Indonesia regional polls 'harmful' to the environment

Risk of corrupt land deals during election period as businessmen cosy up to politicians

JAKARTA • Testimony by a palm-oil businessman in a bribery trial at the Jakarta Corruption Court this week has revealed how local elections have, at least in some cases, done more harm than good to the environment.

The case also highlights the risks of corrupt land deals ahead of, and during, upcoming regional elections across Indonesia next month.

The court heard on Wednesday 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$859,000) when she was running for office.

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

According to prosecutors from the Corruption Eradication Commission, Hery paid the 6 billion rupiah bribe to obtain a business permit for a 16,000ha oil palm concession. 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 and a major contributor to recent haze episodes that smothered the region.


Regional elections always provide room for a strong association between business magnates and political leaders.


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 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 allows for direct regional elections to generate a new breed of local leaders.

While political parties flex their muscles ahead of next month's regional elections, 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".


Regional election campaigns have not been sensitive to environment issues.


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.

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, along with misusing village funds, disbursing social funds, promotion for civil servants, and misusing authority in goods and services procurement.

A substantial focus by candidates on environmental protection is missing in Indonesia's regional elections, said North Sumatra University environmental sociologist Hendri Sitorus.

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


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2018, with the headline 'Indonesia regional polls 'harmful' to the environment'. Subscribe