In his first 100 days in office, President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo seemed to want to show the public he is simple and direct ' though the opposite is true concerning his dithering on whether to appoint graft suspect Comr. Gen. Budi Gunawan as National Police chief.
But there is a thin line between simplicity and ignorance ' as seen in the case of Jokowi's trimming of institutions and regulations related to forests. Within three months, the administration has shown that its only interest is in capitalizing on the country's most coveted resources.
While merging and disbanding a number of institutions related to law enforcement in forestry, Jokowi has effectively halted attempts to end illegal deforestation and reckless business practices that have contributed to land conflicts and paralyzing haze in the region. His merger of the former environment and forestry ministries was initially considered in line with his no-nonsense approach to end cross-sectoral issues regarding problematic forest-clearing policies.
There were already concerns that the new Environment and Forestry Ministry would not continue lawsuits against agroforestry companies allegedly involved in producing haze.
The merger was later followed by the dissolving of two organizations that had been the backbone of forest governance: the Presidential Working Unit for the Supervision and Management of Development (UKP4) and the REDD+ Management Agency (BP REDD+), which in the last months of 2014 had progressed significantly in forestry law enforcement, a surprising relief under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's otherwise decade of inaction.
The UKP4 had started audits on local administrations and agroforestry companies in Riau ' the main area of forest fires during the dry season. The BP REDD+ was progressing in establishing forest reference emission levels (FREL), a requirement in carbon-credit assessment in the REDD+ system that the government had tried to establish under funding from Norway.
The ministry, through a ministerial regulation, has also transferred the authority of 35 forestry-related permits to the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM). This might speed up issuing of licenses ' but the real problem of the transfer is that issuing a permit is not merely paperwork in forestry.
The permits transferred to the BKPM, for example, include various forms of logging licenses (IPK) for all forests, including natural forests. These permits usually coexist with other permits. An oil-palm plantation, for instance, should possess an IPK permit, location permit or land use rights, Environmental Impact Analysis (Amdal) and recommendations at various stages of local administrations.
A permit issuance also relates to forest spatial planning in regions, which the government has not made clear until today. The government has yet to realize the One Map policy, a single reference for the spatial planning of regions, due to differences across forest-related institutions, including the ministry. The failure in producing the single map proves the government has no clear reference on what is happening in the forests. Thus giving up the authority to the BKPM means transferring uncertainty to new investors.
The complicated licensing for forest production under the previous forestry ministry was puzzling and was a major source of corruption; but eliminating the process entirely may trigger new conflicts among companies, local administrations and residents.
Trading environmental assessment for faster permit issuance, for example, also means being less careful in handling environmental problems, including haze.
Reluctance to address haze problems means following in the footsteps of Yudhoyono.
Despite pioneering commitment in emission reduction by announcing the government's willingness to reduce emissions by 26 percent to 41 percent in 2019, Yudhoyono remained weak in law enforcement, resulting in rampant forest fires that have spread haze in the region for the past few years. Hundreds of residents particularly in Riau, Malaysia and Singapore have suffered respiratory problems. People cannot go to work and children cannot go to school. Numerous flights have been delayed; land travel also has poor visibility.
Public interest should become a top government priority, beyond economic interests.
Punishing irresponsible companies that have allowed or intentionally carried out slash-and-burn practices is the government's moral obligation. It should not be taken as a barrier for business but rather a way to save and protect citizens.
Singapore has introduced a law to prosecute companies that cause haze ' regardless of the origin of the forest fires. The haze bill was criticized by businesspeople. But Singapore kept a firm stance, considering the menacing effects of haze.
The world's largest sovereign wealth fund, the Norway Pension Fund, has pulled its funds from palm-oil companies engaging in deforestation. Several banks have also announced zero tolerance to ensure environmental sustainability for palm-oil companies.
A recent report from the US-based Climate and Land Use Alliance reported that BNP Paribas often seeks independent verification by civil society organizations before approving financing in the palm-oil industry. Last year, Deutsche Bank divested from the Bumitama Group in response to the company's alleged deforestation activities. HSBC withdrew banking services from Sarawak, Malaysia, due to concerns about money laundering and deforestation. Against such global pressure on the palm-oil sector, Jokowi seems to lead an orchestra of his own. Appearing more lenient in a sector swamped in graft and poor business practices does not make the sector more appealing, let alone improve the investment climate.
As the world's largest crude palm oil producer and consumer, Indonesia can be a game changer in global efforts to save rainforests, not only by appearing supportive at the UN climate conference, but by bringing about strong law enforcement to reduce deforestation and promote good business practices in forestry.
So, has Jokowi simplified or ignored forestry issues? Either way he should not ask Yudhoyono for better advice.
The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post