Testimony by a palm-oil businessman in a bribery trial at the Jakarta Corruption Court has revealed how local elections have done more harm than good to the environment.
The court heard on Wednesday that Rita Widyasari, the suspended regent of Kutai Kartanegara in East Kalimantan, allegedly financed her political activities with billions of rupiah that she received from the businessman, who allegedly wanted to secure concession permits in a protected peatland area in the former's regency.
Businessman Hery Susanto Gun, who is also being charged in the case, testified on Wednesday that Rita had demanded Rp 9 billion (US$643,950) when she was running for office.
Hery, president director of oil palm firm PT Sawit Golden Prima, told the court that the demand was conveyed by Rita's aide Hani Kristiyanto.
Rita did visit Hery afterward, but did not ask for the money, merely asking for advice on "winning the local election", Hery said.
When Rita was elected Kutai Kertanegara regent, Hery told the court that the politician, again through Rani, asked for Rp 6 billion because Rita had run out of money after the election.
According to Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) prosecutors, the Rp 6 billion was a bribe given by Hery to Rita relating to Hery's efforts to obtain a business permit for the former's 16,000-hectare oil palm concession in the regency.
After Hery gave the money to Rita, the latter finally signed the permit document for Hery's oil palm plantation, even though a local regulation prohibits agricultural companies from having concessions of over 15,000 ha.
Kutai Kartanegara (Kukar) regent Rita Widyasari (Antara/Sigid Kurniawan)
Furthermore, according to local activists, the oil palm plantation is located within a peat swamp ecosystem, which plays a major role for the environment by cycling and storing significant amounts of carbon. A substantial proportion of Indonesia's peatlands, including in East Kalimantan, has suffered severe degradation to make way for industrial logging concessions and oil palm plantations.
Agricultural business in Indonesia, which contains one of the world’s three largest stands of tropical forest, along with the Amazon and Congo basins, rapidly expanded during the 32-year regime of former president Soeharto, which benefited a small group of forestry conglomerates with close links to the strongman president after it created the Forestry Law in 1967, which gave Jakarta the exclusive right to forest exploitation in roughly 143 million ha of the country's forests.
The fall of Soeharto in 1998 marked the birth of the regional autonomy system, which gave local forest agencies control over much of the forest estate, and the direct regional elections to generate a new breed of local leaders.
While political parties flex their muscles ahead of the simultaneous regional elections scheduled for June, in which 171 regions across Indonesia will elect their new leaders, the period is likely to be used by businessmen to deepen their ties to political hopefuls in the regions to support their business expansion through obtaining permits, environment groups have warned.
In a report released in January, the Indonesian Forum for Environment (Walhi) predicted 2018 would be a tough year for the environment, with corporations "hoping to secure their own interests through political intervention."
Walhi said that in the past business permits had been rampantly issued by local leaders before or soon after elections through various means, such as by revising local spatial documents, which detail land use in various areas.
"Regional elections always provide room for a strong association between business magnates and political leaders," Walhi said in its report.
The practice may flourish again in 2018, because the public's attention is solely focused on provinces that could be battlegrounds for political parties to secure their interests, not regions that are prone to environmental degradation and land conflicts, said Walhi executive director Nur Hidayati.
An election officer moves a ballot box from the Ciamis Regional Elections (Pilkada) logistics warehouse in Ciamis regency, West Java, on Feb.28. (Antara/Adeng Bustomi)
It is not only agricultural firms that are eyeing permits before or after regional elections, but also mining companies.
Merah Johansyah, national coordinator of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), said there were at least 13 regions participating in the simultaneous local elections that were prone to mining permit transactions in the midst of elections.
"They are regions with a high number of conflicts relating to mining operations based on Jatam's data," said Merah.
The regions are 11 provinces – Bengkulu, Central Java, East Java, East Kalimantan, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), Jambi, Papua, Riau, Southeast Sulawesi, South Sumatra and West Java, -- and two regencies -- Dairi in North Sumatra and East Manggarai in NTT.
Issuing extractive business permits is one of five moves in the corruption playbook widely used by regional leaders in Indonesia, according to Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), along with misusing village funds, disbursing social funds, promotion for civil servants and misusing authority in goods and services procurement.
Another important element that could decide the future of the environment is whether candidate pairs competing in regional elections see environment protection as a primary concern during their campaigns.
But a substantial discourse on environmental protection is one that is somewhat missing in Indonesia's regional elections, said Hendri Sitorus, a North Sumatra University environmental sociologist.
"Regional election campaigns have not been sensitive to environment issues.”