Thursday, 13 March 2008

Indonesian forests for sale

Indonesian forests for sale: How low can we go?

Opinion and Editorial - March 11, 2008 Stevie Emilia, Jakarta

Well-crafted words fail to hide the true meaningbehind the government's latest action that might soonallow more mining companies to operate withinprotected forest areas in return for cashcompensation: our forests are for sale. As if the idea is not bad enough, the "sale" price isgoing to be set very low, up to Rp 3 million (US$326)a year per hectare.

Currently, there are 13 mining companies that operate in protected forests. This special treatment islegitimized by a 2004 government regulation, despitethat the companies' operations are against a forestryregulation that completely bans all mining activities in protected forests.

Protected forests are supposed to be free of all commercial exploitation and exploration activities. However, at this pressing time, the government insists the 13 companies are allowed to continue operations, because they started operations in the forests before the regulation was introduced.

However, the passing of a new decree, announced Feb.29 by Energy and Mineral Resources minister PurnomoYusgiantoro, will surely cause the country's forests to bleed to death. A new presidential decree might soon be introduced allowing other mining companies to apply for similar treatment in return for cash.

The move clearly shows two things; first, the government's poor coordination and second, a lack of good will needed to protect the country's forests.

For one thing, the decree will make the National Rehabilitation Movement (Gerhan) project, launched in 2003 to restore 5 million hectares of forest by 2009, pointless.

The massive reforestation program was aimed at rehabilitating forests damaged by decades of deforestation, illegal mining and forest fires. Deforestation in Indonesia -- claimed to be the world's worst with an area the size of Switzerland being lost every year -- has already lead to the damage of some 59 million hectares of forest out of the country's 120.35 million hectares.

If the decree is issued, allowing more commercial activities to take over what remains of our pristine forest, home to rich biodiversity, including many near-extinct species, it will mark a huge setback of our reforestation program.

For ordinary people, it seems that each related ministry -- the Forestry Ministry, the Environment Ministry and the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry-- have their own set of agendas and programs and are unwilling to work together for the sake of the people and the future.

It seems like President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has lost the will to deal with his own aides. He lets them do as they please, unaware that his ministers'wrongdoings will eventually make him suffer the consequences.

This critical year before the presidential election presents a prime time for Yudhoyono to start seriously embracing green issues in his bid to gain more popularity. He should take example from other world leaders, many of whom have embraced environmental issues in their campaigns to gain attention and to win hearts.

Even top celebrities have learned to educate about environmental issues and lend support to greencampaigns. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore might not have been elected as president but his efforts to raise awareness of climate change threats have made him popular across the world and have even earned him a shared Nobel Prize with an UN body also working on the issue, the UNFCCC.

If Al Gore's lectures and his success story fails to charm Yudhoyono, he can at least recall the sufferings experienced by thousands of mudflow victims in Sidoarjo, East Java. Many innocent residents have lost their homes and livelihoods due to the catastrophe that started out when hot mud started gushing out of a gas exploration site, and the mud continues to flow to this very day.

Or perhaps he can look at how bad our management of the environment has been, allowing constant suffering from floods during the rainy season and drought during the dry season.
It is undeniable that, as a developing country home to millions of poor people, we are in desperate need of cash for the sake of development and a better economy, but here are many other ways to raise cash without having to touch the pristine protected forests.

A government promise to conduct a "selection" processinside protected forests before any approval of commercial activities might not help smother the environment alarm. The promise to conduct studies before granting newpermits for the mining companies might have made the regulation sound more "serious", allowing us to believe that the government "will not compromise" on the country's protected forests and environment, but the problem is people have lost their faith in such promises.

The true meaning of the word "study" is not lost on the public. For members of the House of Representatives, "study" may imply an opportunity for travel. For investors, the words "study" and"selection process" might suggest the need to bribe their way in the face of complicated bureaucracy procedures, while for ordinary people those words might simply translate as "nothing will get in ourway".

Besides, it is no secret that many of the projects requiring studies such as the investigation of environmental impact analysis, could start regardless of their outcome. Questions are likely to be raised only when such projects fail, suffer damages or, even worse, claim lives.

The latest survey, jointly conducted by the Indonesia Center for Environment Law and the State Ministry for the Environment, brought to public attention on March 2, confirmed these fears.

The survey found that the government and private firmsboth continued to block public access to information about environment problems. It also cited that many private companies failed to fully accommodate forpublic interest during the processing of the pre-development environmental impact analysis.

Another concern is the number of reports that place the country among the most corrupt in the world while,every day, we are entertained by news showing public officials stashing huge amounts of money for their owninterests.

Under the present situation, with poor coordination among ministries and a lack of commitment to protect the country's environment, how can we trust the government with the fate of our protected forests?

Millions of Indonesians still rely on the forests for their livelihoods and survival. Even renowned guitarist and Grammy winner Carlos Santana has raised doubt over the government's sincerity in protecting the forests with his refusal to perform here for a jazz festival. He simply stated that our countrymen loved to cut down trees.We might be poor and not have much money, but do we have to sell our souls and our dignity?

The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.