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Insights and Analysis

Civil Society Takes on the Haze Crisis in Indonesia

April 20, 2016

By R. Alam Surya Putra and Tessa Toumbourou

The Indonesian province of Riau declared a state of emergency last month as haze from agricultural fires across Sumatra continued to envelope the region. The fires are the result of an early dry period, which comes all too quickly after last year’s extended dry season that saw agricultural fires burn over two million hectares of peatland mostly in Central Kalimantan, Riau, and South Sumatra.

A forest fire rips through Sumatra. Unfettered forest clearing and peatland draining to make way for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations are considered to be the main cause of Indonesia’s agricultural fires. Photo/Muhammadiyah

A forest fire rips through Sumatra. Unfettered forest clearing and peatland draining to make way for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations are considered to be the main cause of Indonesia’s agricultural fires. Photo/Muhammadiyah

At the peak of the crisis in October 2015, air pollution readings far exceeded hazardous levels, with the government of Indonesia announcing a state of emergency in parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Schools and work were forced to close, and flights grounded at regional airports due to poor visibility. Damages to industry, health, transport, and tourism in Indonesia and neighboring countries are estimated at around $16 billion.

Unfettered forest clearing and peatland draining to make way for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations are considered to be the main cause of Indonesia’s agricultural fires. Exposed peatland dry quickly and become highly flammable, and when alight, are difficult to extinguish. In late 2015, civil society organizations (CSOs) led efforts to bring government attention to the root cause of the haze, recommending that policy makers do more to restore dry, flammable peatland. As a result, in January 2016, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) established Indonesia’s first Peatland Restoration Agency. The agency is directly overseen by Jokowi, and is tasked with restoring two million hectares of peatland by 2019. Jokowi has also ordered police to take action on forest fires and to enforce the law, threatening to remove provincial police office leadership should fires appear in their jurisdictions in the next burning season.

Jokowi’s merger of the environment and forestry ministry is also seen as a serious attempt to bring the two issues together. The ministry’s director general of law enforcement, Rasio Ridho Sani, attended a field visit arranged by CSOs to observe some of the 150 dangerous abandoned mine pits in Samarinda, East Kalimantan. Following the visit, Sani closed down four mining companies’ concessions and another seven mining companies are being investigated for legal non-compliance.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry visits a mine site in Samarinda. Photo/JATAM

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry visits a mine site in Samarinda. Photo/JATAM

CSOs in Riau also reported directly to Sani a company that obtained a timber plantation permit from the district government, but has instead planted palm oil illegally – a common practice to avoid paying rents and taxes. The companies’ permit was subsequently cancelled. This responsiveness reflects a new willingness of the environment and forestry ministry to tackle environmental issues.

Civil society taking action to improve law enforcement
In an effort to pursue justice over the fires of 2015, a group of Riau citizens filed a lawsuit against the central government in the Pekanbaru City Court, and the first court hearing was held late last month. The lawsuit targets President Jokowi as well as the environment and forestry, agricultural, and health ministers, and the Riau governor for failing to protect citizens’ rights. and demands better management in the forestry and plantation sectors. This is the first lawsuit ever filed by citizens against the government for negligence surrounding haze and forest fires.

CSOs in Indonesia have approached the national police office to support development of standard operating procedures for mitigating agricultural fires, including understanding the causal link between deforestation and peatland destruction and the uptick in agricultural fires. The procedures set out instructions for handling fires on private concessions. This initiative follows work by national CSO Indonesia Centre for Environmental Law (ICEL), together with the national police academy, where a training program was held to strengthen the capacity of postgraduate police researchers to understand the drivers of forest fires and related law enforcement requirements.

Better law enforcement is key to avoiding illegal use of fire as a land clearing technique. The Riau police office identified a lack of finances as a major barrier to effective law enforcement in the province, and has requested financial support from the private sector. Concerned with the risk this presents to police impartiality, CSOs analyzed the 2016 Riau budget to find the province has Rp. 4 trillion ($310 million) in unspent funds due to delays in implementation, inefficiencies in spending, and ambitious program planning. To help disperse these funds to support fire mitigation, CSOs are assisting the government to develop a funding scheme for communities to participate in peatland restoration. The scheme will support local communities to undertake canal blocking, which re-wets peat to prevent it from catching fire. This fulfills the key objectives of the Peatland Restoration Agency, which aims to build 67,000 canal dams before the end of the wet season in June.

Tackling problems with land-based permits
A lack of transparency in the permit process has enabled local governments to over-allocate concessions for land-based industries, including in protected forest areas. Indonesia’s government agency established to address corruption, the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK), has taken on Indonesia’s land-based industries, starting in 2014 with the establishment of a strategic investigation into the mining sector. With CSO support, the investigations found that 4,643 mining companies operating across Indonesia did not meet basic Clean and Clear standards – an Indonesian statutory requirement that a company has no outstanding royalty or tax debts, adheres to environmental laws, and the concession does not overlap with protected forests. 721 illegal mining permits – including 478 coal-mining permits – have been revoked since, with more under investigation.

Investigations have since expanded to other sectors driving deforestation and degradation, targeting the forestry and plantation industries. The KPK’s investigations into the forestry sector revealed that Indonesia had lost an estimated $6.5-8.9 billion in potential state revenue from taxes and levies from unreported timber sales between 2003 and 2014. Investigations into the palm oil plantation sector are now underway. this month, CSOs joined the first KPK hearings over palm oil in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, together with regional environment, forestry and plantation agencies. A key problem identified at the meeting was that maps differ across agencies, resulting in permits for plantations being issued inappropriately for the land use and forest conditions. CSOs are supporting plantation sector investigations by reviewing plantation permits, and conducting ground checks to assess companies’ compliance with environmental laws.

Provision of public information remains a challenge
Key to addressing governance issues related to land use is improving access to information. Our partners have successfully supported the establishment of three regional information commissions, as well as many more information officers and operating procedures for their roles. Access to information is increasing as a result, with 46 percent of information requests for documents between June 2015 and January 2016 fulfilled on the initial request, a significant increase from initial request rates when the program began several years earlier.

Where information requests are not fulfilled, information grievances are pursued. Following a series of child deaths by drowning in abandoned mining pits in the district of Kutai Kartenegara, the East Kalimantan Network for Mining Advocacy (JATAM) has focused on accessing information on permit documentation. After almost a year of pursuing information grievances to access permit and environmental impact assessment (AMDAL) documents of each mine site in the district, on Feb. 2, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that JATAM had the right to access the data as it was public information. Yet the documents have not been provided to JATAM, and mining pits in Kutai Kartenegara continue to take young lives, with two teenagers found drowned in mining pits on March 23, 2016.

Today, there is no clear regulation on who is tasked with enforcing the law following freedom of information related court rulings that decide that data must be provided to the requester. While this legal loophole remains, initiatives like these are making a significant contribution to improving land and forest governance, key to addressing the cause of the haze.

R. Alam Surya Putra is the deputy director of SETAPAK, The Asia Foundation’s environmental governance program in Indonesia. He can be reached at [email protected]. Tessa Toumbourou is a consultant to the SETAPAK program, and can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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