Thursday, 6 March 2008

Vested interests rule as SBY condones forest plundering

The Jakarta Post , March 6, 2008 7:51 PM

Vested interests rule as SBY condones forest plundering

Rendi Akhmad Witular , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta Thu, 03/06/2008 1:22 AM

The "only" courageous move taken by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during his 3.5 years in office was his recent policy to broadly accommodate corporate greed, camouflaging itself as a policy of protection for the country's forests.

The recent issue of Government Regulation No. 2/2008, which governs the types of state income from non-tax revenue in the use of forest areas for non-forestry related businesses, has provided a glimpse of the real faces of the devils among the President's men.

The decree, signed Feb. 4, provides a broad license for companies to exploit protected forests as long as they are willing to pay annual rental fees ranging from Rp 1.2 million (US$125) to Rp 3 million per hectare.

Yudhoyono has defended the decree as being merely a follow-up to previous decrees that endorsed 13 mining firms to operate in protected forests, as well as to encourage the mining firms to immediately contribute to state revenue.

By this time his argument is clear -- the 13 firms are the primary target of the decree, no less, no more.

However, the decree has not actually been specifically designed for the 13 mining firms, because there are no clauses specifically referring to any arrangement for the firms, with instead just general mentions of the entire mining sector.

The decree will open up access to the forest for the exploitation of oil and gas, the building of electricity transmission towers and the construction of turnpikes.

With all these serious inconsistencies, one may assume Yudhoyono has deceived the public to protect the interests of businesspeople and people close to him.

Should this turn out to be true, it would lead to a serious political and legal imbroglio for the President, especially as he gears up to run for a second term next year.

Another assumption is that the President's disputatious argument may result from his lack of understanding of the decree's contents, getting only a one-sided version of the story whispered into his ear by aides who may have a personal interest in the decree.

High-ranking officials at the Forestry Ministry said unlike previous decrees, which involved various stakeholders including environmentalists, the recent decree was treated confidentially and was drafted hastily.

Agencies primarily involved in drafting the decree included the Forestry Ministry's planning agency and the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry's directorate general for mining.
Officials reported coming under intense pressure during the drafting of the decree, especially from vested interests related to mining and energy companies, tollway moguls and independent power-generation companies.

On the other side, as chairman of the Star and Crescent Party (PBB), Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban wants to bring in as many supporters as possible because his party failed to meet the minimum electoral threshold in the last elections.

PBB had to change its name and also had to re-register with the Justice and Human Rights Ministry.

Given his political position, Kaban is unlikely to stand up to much pressure, especially when it comes from his ministerial colleagues and superiors.

In Yudhoyono's Cabinet, coincidentally, Vice President Jusuf Kalla has a family business engaged in the construction of tollways and power generation, while the coordinating minister for people's welfare has a family business in the mining and energy sector, as well as telecommunications.

Illegal logging has remained common throughout the country, despite numerous laws and regulations enacted to enforce the sustainable management of our forest resources, and this recent decree seems to undermine whatever progress has been made in this area.

There also are questions about the urgency of the decree, considering the 13 mining companies already granted forest concessions have not demanded the government immediately allow them to operate.

The government is also not cash-strapped and in need of immediately filling its coffers with any available revenue.

Despite the country's lack of infrastructure for supervising forests, the enactment of the decree will only exacerbate illegal logging, especially with the government providing legal leeway for the crime to occur.

The decree will only profit vested interests, not the general public.