Monday, 22 December 2008

Ecological disasters and Indonesia's future threats

Monday, December 22, 2008 3:50 PM

Ecological disasters and Indonesia's future threats

Chalid Muhammad , Jakarta | Mon, 12/22/2008 2:49 PM |

Indonesia lost 24 islets during 2005-2007 as a result of climate change, as reported in the Indonesian State of the Environment Report published by the State Ministry for the Environment in 2007. According to the report, Indonesia has, in the past few years, registered worrying increases in the intensity and frequency of climate change.

Indonesia has continued to record a very high rate of deforestation, with a total 1.09 million hectares felled a year between 2000 and 2006. This serious deforestation has so far rendered more than 77 million hectares of land in the country critical.

The annual report from the environment ministry indicates the grave state of Indonesia's environment, as supported by the empirical evidence. Most of the country's major rivers are in a critical condition because of the destruction and contamination of water basins. Still there are floods, landslides, droughts, forest fires, harvest and crop failures, and air pollution, as well as a growing list of other ecological disasters.

Sadly, however, the state has made a very inadequate response, inasmuch as it has made any at all. The state has never seriously made an effort to overcome the crisis, even tending to speed up the environmental deterioration through its licensing and legislation. Evidence of this is that the extent of environmental damage and the number of ecological disasters escalates year after year.

Nature has always been issuing warnings, much harsher than those contained in the reports of NGOs engaged in environment protection. Annually recurring ecological calamities serve as natural alarms that should raise our awareness. Repeated floods and landslides prove there has been very serious and systematic destruction of the environment.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) has noted that in 2006-2007, 840 ecological disasters took place, in which 7,303 people lost their lives and 1,140 others were declared missing. At least 3 million people were forced to become refugees and 750,000 houses were damaged or submerged.

At the beginning of 2008, we were faced with a landslide in Tawangmangu and flash floods in Ngawi, Kediri, Madiun, Bojonegoro, Lamongan and Kudus, all in Java, which inundated hundreds of thousands of houses and caused harvest failures or loss of property. The misfortune was mainly attributed to destruction of the forest and ecosystem along the river basin areas of the Solo river.

Toward the end of 2008 we were again saddened by the news of floods and landslides, tidal waves and forest fires. Ecological destruction kills hundreds of people every year. The Health Ministry, as quoted by Antara news agency, puts the number of lives lost to environmental disasters in Indonesia at 8,638 from 2006 to August 2008 - 7,770 in 2006, 675 in 2007 and 263 in January-August 2008. This is a considerable death toll resulting from environmental mismanagement.

Legalized destruction of natural resources for economic interests has been underway since 1967. It started with the introduction of the Foreign Investment Law, the Forestry Law and the Mining Law. Since then, Indonesia has systematically turned to selling all its natural assets at low prices on a large scale.

Consequently, there has been large-scale conversion of forests into extensive private estates and mining areas and for industrial needs. In downstream regions, the mangrove ecosystem has also been reduced due to conversion into luxury housing, fish ponds and industries. Today, mangrove forests along Indonesian coastal areas cover less than 1.9 million hectares.

The government has made some headway in eradicating illegal logging, illegal mining and illegal fishing. But that is not the case with legal logging, legal mining and legal fishing, which evidently destroy the environment. The state gives the impression that it is protecting companies that have allegedly committed crimes against the environment for their own economic ends. These methods prove that the state has for a long time been leading the destruction of nature through its legislation and licensing.

Attempts to make the state fundamentally amend its natural resources and environmental management policies have not yet succeeded. We even have laws that potentially speed up environmental damage. In 2007 three laws were turned out that supported natural exploitation: the Investment Law, the Spatial Planning Law and the Small Island and Coastal Region Management Law. The three serve as the basis for natural exploitation licenses in 2008 and the coming years.

In early 2008, the state again issued a controversial policy. Government Regulation No. 2/2008 on the types and rates of non-tax income from forestry has been met with public rejection. In the rule, the state allows protected forest zones to be utilized for mining operations as long as mining companies pay a maximum rent of Rp 300 (2 US cents) per square meter a year.

The policy has been welcomed by mining firms and regional administrations desirous of converting protected zones for mining. Some regency administrations have even gone beyond their authority by granting licenses to firms for such conversion, such as those in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, and Manggarai, East Nusa Tenggara.

Now a large number of mining, estate and agricultural companies are queuing up to obtain licenses for the conversion of protected zones or areas that should be protected. The government has even definitely determined the conversion of 400,000 hectares of forests a year for oil palm plantations until 2011. This shows that forest areas have for a long time been undergoing planned deforestation. Put simply, it is deforestation guided by the state.

On the eve of the 2009 general elections, it is least likely that the state will take stern action against environmental criminals, let alone those already licensed by the state. The forestry industry devastating the peat zone in Riau is almost certain to escape prosecution even though the police investigation has long been completed.

The case of pollution and rights violations in the gas drilling location of Lapindo Brantas will also stay stuck in limbo. The likelihood of the prosecutor's office bringing the case to the criminal court in 2009 is remote, despite its long-finished police investigation.

In the absence of choice in 2009, alternative political forces should be established to determine Indonesia's new path peacefully and democratically. Otherwise, ecological catastrophes will surely expand, threatening the future of Indonesia.

The writer is chairman of The Green Institute and former director of Walhi.