Adisti Sukma Sawitri, Jakarta – Indonesia has recently been rewarded for its forest policies.
The government has secured US$124.1 million from the United Nations' Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the Norwegian government through the results-based payment of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative, the fruits of a decade of efforts to curb deforestation and carbon emissions.
Amid disputes about the government's claims regarding reduced deforestation and forest fires, the grants demonstrate faith among the international community in the country's forest-governance capability despite pressure for rapid agroforestry expansion.
But the government still has a lot to do to prove that it can live up to local and international expectations. Not only do deforestation and land disputes still occur, the omnibus bill on job creation, which is currently being deliberated at the House of Representatives, may undermine future forest management in the country.
The bill, which will amend 79 prevailing laws, seeks to centralize environmental management and licensing, stripping local administrations of control over natural resources, including land and forests. The law will overturn current forest governance regimes in which licensing authority and oversight are shared between the central and local governments.
Among the critical changes that will be made through the legislation is Article 18, which will revise Law No. 26/2007 on spatial planning. The article says the central government will be the only authority to settle overlapping claims and permits relating to land and forests.
The bill also eliminates the Environmental Impact Analysis (Amdal) and other environmental permits that are requirements for the issuance of a business license. Through article 23 on changes to Law No. 32/2009 on environmental protection and management, the bill proposes that environmental feasibility studies will be conducted by the central government and become the basis of issuing a business license.
All the mechanisms that allow people to challenge environmental permits in court, therefore, will be removed, leaving the central government as the single supervisor and law enforcer in the natural resources sector. Companies need only respond to the central government if they are deemed to have violated environmental rules and agreements.
Such great power vested in the central government should give cause for concern since, despite its recent achievement in REDD+ financing, it has yet to show that it can achieve a fair and peaceful resolution to conflicts between corporations and ordinary citizens.
The Agrarian Reform Consortium (KPA) recorded at least nine land conflicts during the pandemic, mostly involving local residents accused of intruding on company concessions.
More than just legal affairs, the disputes show that land and forest concessions have marginalized people living nearby, forcing them, when deprived of land rights, to take matters into their own hands to defend their livelihoods.
A collaborative investigation by Tempo magazine, Betahita, Mongabay, Malaysiakini and Auriga Nusantara revealed that pulp and palm oil companies contributed to forest fires in 2019. Satellite imagery analyses and field visits to the concession sites found that the companies had drained peat forests to start plantations, causing fires that quickly spread.
Current regulations ban the opening up and cultivating of peatlands because of the risk of ensuing wildfires. Peat swamps that are drained before being planted usually become very dry and burn easily during the dry season. The impacts of fires in former peat swamps are usually worse than those of other forest fires because of the rich amount of carbon contained in peat forests.
But due to weak law enforcement against companies that have started fires, most of them evaded justice last year. Farmers that intruded the forest concessions, however, have been arrested and punished.
With this apparent bias toward corporations and the history of reluctance to create a fair regime of forest governance, the centralization of authority under the omnibus bill could lead to even greater exploitation of the country's natural resources.
Oversight capability is actually not a major problem today. Technology and the large amount of data presented on the country's forests make supervision easier today than a decade ago. With the availability of satellite imagery and resources to inspect and put out fires, a fair land tenure system and good practice in plantations sector are possible.
What has been hard to achieve is the government's commitment to upholding sustainable practices and taking the side of the people in disputes.
The government can take forest management to the next level if it can set up a dispute-resolution mechanism that ensures recognition of local people's rights to land and forests. It should also require companies to use more sustainable methods in cultivating lands so that deforestation and forest fires can be avoided.
Replanting and reusing idle land should be encouraged rather than opening protected forests and draining peat swamps. Beneficial partnerships with local people should become the norm in business practices. Rather than simply contributing to the central government, a company should improve the welfare of people living in its area of operation.
Despite becoming embroiled in corruption that has resulted in a high-cost economy in the forestry sector, local administrations should still play a role in forest oversight. While no longer in charge of issuing permits and licenses, local authorities should help the central government supervise companies and make sure sustainable business practices are in place.
After all, local officials and the people are the ones who can directly safeguard their own forests.
Without improving its game in forest management, the central government will only cause more economic losses as a result of uncontrolled deforestation and forest fires and deprive the people of future prosperity.
[Adisti Sukma Sawitri is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.]