In Indonesia, regional elections can be bad for the environment

A protected area of the Rawa Singkil wildlife reserve in Trumon, South Aceh is being burned in preparation for the opening of a new palm oil plantation. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Testimony by a palm-oil businessman in a bribery trial at the Jakarta Corruption Court has revealed how local elections have, at least in some cases, done more harm than good to the environment.

The court heard on Wednesday (May 2) that Rita Widyasari, the suspended regent of Kutai Kartanegara regency in East Kalimantan, allegedly financed her political activities with billions of rupiah that she received from the businessman, who allegedly wanted to secure concession permits in a protected peatland area in the regency.

Businessman Hery Susanto Gun, who is also being charged in the case, testified on Wednesday that Rita had demanded 9 billion rupiah (S$857,200) when she was running for office.

Hery, president director of palm oil firm PT Sawit Golden Prima, told the court the demand was conveyed by Rita's aide Hani Kristiyanto.

Rita did visit Hery afterward, but did not ask for the money, merely asking for advice on "winning the local election", Hery said.

When Rita was elected Kutai Kartanegara regent, Hery told the court that the politician, again through Rani, asked for 6 billion rupiah because Rita had run out of money after the election.

According to prosecutors from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the 6 billion rupiah was a bribe given by Hery to Rita relating to Hery's efforts to obtain a business permit for a 16,000-hectare oil palm concession in the regency.

After Hery gave the money to Rita, the latter finally signed the permit document for the oil palm plantation, even though a local regulation prohibits agricultural companies from having concessions of over 15,000 ha.

Furthermore, according to local activists, the plantation is located within a peat swamp ecosystem.

Peat swamps play a major role for the environment by cycling and storing significant amounts of carbon and water. Clearing and draining them dries out the peat, making it highly flammable. Burning peatlands produce a thick, toxic smoke -- a major contributor to recent haze episodes that smothered the region.

A substantial proportion of Indonesia's peatlands, including in East Kalimantan, has suffered severe degradation to make way for industrial logging concessions and oil palm plantations.

Agricultural business in Indonesia, which contains one of the world's three largest stands of tropical forest, along with the Amazon and Congo basins, rapidly expanded during the 32-year regime of former president Suharto. The expansion benefited a small group of forestry conglomerates with close links to Suharto after the creation of the Forestry Law in 1967, which gave Jakarta the exclusive right to manage roughly 143 million ha of the country's forests.

The fall of Suharto in 1998 marked the birth of the regional autonomy system, which gave local forest agencies control over much of the nation's forest estate, and the direct regional elections to generate a new breed of local leaders.

While political parties flex their muscles ahead of simultaneous regional elections scheduled for June, in which 171 regions across Indonesia will elect new leaders, the period is likely to be used by businessmen to deepen their ties to political hopefuls in the regions to support their business expansion plans through obtaining permits, environment groups say.

In a report released in January, the Indonesian Forum for Environment (Walhi) predicted 2018 would be a tough year for the environment, with corporations "hoping to secure their own interests through political intervention".

Walhi said that in the past, business permits had been rampantly issued by local leaders before or soon after elections through various means, such as by revising local spatial planning documents, which detail land use in various areas.

"Regional elections always provide room for a strong association between business magnates and political leaders," Walhi said in its report.

The practice might flourish again this year because the public's attention is solely focused on provinces that could be battlegrounds for political parties to secure their interests, not regions that are prone to environmental degradation and land conflicts, said Walhi executive director Nur Hidayati.

It is not only agricultural firms that are eyeing permits before or after regional elections; mining companies are, too.

Merah Johansyah, national coordinator of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), said there were at least 13 regions participating in simultaneous local elections that were prone to mining permit transactions during the polls.

"They are regions with a high number of conflicts relating to mining operations based on Jatam's data," said Merah.

The regions are 11 provinces - Bengkulu, Central Java, East Java, East Kalimantan, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), Jambi, Papua, Riau, South-east Sulawesi, South Sumatra and West Java, - and two regencies - Dairi in North Sumatra and East Manggarai in NTT.

Issuing extractive business permits is one of five moves in the corruption playbook widely used by regional leaders in Indonesia, according to Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), along with misusing village funds, disbursing social funds, promotion for civil servants and misusing authority in goods and services procurement.

Another important element that could decide the future of the environment is whether candidate pairs competing in regional elections see environmental protection as a primary concern during their campaigns.

But a substantial discourse on environmental protection is one that is missing in Indonesia's regional elections, said Hendri Sitorus, a North Sumatra University environmental sociologist.

"Regional election campaigns have not been sensitive to environment issues."

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