The writer is founder of Intermatrix Communications, which advises AMAN. The views presented here are his own.
Indonesia frequently faces criticism from domestic politicians as well as ASEAN countries for failing to control its forest fires and the resulting smog, which the media calls “haze.”
The 2015 fires were the worst, costing an estimated Rp 220 trillion (US$16.5 billion) in economic losses, or 1.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), as well as causing long-term public health hazards.
The main source of the annual disaster is the ruthless large-scale drying of peatlands by plantation companies, as proven by World Bank scientists and international observers.
Facing a major security risk, the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo chose the correct policies in its very first year. The government assumed a firm stance on burning. Despite poor coordination at the provincial and sub-provincial levels, this resulted in fewer fires in 2016 and 2017.
This has not been fully appreciated by the media, who see the recalcitrance of palm oil and paper companies as a sign of government weakness. Actually, the government has a careful strategy of “drawing a line in the sand” while applying pressure on big businesses responsible for continued violations of pro-conservation policies. Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), a major company that routinely converts forests to plantations in Riau, typifies big business resistance to pro-forest regulations.
When President Jokowi paid a visit to United States president Obama in spring 2015 to discuss a common strategy for the COP 21 planned for December in Paris, media coverage of the meeting was overshadowed by reports of catastrophic forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra.
These are often presented to emphasize the inefficacy of the government in a classic generalization based on past performance.
It is certainly true that the 2015 fires were the worst ever, and the last in a seven-year annual disaster in which the Jokowi government had less than a year’s culpability. A small consolation was that the press gave positive coverage to Jokowi’sf commitment at the Paris COP 21.
Indonesia played a significant role in drafting the Paris Agreement to be ratified later in 2016, and was recognized as a part of the solution to climate change.
Impatient at the sluggish response of forest-based companies and uncomfortable with the world’s underappreciation, the Environment and Forestry Ministry used its government mandate to strengthen its proactive stand in the battle to save the nation’s forests. It facilitated coordination between government ministries and agencies such as the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), the Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), and most importantly, civil society organizations that had long been committed to keeping the forests safe from destruction by high carbon emissions.
Just as important, serious social issues are involved. The true keepers of the forest are the indigenous communities that had long been unrecognized in the social and forestry policies of previous governments.
Jokowi reached out to AMAN, the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago, and included their cause and the forestry cause as a pillar of his presidential policy. Under this strong political cover, his administration became a supporter of the agenda for agrarian and social forestry reform. The latest point in the timeline is the Tenure Conference of October 2017, a joint collaboration between civil society and the government. It discussed expectations and grievances in open dialogues held by several panels.
Indonesia has come a long way from the days when it policed its forests on behalf of big business and big power and, most of all, big interests. Progress has been three steps forward and two steps back.
In this perspective, the showdown between the government and recalcitrant big businesses, as symbolized by the tug-of-war between the environment ministry and RAPP, has become a battlefield on which government has to pick sides at the risk of losing the support of indigenous peoples and more importantly, losing sight of forestry policy objectives.
What is transpiring in Riau draws an even clearer line in the call to face this clear and present danger.