, observers warn.
  • Activists have called for fishing and coastal communities to reject the bill, and for the government and parliament to halt deliberations to pass it into law.

JAKARTA — Indonesian small-scale fishers and coastal communities may stand to lose from a sweeping package of deregulation proposed by the government to attract big investment, marine activists have warned.

The administration of President Joko Widodo has submitted to parliament one of the two so-called omnibus bills containing more than 1,000 proposed amendments to at least 79 laws. The first official draft of the bill, submitted Feb. 12, caught environmentalists by surprise with its long list of provisions that have far more dire environmental implications than previously feared.

Marine observers now say that the bill, if passed, would particularly hurt traditional fishers and coastal communities across the country, thanks to its focus on boosting economic growth by prioritizing foreign investments.

The fisheries sector has long been important to the food security of the archipelagic nation, with most of Indonesia’s more than 260 million inhabitants living in coastal areas. The country straddles the Pacific and Indian oceans, and is home to large parts of the Coral Triangle, the region with the highest coral and reef fish diversity in the world.

Yellowfin tuna for sale at a fish market in Indonesia’s North Sulawesi province. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

President Widodo’s ruling coalition controls three-quarters of seats in parliament, making it likely that any bill introduced by the government will pass relatively unchanged. The government says it expects the omnibus bills to pass within 100 days of submitting them.

“I think deliberations on the omnibus bill must be halted because it contains a lot of disadvantages for environmental protection, including oceans protection,” Laode Muhammad Syarif, the executive director of the NGO Kemitraan Partnership, told Mongabay on Feb. 21 in Jakarta.

Mongabay has reviewed the official draft and compared it with existing laws on marine affairs, fisheries (2004 and 2009), and coastal areas and small islands (2007 and 2014). Chief among the proposed amendments is the expanded definition of “fisher,” which includes all types of fishers, regardless of the scale at which they operate. The bill further proposes that every fishing operation must have a business permit from the central government.

Observers say this amendment would strip small-scale and traditional fishers of their current privileges, such as operating permit-free for boats smaller than 10 gross tonnage. The bill also indicates that large fishing operations will only be required to get a single permit from the central government, compared to multiple permits at present, including fishing license and vessel identification, from various ministries and local governments.

“Small-scale and traditional fishermen have been given special treatment under the fisheries law because they use eco-friendly equipment and they don’t overexploit fisheries resources,” said Susan Herawati, the general secretary of the People’s Coalition for Fisheries Justice, an NGO.

Much of Indonesia’s fishing fleet today, about 650,000 vessels, is operated by small-scale and traditional fishers. While illegal fishing by foreign vessels has dropped significantly in the past few years, Indonesia’s rich marine biodiversity is threatened by destructive and unsustainable fishing practices, such as blast fishing and trawls.

The easing of license requirements for large-scale operators to just a single permit may also spark an increase in illegal fishing in Indonesian waters, activists say.

“Without vessel registration and identification papers, the control and monitoring of the whereabouts of fishing boats in Indonesian waters will be difficult,” said Abdi Suhufan, the national coordinator at advocacy group Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) Indonesia.

A seine net, called a cantrang in Indonesia. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

The bill will also drop the threat of criminal charges for illegal fishers, which is provided for in current law. Instead, perpetrators will only face the possibility of criminal charges if they fail to pay a fine. This provision, experts say, grants impunity to violators and weakens efforts to deter illegal fishing.

“The government appears to be intentionally giving maximum facilities and protection for fishing businesses by weakening the threat of a criminal charge for many types of fishing violations,” Abdi said.

Experts have also lambasted the Widodo administration for using the omnibus bill to seize control of the development of coastal areas across the nation. Some of the proposed amendments will waive permit requirements for developers, distilling what’s currently a series of licenses from various institutions and agencies, to just a single business license from the president. The bill also seeks to grant the central government authority to rezone marine conservation areas into areas eligible for development.

In addition, it will remove an existing provision prioritizing marine areas for conservation, sociocultural, and local economic interests, thereby allowing big, commercial developers to move in.

Those changes threaten to pave the way for a number of controversial projects in coastal areas, including the reclamation of Bali’s Benoa Bay and the expansion of the Batang coal-fired power plant in Java. Both projects are among many coastal development plans that have faced popular opposition from residents and activists over concerns of environmental destruction, loss of livelihoods, and public health repercussions.

Activists in Bali have already highlighted the bill’s potential threat to the conservation of Benoa Bay. At a Feb. 25 meeting, they warned that designating the site an area of nationally strategic importance would enable the government to rezone it from a conservation zone to a public use one — effectively opening the door to developers.

“The bill wasn’t drafted to protect and empower coastal communities, but instead to protect the interests of investors who exploit natural resources, particularly marine and fisheries resources on the coasts, in oceans, and on small islands,” Susan said.

“It’s imperative that coastal communities reject this bill,” she said, adding that the proposed amendments could affect about 8 million households in coastal areas.

Activists in Bali staging a protest in the waters of Benoa Bay against the reclamation project. Image courtesy of ForBALI.

The government says it will continue to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, regardless of any changes proposed in the omnibus bill.

“We will continue to enforce efforts to combat IUUF because this is something that’s beyond national jurisdiction,” Sjarief Widjaja, head of the marine and fisheries resources research department at the fisheries ministry, said at a public event in Jakarta on Feb. 21.

“We are pushing for investment, but at the same time, we must ensure that the sustainability of our environment, our ocean, remains protected and the people get the opportunity to work with better benefits,” he said.

But experts say they’re skeptical the omnibus bill will create the jobs the government envisions, warning of new governance problems that could discourage investors.

“The bill amends parts of prevailing laws, but what about government regulations or ministerial regulations? Investors will be confused by which regulation they will have to follow,” Laode said.

Small-scale Indonesian fishers could be placed at a disadvantage to commercial operators under proposed amendments to fisheries and coastal zoning laws. Image courtesy of the Indonesia Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

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