100 Days Into His Presidency, Jokowi Garners Plaudits From Indonesia’s Environmental Groups

JANUARY 28, 2015

A boat passes by Riau Islands, on Jan. 26, 2015. (Antara Photo/Ricardo Cardoso)

Jakarta. Amid rising tensions and an onslaught of criticism triggered by the ongoing skirmish between the National Police and the national antigraft agency, President Joko Widodo has managed to come out on top in the eyes of one group.

One hundred days into Joko’s term in office, Indonesia’s environmental activists extended their appreciation to the president for his commitment to protecting the nation’s forests, saying the moves he has made so far have been largely “positive.”

Forest Watch Indonesia chairman Togu Manurung praised Joko’s “brave” stance against large corporations that control  — and destroy — large swathes of Indonesia’s forests, while also defending the interests of the local communities.

“In his very first month in office, Joko flew to Riau to witness firsthand the devastation caused by haze and forest fires. He also addressed the issue of forest management, suggesting that the local people control the land; not big companies,” Togu told the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday.

“Although it’s still much too early to evaluate Joko’s administration in terms of its commitment to the environment, Joko himself has been very supportive of our plight to save the nation’s forests and peat lands from fires and corporate mismanagement,” he added.

Togu’s sentiments were made on the same day Joko ushered in his 100th day in office amid a barrage of media reports scrutinizing his unpopular policies, most notably his recent controversial pick of Comr. Gen. Budi Gunawan as the sole candidate for the influential role of National Police chief.

Joko chose not to withdraw his nomination of Budi, flagged in 2010 for his suspiciously “fat” bank accounts, even after the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) declared him a graft suspect.

The matter has since escalated into an all-out brawl between the police and KPK, with the president heavily criticized for failing to stand up for the antigraft body — widely popular among the public — against the infamously corrupt police force.

Togu cited Joko’s visit to Sungaitohor village, Riau, in late November, following a request made through Petition.org.

A Sungaitohor resident had asked the president to inspect a site not far from the village which has been ravaged by annual peat fires for more than 17 years.

During the visit, Joko pledged his support for local communities, who have often been blamed by big corporations for intentionally igniting fires in order to clear forests and peat lands to make way for plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The slash-and-burn method has been deemed responsible for the recurring haze crises that regularly disrupt flights and force airports to shutdowns, while endangering the health of tens of thousands of people in region. The environmental disturbance has even drawn criticism from neighboring Singapore and Malaysia, who are also affected.

Local farmers and activists, meanwhile, are pointing the finger at large corporate-run plantations, holding them responsible for the devastating fires.

“We appreciate Joko’s visits to several locations [afflicted by haze], such as in Riau and Pontianak, to experience the problem firsthand,” Togu said.

Joko has since repeatedly threatened to revoke operating licences of companies that cause fires in forested areas. He also pushed regional officers to quickly work on reducing the number of hotspots in their respective areas by whatever means necessary, adding that he would dismiss those who failed to do so.

“Such measures may seem extreme, but they are needed to preserve our forests,” Togu said.

“However, Joko needs to ensure that his promises are not mere lip service; he must push the minister to do her job,” he added, referring to Forestry and Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya.

Another move praised by environmental groups was Joko’s decision to grant clemency to Eva Susanti Bande, an activist convicted and sentenced to four years in prison in 2010 for defending farmers of Luwuk, South Sulawesi, in a land dispute against a local palm oil plantation.

Still, Togu questioned the organizational restructuring of the Forestry Ministry and the Environment Ministry, which were merged into a single state entity under Joko.

“Since the merger, the government has failed to explain the new ministerial structure. This has to be addressed immediately to avoid confusion,” he said.

Executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), Abetnego Tarigan, echoed the sentiment, saying the ministry’s performance in the next few years would largely depend on its bureaucratic structure.

“How can [Siti] draw up new policies if the ministry’s organizational structure is still in disarray? How can [the ministry’s officials] fully understand their respective roles?” Abetnego said.

The Walhi chief also questioned the implementation of Joko’s recent environmental promises.

“Since assuming office, Joko has been issuing statements that seem to convey his commitment to [Indonesia’s] environmental issues, including on the haze and fire crises. However, there have been no concrete policies to support his statements,” he pointed out.

Abetnego added that Joko’s administration still had the job of evaluating policies left by his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, including a contentious presidential decree issued last year that changed the status of Bali’s Benoa Bay from a conservation zone into a buffer zone, allowing commercial development in the area.

Despite public protests — conducted mainly in Bali and Jakarta — demanding the government to retract the decree, Joko has so far stayed mum on the issue. The reclamation of Benoa Bay is now continuing under a massive development project by Tirta Wahana Bali International (TWBI), a property development unit of tycoon Tomy Winata’s Arta Graha Network.

Abetnego last week expressed concern over what is now widely seen as systematic efforts to incapacitate the KPK through the criminalization of its leaders — four of them have been reported to police over different cases following the antigraft body’s naming of police general Budi as suspect.

Abetnego said this would hamper law enforcement in the deeply corrupt forestry sector, which has allowed companies to irresponsibly cut down hundreds and thousands of hectares of trees by bribing local officials.

“To Walhi, the KPK represents a force of change in the sustainable management of Indonesia’s natural resources, which for years has been marred by corruption,” Abetnego said.

“Measures taken by the KPK have truly stirred fear among greedy government officials and businesses, even in the environmental sector.

“Walhi supports and encourages the people of Indonesia to unite in their fight against these corruptors and save the KPK,” he added.