Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Environmental activists have cautiously welcomed the Indonesian government's move to revoke hundreds of permits for logging, plantations and mines, calling it an opportunity to conserve vast swaths of forest.
The affected concessions include Ministry of Environment and Forestry permits for 192 logging, plantation, mining and ecotourism operations, totaling 3.13 million hectares (7.73 million acres); 36 Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning permits for plantations (at 34,448 hectares, or 85,123 acres); and 2,078 Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources permits for mines. So far, only the forestry ministry has released the names of the companies, including many in the palm oil sector, whose permits it revoked.
A preliminary analysis by environmental NGO Auriga Nusantara shows there are 2.4 million hectares (5.93 million acres) of rainforest still standing on the lands covered by the 192 forestry ministry permits.
"All of these remaining natural forests have to be protected," Auriga executive director Timer Manurung told Mongabay. "If they're given new permits, then it's going to be same old same old. For deforested areas, the government needs to check to see which ones can be restored. If they can be restored, then do it."President Joko Widodo announced the revocation on Jan. 6 as part of government efforts to maximize the use of the country's natural resources for development.
"We have to uphold the constitutional mandate that says the land, the water and the natural resources within them are controlled by the state and to be used as much as possible for the people's welfare," he said.
Experts say a spring cleaning of land permits is long overdue, with much of Indonesia's land parceled out to companies, often at the expense of Indigenous peoples and local farmers. The wide gulf in land ownership means just 1% of Indonesians control more than half of the land, including forested areas that have been cleared to make way for pulpwood plantations and oil palm estates, among other commercial activity.
Land for communities or for companies?
Senior government officials have given mixed messages on what the next steps will be for the newly revoked land.
The minister of environment and forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, said the permit revocations would be followed by land redistribution to local communities under the government's agrarian reform and social forestry programs.
Dewi Kartika, secretary-general of the Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA), said much of the land likely constituted customary lands that were taken away from Indigenous peoples and local communities, and should therefore be returned to the rightful owners.
Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Sekar Banjaran Aji also called on the government to give the land to local and Indigenous communities to manage.
"The next important step is to make sure that some of these forest areas are protected and returned to Indigenous peoples, not giving new permits for companies in the extractive industries," she said.
This is important if the government wants to resolve the numerous land conflicts that have flared up across Indonesia between companies and communities, according to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country's largest and oldest green group.
Walhi forest and plantation campaigner Uli Artha Siagian said the government should check whether any of the affected concessions are subject to conflicting claims, and if so, to return them to the local and Indigenous communities laying claim to them.
Auriga's Timer said he was skeptical about Siti's pledge to redistribute the land under the agrarian reform and social forestry programs.
"I don't believe it, because there have been too many instances where the government only makes [empty] promises," he said. "The progress of the agrarian reform program is not clear, whereas the social forestry's goal of distributing 12.7 million hectares [31.4 million acres of forest areas] is far from being achieved."
Sure enough, another top official said the concessions will be offered up again to new investors who, this time around, will be expected to clear, plant or mine the land.
During a televised interview with CNBC Indonesia on Jan. 6, the environment ministry's director-general of forest planning, Ruandha Agung Sugardiman, didn't mention agrarian reform or social forestry when talking about the permit revocation.
Instead, he said the revoked concessions would be reissued to new investors.
"So a lot of permits had been issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning, and the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, [and] they're not being utilized as they're supposed to be," Ruandha said. "That's why we revoked them first and then we'll give them to investors who are truly serious in cultivating those lands."
He added the government would make it "easier for new investments to come in. And of course these investments will increase the productivity of lands and improve the welfare of more people."
Indonesia's investment minister, Bahlil Lahadalia, said separately that some of the revoked concessions would be reissued for development, while others would be allocated for local and Indigenous communities, but added the government has not yet determined in what proportions.
"We have to give [the lands] to local people, to cooperatives. If not, then people will say the president doesn't side with common people," he said at a Jan. 7 press conference at his office.
Even then, outside investors will still have an opportunity to manage lands under community control.
"They [local people] will form communities, and they will be verified," Bahlil said. "If these communities can walk alone [manage their lands alone], then it's fine. But if they can't, we will find investors to collaborate with them, to benefit each other. We want the big ones [companies] to lift up the little ones [local people]."
The country's biggest business lobby, the Indonesian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Kadin), has welcomed that proposal, with its chairman, Arsjad Rasjid, citing job creation and poverty reduction as benefits of communities working with companies.
Forest protection or production?
Even if a portion of the lands are redistributed to local communities, there's no guarantee they'll be prioritized for conservation. The government's justification for revoking the concessions was that the concession holders hadn't done anything with the land, implying that leaving the forests standing isn't a priority for the Widodo administration.
"We revoke permits that are not being carried out, not productive, handed over to other parties, and not in accordance with their function and regulations," President Widodo said.
Timer of Auriga said it's too early to say if the permit revocations will lead to the concessions being reissued to other companies and fueling an increase in deforestation, or whether the government will put greater emphasis on forest protection.
This is because the permit revocations weren't done in a transparent manner, he said.
"Out of nowhere, the permits were suddenly revoked," Timer said. "So it's difficult for us to tell whether the permit revocation would lead to a good thing or not."
He added it's very important for the government to disclose all the data related to the permit revocations, such as the owners and locations of the concessions. This will enable the public to know which companies are implicated in environmental destruction and conflicts with communities, and hold them accountable.
Siti, the environment minister, linked the revocations to a wider policy of sustainable forest management, saying more needs to be done to conserve the environment and curb its degradation.
"Moreover, in order to tackle climate change, we have committed and are working toward a net-zero carbon emissions direction," she tweeted on Jan. 6, adding the plan was to turn Indonesia's forestry and land use sector into a net carbon sink by 2030.
Siti said the government would protect the remaining forests by rezoning the revoked plantation concessions back into forest area, which means they won't be allowed to be reissued again for plantation activity.
But the cancelled agrarian ministry concessions, at 34,448 hectares, account for just a tiny fraction of the total "abandoned" plantation concessions across the country, said Dewi from the KPA. The latter amount to 7 million hectares (17.3 million acres), she said.
If the goal is to address land inequality and boost conservation, she said, then "the number of permits revoked is too small."The rocky shores of Tuing Beach.
Holding companies accountable
For the companies that have had their permits revoked, there needs to be greater accountability, says the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL). The group's executive director, Raynaldo G. Sembiring, said the government shouldn't release the companies from their obligation to restore their concessions following any clearing or other forms of degradation.
According to ICEL, several of the companies in question have previously been sued by the government for burning or other environmental violations, and even convicted in court.
"Corporations that have been found guilty by a court [and] whose permits have been revoked must still be asked [to fulfill] their legal responsibilities in paying for damages, environmental recovery, and other actions," Raynaldo said.
ICEL's land and forestry division head, Adrianus Eryan, said this also applies to companies that haven't been taken to court yet.
"For companies that have abandoned their concessions, environmental recovery becomes important to be carried out, especially in forest areas," he said. "Reforestation ... can be done immediately in accordance to a 2020 government regulation on forest rehabilitation and reclamation."
Investment Minister Bahlil said the permit revocations won't relieve the companies of their responsibilities.
"[If] there are fines, then they should pay their fines," he said. "The permit revocations don't eliminate violations [committed by the companies]."
Zenzi Suhadi, executive director of Walhi, said if the government wants to correct land inequality and injustice as well as environmental destruction, the process of evaluating and revoking land permits should be an ongoing one that's carried out periodically. It also shouldn't be determined simply by which concessions have been left inactive, Zenzi added.
The government should also focus on "concessions that have conflicts with the locals and cause environmental destruction and ecological disasters," he said.
This isn't the first time Indonesian authorities have revoked business permits.
Last year, the government of West Papua province revoked permits for 12 oil palm concessions there, which together span 267,857 hectares (661,889 acres), due to violations by the license holders.
That move was precipitated by a license review, carried out by the West Papua government working with the national anti-corruption agency, the KPK, and the NGO EcoNusa. The review of 24 oil palm license holders in the province found widespread administrative and legal violations.
At the national level, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry revoked permits for 42 forestry concessions, covering 812,769 hectares (2.01 million acres) from September 2015 to June 2021.