When the deforestation moratorium was made permanent by the government in 2019, many environmentalists believed, despite their criticisms of it, that this symbolised a true commitment to protect Indonesia’s forests into the future. However since then, President Widodo’s government has been proposing new laws that are putting this assumption into serious question.
Deregulation of Timber Production
Firstly, the Ministry of Trade announced in February of 2020 that they would be stopping the “v-legal” certification for domestic timber production. This program forced companies to verify the legality of their timber in multiple steps in the supply chain in order to be able to export their products . While not perfect, “v-legal” played a part in curbing illegal logging as non certified timber lost a large amount of value. However, due to pressure from environmental groups and threats by the European Union that they would stop importing Indonesian timber products, the government abandoned this plan .
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The Omnibus Law
In February of 2020, the government unveiled a new omnibus package aimed at increasing Indonesia’s economic performance, officially as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic . This bill included a wide variety of new policies and laws that environmentalists warn will severely affect Indonesia’s forests.
For one, both the punishment for breaking environmental regulation and the authorities’ ability to prosecute them have been severely weakened. For example, companies will no longer be held responsible for forest fires on their land unless it can be proven that they were directly at fault, which is often nearly impossible . This will make it much easier for companies to use forest fires to degrade land quickly to receive new permits. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry is also no longer able to go after companies breaking environmental codes, unless the local government is already prosecuting, removing its ability to be a “second line of defense” against violations .
Consolidation of Power by the Government
Generally, the central government is strengthening their grip on local leadership through this new bill. For example, the new laws allow the government to quash nearly any new environmental regulation enacted on by local governments and doesn’t allow these decisions to be appealed in court . Local governments did this to great effect in 2016.
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Further, the central government will be the only party authorized to give out new land development and exploitation permits . This takes much of the power local governments have had to resist exploitation of their lands and puts it firmly in the hands of the Jakartan government. While there have been major issues with local leaders being bribed for permits, it is generally agreed that this is still the best system. Local governments are much more aware of the needs of their lands and can, therefore, make more informed decisions on which permits to accept. This will also vastly increase the burden on the central government, indicating that they will not be very thorough in their environmental impact assessments .
This worry is multiplied when one considers that President Widodo publicly stated that one of the main goals of this new bill is to create new efficiency and speed in the economic development of the country, leading many to believe his government will be handing out permits quite freely.
It is also important to note that the taskforce for the writing of this bill was dominated by business representatives of industries like Palm Oil. It also violates 31 rulings by the country's highest court .
New Rice Fields in Borneo
Finally, activists have also been shown dismay at the government’s announcement that they will be creating 900,000 hectares of rice fields on Borneo, mainly on top of peatlands. The failure and environmental devastation of previous attempts at similar projects in the 1990’s on Papua are pointed to with concern. The government maintains however, that they have learned from past mistakes .
When asked in a recent interview about his position on environmental protection and human rights, President Widodo said that while these issues are very important to him, economic development is the top priority and such issues need to be addressed one at a time . The recent actions combined with statements like these have made many environmental activists concerned about Indonesia’s future.