Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Environmental protection must be a presidential priority

Jonathan Wootliff | Tue, 07/14/2009 | The Jakarta Post

You could be forgiven for thinking that environmental issues are of no importance to Indonesia, based on the pitiful level of debate during these elections.

Despite dire threats from rising sea levels as a consequence of global warming, rapid deforestation and devastating fire and haze, as well as a critical shortage of clean drinking water, all three presidential hopefuls appeared to ignore the topics during the campaign.

None of them made the environment a priority or offered any detailed policies on such important issue as carbon emissions, coastal destruction or waste management.

Rampant deforestation fuelled by corruption and poor law enforcement has made Indonesia the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. And yet we heard nothing from any of the candidates about this vital topic.

There's no doubt that Indonesia has been hit hard by the world financial downturn, and delivering economic stability to this developing nation must be a political priority for any credible contender for the presidency.

But poverty alleviation and improved living conditions for Indonesians cannot be separated from the essential need for environmental protection.

Conservationists argue that it was an abject failure to protect vast areas of coastal mangroves that contributed to the tsunami's tragically high death toll.

They further contest that it is the chronic inability of the authorities to tackle pollution that is a key factor responsible for more than 100 million Indonesians lacking access to safe drinking water.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono can rightly claim to have taken some positive environmental steps, albeit far fewer than green advocates would have liked.

He has hosted two historic international summits designed to safeguard the future of health of our planet.

Indeed, it was SBY's impassioned plea to world leaders gathered in Bali that arguably saved the climate change talks from collapse in 2007.

And it was his strong leadership at the oceans meeting in Manado earlier this year that helped secure an intergovernmental commitment to save the fragile Coral Triangle.

Megawati, Kalla and Yudhoyono are not the first politicians to pay little attention to the environment in a political election campaign.

Al Gore, who has since won a Nobel peace prize for his work on climate change, made no mention of the problem during his race for the White House in 2000.

But, even though Indonesia's presidential election victor chose not to make it a ballot box issue, I am hopeful that his administration will make the environment a priority over the next five years.

As one of largest nations in the developing world, it is vital that Indonesia makes a positive contribution to this December's critical climate change convention in Copenhagen, when the world must agree on a successor to the Kyoto Treaty.

Global warming is a crisis waiting to happen. Without doubt, it must be the number one environmental concern.

Skeptics say that Indonesia cannot afford to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and that remedies should be the sole responsibility of the major industrialized countries.

And yet, without the willingness of the likes of Indonesia to play its part in solving the problem, it could be politically impossible for US President Barack Obama to persuade his legislators to ratify a new climate treaty.

As this country emerges from this current economic slump, it must prepare for the new low-carbon economy.

The fact is that Indonesia cannot afford to turn its back on climate change. If it is to enhance its standing on the world stage, the President must take a real lead on this issue.

There is no doubt that economic development must be at the forefront of the government's priorities. But we must take a long-term view, ensuring that everything done now ensures the future well-being of this nation's rich biodiversity. There must be a clear focus on sustainable development.

Indonesia must also establish a system of transparency in its natural resources management, providing better public access to environmental information. Dissemination of environmental data will enhance public awareness and will help people monitor the sustainable development efforts of both the government and the private sector.

And one of the greatest obstacles to forest conservation - the scourge of illegal logging - must be stopped, once and for all. Radical new measures are urgently needed, particularly to improve the authorities' abilities to catch the ringleaders and provide economic opportunities that discourage people from participating in this destructive work.

More is needed to halt the annihilation of this nation's mega-charismatic mammals, including endangered orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants.

There is much to be done on the environmental front. The President must use the next five years to green this great nation.

We should now care about what will be done during his next term in office, rather than about the absence of any discussion about the environment during the election campaign.

Here, as always, actions speak louder than words.

Jonathan Wootliff is an independent sustainable development consultant specializing in the building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at jonathan@wootliff.com.