Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Darwan Ali, an Indonesian politician at the center of a palm oil licensing scandal and charged in a separate corruption case, died on Nov. 18 before he could stand trial.
Darwan, 64, died at a hospital in Jakarta after a long history of heart illness. He was buried the next day in his home village of Sembuluh in the Bornean district of Seruyan, which he ran as district chief from 2003 to 2013.
His death came a month after he was charged with corruption for allegedly conspiring to inflate the budget for project to build a seaport in Seruyan's Segintung Bay between 2007 and 2012. Investigators at Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) said the scheme resulted in 20.84 billion rupiah ($1.48 million) in losses to the state.
The KPK alleged that Darwan steered the contract for the project to developer PT Swa Karya Jaya, in exchange for the company backing his 2003 election bid.
Marianto Sumarto, a local sawmill owner who worked on Darwan's campaign team in 2003, said at the time that he wasn't surprised that Darwan was charged, adding that he tended to ignore the rules during his time as district chief.
"[I]t's appropriate [that he was charged]," Marianto told Mongabay Indonesia. "Throughout his 10 years of leadership, there's a lot of games which didn't follow the regulations. The intention was good. He wanted to develop [Seruyan]." But the development process, he said, didn't follow the prevailing mechanisms, and was instead centered on Darwan's "personal ego as the local chief."
Darwan was also the central figure in an extensive investigative report by Mongabay and the Gecko Project in 2017. Part of the award-winning "Indonesia for Sale" series, the report uncovered how Darwan, while head of Seruyan, presided over an elaborate scheme to use shell companies as vehicles for selling oil palm plantation permits to firms owned by the billionaire Kuok and Rachmat families for millions of dollars.
The scheme threatened to turn the southern reaches of Seruyan into a sea of oil palm. Local activists reported Darwan to the KPK in this case, and the agency investigated him but never pressed charges.
At his funeral on Nov. 19, mourners were full of praise for the former district chief. Wahyudi K. Anwar, the former head of neighboring East Kotawaringin district, said Darwan had left a positive legacy from his decade-long rule.
"Darwan Ali was a good figure, hopefully he receives the best spot beside Allah," he said as quoted by the Antara news agency. "He's commendable for bringing development to Seruyan during his two terms of leadership there."
Taufiq Mukri, the East Kotawaringin deputy district chief, called Darwan a good role model for the younger generation, saying he was able to emerge as a powerful political force despite being born into an ordinary family.
Four of Darwan's five children are also local politicians. One of them, Iswanti, is the current deputy district chief of Seruyan. Another, Ahmad Ruswandi, was a former speaker of the Seruyan district legislature, while a third, Muhammad Rudini, is a current deputy speaker of the East Kotawaringin legislature. A daughter, Rizki Amalia, is a member of the Central Kalimantan provincial legislature.