Monday, 22 December 2008

Government more bark than bite

Monday, December 22, 2008

Government more bark than bite

Adianto P. Simamora , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta

When State Minister for the Environment Rachmat Witoelar unveiled plans to prosecute any companies in Indonesia found to be serious polluters, green activists voiced doubt that the government would be serious about enforcement.

In July, the ministry announced its annual ratings of "clean" and "dirty" companies as part of its efforts to force businesses to comply with the standards set by the government.

The corporate environmental performance rating, commonly known as "Proper", gave 45 out of 517 companies the worst "black" rating.

Of the 45 "black-rated" companies, 13 firms appeared at the bottom the list twice, and the minister vowed to file lawsuits against them.

But as of early December, none of the 13 most-polluting companies had been taken to court.

The ministry sent signals it might sue only one of the 13 firms in question, arguing that the other 12 companies showed improvements after the "Proper" announcement.

The black rating was given to firms that failed to produce their environmental impact analysis (Amdal) documents, a very basic certificate to ensure companies are not damaging the environment.

"Right from the beginning, we knew the ministry would not dare sue black-rated companies," Berry Furgan, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for Environment (Walhi), said.

The Proper rating, established in 1995, is promoted as one of the most influential tools for the ministry to force companies to improve their environmental management. The ministry also announces the cleanest and dirties cities annually.

But despite the announcements, the ministry has appeared to have more bark than bite when it comes to enforcing the law against violators.

"The ministry is too lenient in dealing with polluting companies," Berry said.

And this is certainly not the first year this has been seen. In 2005, the ministry gave black ratings to 72 of 466 environmentally audited companies, but took no legal action against any of them.

According to Walhi, even companies that gain a red Proper rating -- the second-lowest rating -- were categorized as having breached the 1997 environment law.

Under the 1997 environment law, company executives face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and fines of up to Rp 500 million for deliberately carrying out any activities that result in environmental pollution or damage.

The effect of poor law enforcement was evident in findings in the 2007 State of the Environment Report released this year, which stated that the quality of air, water, rivers and waste management across Indonesia had continued to worsen.

The environment report also said most of the country's river water, the main source of drinking water, had long been badly contaminated, mainly by household and industrial waste.

The ministry is aware of the issue, with the minister saying at the release of the report, "Frankly, I am not satisfied yet with law enforcement for the environment."

The reason for its poor law enforcement, the ministry says, is because of its diminished power since the implementation of regional autonomy.

In terms of Amdal, for example, authority to issue the certificate was transferred to local administrations at the beginning of decentralization.

However, only about a quarter of the country's 460-plus municipalities and regencies have set up Amdal councils because of what the regions call "poor human resources" in their administrations. Half of the councils have never issued Amdal documents.

An Amdal council, consisting of five officials, is tasked with approving or rejecting Amdal reports submitted by project developers.

Furthermore, many provinces do not have publicly available daily or monthly reports on air pollution levels, as required, but they are not penalized by the central government for this.

Compounding the law enforcement problem is the reportedly poor coordination between government offices when it comes to environmental management, including in protecting river basins, which has left 282 out of 458 river basins in a critical condition.

Currently, four ministries are involved in dealing with river basin issues -- the State Ministry for the Environment, the Public Works Ministry, the Forestry Ministry and the State Ministry for National Development Planning.

"But there is no integrated policy among these departments. Each (of them) goes with their own agenda," Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban said.

Indonesia, which has more than 120 million hectares of rainforest -- making it the country with the third-largest amount of forest in the world -- is under pressure to protect its forests to help mitigate global warming.

Two recent international reports criticized Indonesia for its poor performance in protecting its forest.

In July, Yale University published an Environmental Performance Index (EPI) that ranked Indonesia 102nd out of 149 countries because of its high rate of deforestation.

The report said Indonesia had produced 85 percent of its emissions through deforestation, putting the country just behind China and the United States as the world's biggest emitters.

The EPI uses 25 indicators to determine the ranks including environmental health, air pollution, water resources, biodiversity and habitat, productive natural resources and climate change.

The Guinness Book of World Records in September named Indonesia as having the highest rate of deforestation on the planet, with the amount of forest lost equivalent to 300 soccer fields each hour.

This world record ranks Indonesia's deforestation rate as the world's highest, at 1.8 million hectares per year between 2000 and 2005 -- a loss of 2 percent of its forests each year.

This is the second year Indonesia made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for its deforestation.

Rachmat complained that the reports used obsolete data.

The minister said that in the past two years, deforestation in the country had decreased sharply thanks to the decline in forest fires, and that Indonesia was 24th in the world in terms of emitters.

The deforestation rate between 1987 and 1997 was recorded at 1.8 million hectares. From 1998-2000, it rose sharply to 2.8 million hectares per year because of severe forest fires, before falling back to 1.8 million hectares per year between 2000 and 2006.

A study conducted by Indonesia Forest Watch (FWI) found the conversion of forests into oil palm plantations contributed the most to deforestation with big companies being the main culprits.

The study, conducted in Central Kalimantan, Riau and Papua, found that palm oil companies preferred to convert forested areas rather than use idle land.

A study by Greenomics Indonesia warned that deforestation would increase if the government failed to resolve overlapping permits from government agencies.

The study showed that about 18.4 million hectares of forest concession areas and production had been occupied illegally, mostly by plantation and mining companies that were granted permits by regents.

The most controversial issue for forest protection is Government Regulation No. 2/2008 on non-tax revenue from forests, which allows 13 mining companies to operate in protected forests.

The regulation was issued just two months after Indonesia won international praise for successfully hosting the UN climate change conference in Bali, which adopted the reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) mechanism.

Under the much-debated REDD mechanism, rich nations would provide financial incentives for forestry nations, including Indonesia, to stock carbon in forests to mitigate climate change.

The non-tax regulation also contradicted the national action plan on climate change made by the environment ministry and officially launched by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during the Bali conference.

The main issue in all this is that Indonesia is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, especially in the form of floods and other natural disasters. It is time for the government to take concrete action to resolve environmental problems.