Indonesia promises to address forest destruction

Indonesia promises to address forest destruction

Indonesia’s new president sets himself a major challenge to clean-up bribery and corruption in the forestry industry.

By Patrick Anderson

In late November, after a month in his new job, Indonesia’s president Joko Widido (Jokowi), travelled to Riau Province, Sumatra, to see for himself the forest destruction that causes smoke and haze to blanket Sumatra, Malaysia and Singapore.

Jokowi was blunt about the activities of oil palm and pulpwood companies: ‘If they are indeed destroying the ecosystem because of their monoculture plantations, they will have to be terminated. It must be stopped, we mustn’t allow our tropical rainforest to disappear because of monoculture plantations like oil palm.’

The president said he planned to increase legal protection for peatlands to stop them being drained and cleared for oil palm and acacia plantations. Indonesia has about 20 million hectares of peat soils, which hold about 40 billion tonnes of carbon. Due to clearance and drainage, these soils release about one billion tonnes of CO2 each year.

The president’s visit to Riau builds on the work of his new Minister for Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya, who confirmed that the current moratorium on issuing new licences for forest use will be maintained until May 2015. The move, according to Siti, is follow-up on the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and 12 ministries and agencies on accelerating the gazettement of the forest zone.

The MoU was signed in July 2013, and seeks to accelerate efforts to define forest boundaries and establish which parties have rights to the forests. More than half the land area of Indonesia is classified as forests, and these areas are home to more than 30 000 villages. However, the rights of these communities to use, manage and control their customary forests have been ignored by the government, which has handed out forestry and agricultural conversion licenses without establishing whether the forest areas are already burdened with rights.

The hope is that with the KPK at the centre of efforts to gazette the forests, the common practice of bribery to obtain licences will be resisted.

A study by the KPK in 2013 found that the potential for corrupt transactions in the forestry and pulpwood sector is up to 22 billion dollars every year. The forestry ministry claims to have gazetted more than half the forest zone in the last two years. However, that process has taken place without the involvement of local communities, and non-government organisations are protesting that gazettement efforts are yet to include community voices and to document community forest areas.

A number of challenges are still to be faced by the MoU on Accelerating Forest Gazettement, including poor coordination among ministries and agencies, and the fact that implementation to date has been mainly a desk exercise rather than the detailed and slow work of coordinating efforts on the ground to document the rights and obligations of all forest rights holders.

Despite the increased attention to corruption in the forestry and oil palm sectors, elected officials are still being prosecuted for receiving bribes to run for office and fund their political parties. A usual scenario involves candidates for district and provincial leadership receiving payments on the promise that, if they are elected, licences for oil palm or plantation development will be awarded to the company providing the bribe. For plantation companies, while the practice is known to be illegal, it is the business model they have to follow in order to get the district government to sign off on their licences. The common interest between plantation companies and local political elites remains strong, so new corruption cases continue to emerge.

As well as the focus on catching and prosecuting corruptors and the companies providing bribes, reform of Indonesia’s election laws will be needed. Although Indonesia’s election law provides a small payment to political parties for every vote they receive in elections, the amount is tiny, and can only cover a small proportion of the costs of maintaining a political party and running for office. Candidates and their parties can’t access sufficient government funds to run election campaigns without relying on illicit funding sources.

Without a viable model for funding political parties and election campaigns, corruption in the forestry and agriculture sectors will continue and Indonesia’s forests and forest peoples will continue to lose out.

Patrick Anderson is a Policy Advisor with the Forest Peoples Programme and a visiting fellow at ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific.