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Jakarta Post

Long winter for environmental defenders

  • Rizal Malik


Jakarta   /   Wed, February 20, 2019   /   01:06 pm
Long winter for environmental defenders Environmentalists, some dressed in animal costumes and face paint, stage a peaceful rally in Medan, North Sumatra to mark World Environment Day. (JP/Apriadi Gunawan)

Presidential hopefuls Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo Subianto addressed the issues of environmental protection and natural resource management during their second debate on Sunday. The stakes are particularly high for both candidates because of indications they received funding from businesses allegedly responsible for environmental damage.

Existing reports have tried to quantify their commitment to the environment by scrutinizing their vision and mission statements. A discussion about conflicts over natural resources, which often sacrifice the environment, was, however, absent from the debate. The two candidates have readily agreed on the environment because seemingly neither has given it very much thought, which is sad but true.

The most recent example is the sentencing of Heri Budiawan (Heri Pego) for allegedly spreading the outlawed teachings of Marxism and Leninism by waving a hammer-and-sickle flag during an antimining protest in the East Java town of Banyuwangi in April 2017. 

Budi’s actual sin was opposing the gold mine operation on Mount Tumpang Pitu. For many years he organized the local community to protest the concession for PT Indo Multi Niaga, which later was renamed PT Bumi Suksesindo.

Another case in point is Bambang Hero, who was sued after testifying against PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa. The company was found guilty of causing a forest fire and fined Rp 1 billion.(US$70,938.34) In a retaliatory move the company filed a lawsuit against Bambang and demanded Rp 500 billion in damages, but it later dropped the case because several evidentiary documents needed to be corrected.

Next, then-Southeast Sulawesi governor Nur Alam filed a lawsuit against Basuki Wasis in April 2018 after the lecturer, who was hired by the Corruption Eradication Commission, found that environmental damages resulting from the operations of nickel mining company PT Anugrah Harisma Barakah on Kabaena Island had caused Rp 2.7 trillion in state losses. Nur was sentenced to 12 years in prison for bribery in relation to the issuance of mining licenses last December.

The list is seemingly endless, turning Indonesia into a dangerous place for people defending the environment and their land. Recent data shows that environmentalists have been the most persecuted activists over the past four years, a phenomenon found across the world. 

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment recorded over 723 cases of criminalization over the period, mostly related to conflicts over natural resource management. According to Protection International Indonesia, at least 89 environmentalists have been imprisoned based on dubious or legally flawed charges over the same period.

The attacks on green activists and civil society organizations saw Indonesia downgraded to a “partly free” country according to the 2014 Freedom House democracy index. The country had joined the ranks of free countries in 2006.

Freedom House noted the various tactics used by modern authoritarian regimes to delegitimize and weaken democratic institutions, such as the control of the media in the hands of rulers’ cronies, the drafting of laws restricting civil society organizations and the misuse of the judiciary system to silence opposition. Such tactics were originally developed by Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia, and were then replicated and adapted by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orban in Hungary and in other countries.

Gone is the use of concentration camps, kidnappings and enforced disappearances. Authoritarian regimes now control activists through regulations on registration and restrictions on foreign aid, laws that can restrict public protests for the sake of security and criminalization of key activists as deterrence.

These methods and tactics were originally intended as a regime’s defense mechanism from the opposition, but in recent years there have been attempts to build alternative discourses on democracy. One of the prominent discourses is development without democracy à la China, which harks of the New Order.

Back then, for the sake of economic development, which is measured by per capita gross domestic product growth, citizens’ political rights were ignored. The development strategy proved to leave corruption uncontrolled, leading the country into an economic and political crisis.

After the reforms 20 years ago, hopes abound that Indonesian democracy will mature. We have held relatively free elections four times. People have elected village heads, regents, mayors, governors and presidents directly. Yet there is still a lot of work to do.

General elections have not helped the supporting institutions of democracy in Indonesia grow stronger. Political parties cannot yet serve as a channel for people’s aspirations. Legislative institutions remain unable to perform both their legislative and check-and-balance functions.

Judiciary institutions have not been completely freed from outside interference, in the form of public pressure and the temptation of money.

Concentration of media ownership, especially television, in the hands of entrepreneurs who also lead political parties has blurred the media’s professionalism and independence. The increasing use of social media to spread hoaxes has further shaken people’s trust in the media as a pillar of democracy.

When democracy is in jeopardy, civil society organizations are expected to jump to the rescue. But their activists are facing criminalization in the same way defenders of democracy endured suppression under the authoritarian regime in the past.

This is really ironic, given the fact that many former activists now sit in the inner circle of power, as advisers to either the President or ministers.

The upcoming political contest is the best chance for us to remind political actors to stay loyal to the promises of reform. Don’t let Indonesia fall into the trap of becoming an anti-democratic, authoritarian regime.

Hopefully the long winter for environmentalists will soon pass.


The writer is the CEO of WWF-Indonesia. The views expressed are his own.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.