Monday, 14 September 2009

For a better environment?

For a better environment?

The Jakarta Post | Mon, 09/14/2009 | Opinion

After years of delay, the Environmental Management Law was approved by the House of Representatives last week. All credit to the members of the environmental commission who worked hard even during the parliamentary recess to beat the deadline.

Despite harsher jail terms and fines for polluters, the House enacted the bill without much resistance less than three weeks before the end of its tenure. A failure to do so would have delayed the bill even further since the new legislature which will be installed in October would have to go through it again from scratch.

The previous law was inadequate in offering protection to the people and the environment largely because it was made before regional autonomy came into effect in 2001.

Since then, regional governments have issued thousands of licenses for mining operators, for example, often without the knowledge of the central government.

This has caused untold damages in many regions. Halmahera island in eastern Indonesia, is a case in point. Virtually all of its bays have turned into dumping grounds for industrial mining waste, according to the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam).

The new law boosts the powers of the State Ministry of the Environment, something that has been seen wanting for a long time as it has often been seen as helpless in the face of environmental destruction. The new law will also allow civil servant investigators to arrest those accused of endangering the environment, in cooperation with the police.

This is progress and yet a sensitive point since it takes for granted that they will be working professionally. The government has to make sure that it has professional staff in the ranks of its investigators, otherwise, this power can easily be abused and this would send bad signals to investors.

Comprising 18 chapters and 86 clauses, the law also stipulates that those who commit unauthorized forest burning are liable to jail terms of three to 10 years and fines of between Rp 3 and 10 billion.

This could be effective in reducing the number of people or companies who set off fires during the dry season that can cause large-scale forest fires, a perennial headache to the government. The country has long been vulnerable to forest fires and has earned a reputation as an exporter of haze. At this moment, fire is ravaging thousands of hectares of forest across Kalimantan causing massive air pollution.

Meanwhile those who release genetically modified materials without a license can now be jailed from one to three years and fined of Rp 1 to Rp 3 billion. These two new clauses were absent in the 1997 Law No. 23.

Other new clauses include the obligation of central and regional governments to draft Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs). Companies producing poisonous waste are now required to manage their waste. Companies exploiting natural resources are also obliged to pay an environmental tax to be used to restore and rehabilitate areas damaged by business activities.

All of these sound good as Indonesia is among those countries where environmental degradation is running at an alarming rate. However, what is good on paper does not automatically produce good results in practice. We will have to see how the law will bring a change to the lamentable state of our environment.