This article is part of a series of writings to commemorate Indonesia’s Independence Day.
Indonesia is a country with the 8th largest forest area in the world, known for being rich in various types of biodiversity. In addition, Indonesia’s forests also have an important role in stabilizing Earth’s temperature because of the ability of trees to absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. However, for 75 years, this nation continued to exploit the forest through policies that were only oriented to economic and political interests.
As a result, forest destruction often occurs. Since the Old Order, the total area of forest lost has been estimated at 1 million hectares per year on average. In fact, the deforestation rate was ranked 3rd out of 10 countries with tropical rainforests in the world, namely 339,888 hectares in 2018.
We were able to identify the critical role of politicians in destroying forests in Indonesia through their policies that promote deforestation:
1) Pro investment
Under Soeharto or the New Order government, the forestry sector became one of the sectors that supported economic development. Herman Hidayat in his book entitled Environmental Politics: Forest Management during the New Order and Reform, noted that under the New Order pro-investment policy, the forestry sector it is indeed the prima donna because it provides the country’s foreign exchange after oil.
Forest exploitation taps were opened when the government issued the Basic Forestry Law No. 5/1967.
This is the legal basis for granting HPH (Forest Concession Rights) concessions which open opportunities for foreign and domestic investors to invest in the forestry sector and export wood products.
During the 1973-74 period, Indonesia’s log exports increased dramatically to 24.3 million cubic meters in 1970 from 5.2 million cubic meters in 1969.
This surge has made Indonesia one of the world’s largest exporters of tropical timber. Within 8 years, the country’s foreign exchange from the forestry sector became US $ 564 million in 1974 from US $ 6 million in 1966.
In the early 1980s, the government obliged foreign and domestic investors to build plywood and sawnwood industries in Indonesia. In addition, the government prohibits the export of logs.
All of these steps were taken to develop the wood industry in Indonesia.
This policy, in the end, only benefits a handful of domestic conglomerates because foreign investors find it expensive to invest in the forestry sector in Indonesia. Meanwhile, small concessions cannot compete because there is no capital.
As a result, only 15 forest company conglomerates control half of the production forest area in Indonesia.
San Afri Awang, Professor of the UGM Faculty of Forestry and former Director General of Planning and Spatial Planning of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK) said that financial benefits are only felt by a handful of people, namely the ruling elite, businessmen and the military.
However, over time, many private companies collaborated with the military and government bureaucrats to perpetuate their licenses and business ventures. This is revealed in the book of Christopher Barr, then CIFOR’s forest policy researcher. Barr said the military and bureaucrats were “silent partners” in forestry businesses. Barr wrote that the military obtained a 20-25% stake in the company as a guarantee of political protection and business continuity for entrepreneurs in the forestry sector.
The provision of this production forest business was not accompanied by a commitment to conserve the forest and consequently resulted in severe damage.
Ideally, granting forest area management permits for the benefit of the plantation and mining industries aims to reduce the negative impact on the environment and society and generate state revenue.
However, in practice, there have been many irregularities in the process of taking over forest areas, especially from the New Order era to the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
One form of this deviation is the activity of “bribery” by investors. The bribe is always the beginning of every act of corruption in forest areas.
The patterns or methods of corruption that occur include: 1) providing bribes to obtain a recommendation to exchange forest areas, 2) submitting a revision of forest function conversion to non-forest area, 3) appraising and ratifying the Proposed Business Plan for Utilizing Timber Forest Products in the Forest Plants in an area that has been granted a Business Permit for Utilization of Timber Forest Products in a Plantation Forest (IUPHHK-HT), 4) the process of requesting the conversion of protected forest into extractive industry
A study from the University of Indonesia in 2018 shows that corruption related to land and forestry concession permits ranks first in the list of patterns of corruption in Regional Government in 2010-2018.
Many regional heads who have been caught in corruption cases related to the granting of forest area permits, such as Annas Maamun, the former governor of Riau for the 2014-19 period, was proven to have accepted bribes for the conversion of forest functions for oil palm plantations or Amran Batalipu, former regent of Buol, Central Sulawesi, was sentenced to 7 , 5 years in prison for exchanging a recommendation letter for a land use permit from a plantation company for a sum of money.
The rise of the phenomenon of distributing land concessions has fostered corrupt practices.
These practices eventually lead to loss of forest area, especially in natural forest areas.
3) Clientelism: the political relations between regional heads and entrepreneurs
The relationship between politicians, the military and forestry entrepreneurs has been strong in destroying Indonesia’s forests since the New Order era.
Edward Aspinall, professor of politics at the Australian National University, calls this relationship clientelism
Broadly speaking, clientelism is “the practice of exchanging goods or profits (in the form of money, goods, jobs and public services) for political support (through voting, campaign donations, campaign support, etc.)”.
In the New Order era, obtaining forest concession permits involved bureaucrats, military officials and national level politicians. The most important thing is the personal closeness with Suharto.
In the book “Oligarchy”, Jeffrey Winter, professor of politics from Northwestern University, United States, wrote that Suharto applied a political style of “sharing” with the oligarchs in exploiting Indonesia’s economic resources, including forest concessions.
The book reveals that this group has gained access and protection for exploitation of Indonesia’s forests.
In exchange, they provided financial assistance to New Order clients or supported the economic wheels of the Golkar party as the ruling party at that time.
This legacy of the New Order became increasingly strong as Indonesia entered the Reformation era, especially being carried out by regional head candidates.
The consequence of regional autonomy is that regional heads (regents to governors) have the authority to issue recommendations for land concessions.
Prior to the Regional Head Election (Pilkada), regional head candidates established mutually beneficial cooperation with plantation entrepreneurs.
They can “donate” campaign funds from entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs get access to land concessions.
For example, the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), an NGO that focuses on mineral resource management in Indonesia, noted that prior to the regional elections, there were 93 mining business permits (IUP) issued in 2009 in Kutai Kartanegara District, East Kalimantan. After the Pilkada, this figure rose to 191.
This is also the case in several other areas in Indonesia, such as West Kutai Regency in East Kalimantan and Ketapang Regency in West Kalimantan.
The KPK noted that the biggest goal of donors to provide funds for regional head candidates is the ease of licensing and business protection.
So, it’s no wonder that many plantation and mining permits were issued before, during and after the elections.
More and more licenses are issued without consideration for the environment, which leads to careless forest management and increases the rate of forest encroachment in Indonesia.