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Indonesia’s presidential election: Troubling times for democracy and environment

2 April 2024

Written by: Madani Berkelanjutan

Indonesia’s presidential election: Troubling times for democracy and environment

On 20 March 2024, the General Elections Commission (KPU) declared Prabowo Subianto and Gibran Rakabuming Raka the winners of the 2024 presidential election, with 58.6% of the votes. From an environmental perspective, the victory of Prabowo and Gibran (the outgoing president’s son) raises grave concerns regarding the crucial issues of democracy, forest protection and global climate crisis mitigation efforts. These concerns must figure prominently during negotiations for an EU-Indonesia Free Trade Agreement, when benchmarking Indonesia’s risk under the EU Deforestation-free Regulation (EUDR), and more broadly in EU’s diplomatic and trade relationships with Indonesia. 

Two main issues stand out in the narrative of this winning pair. First, their less-than-stellar record on democratic principles. Second, the contradiction between their political promises and the commitment needed to address environmental challenges casts doubt on their readiness to tackle ecological issues effectively. 

Both Indonesia’s democracy index and press freedom score have dropped significantly in recent years, a decline compounded by the diminishing role of opposition during President Joko Widodo’s administration. Civil society involvement in environmental decision-making has been dramatically curtailed by the Job Creation Law (FW 253) and other regulations. Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, tasked with preventing abuses of power, has been severely weakened. ‘Dynasty politics’ are evident even at the Constitutional Court.  

The resulting lack of oversight, and absence of checks and balances contribute significantly to the paralysis of democracy and the extinction of environmental justice. Many policies enacted during President Jokowi’s administration have had a negative environmental impact (FW 290); despite the downward trend of Indonesia’s deforestation officially reported, between 2016 and 2022, Indonesia’s natural forest cover decreased significantly by 1.2 million hectares. Global Forest Review ranks Indonesia second globally in terms of primary forest loss; 10.2 million hectares were destroyed between 2002 and 2022. 

Forests at increased risk 

An existing policy on Sugar Self-Sufficiency (Presidential Regulation Number 40/2023) threatens the extent of Indonesia’s natural forests, including 9.7 million hectares currently unprotected, by mandating 700,000 hectares of new sugarcane plantations, partly in forestlands; gradual expansion to a further 2 million hectares in Papua is planned.  

Prabowo’s vision-mission document aggravates this forest conversion threat; he aspires to develop ‘food estates’ (large agricultural developments) for commodities, including sugarcane and notably the soy targeted by the EUDR. He is also defiant about possible EUDR restrictions on palm oil exports to the EU, thanking the EU for giving his domestic, palm oil-dependent biofuels policy a boost. 

Finally, Prabowo promises to continue boosting the nickel industry which, Madani reports, destroyed 65,000 hectares of natural forest between 2011 and 2021. This will increase, as currently nickel-mining permits have been granted in 542,000 hectares of forest, across the entire islands of Sulawesi and Maluku, including on small islands where mining should be prohibited. Climate Rights International revealed that at least 5,331 hectares of forest cover were lost to nickel-mining concessions in Halmahera, releasing 2.04 metric tons of greenhouse gases (CO2e) previously stored in the forest.  

Little interest in environment or human rights  

Prabowo’s record on environmental or human rights matters is highly questionable. With a primarily military background, Prabowo has seldom engaged with environmental issues, let alone climate change matters. Furthermore, he is closely affiliated with the country’s extractive industries. Prabowo owns several coal mining companies in Kalimantan (PT Nusantara Energy, PT Nusantara Kaltim Coal, PT Erabara Persada, and PT Nusantara Energindo Coal), covering a total of 45,703 hectares. Other prominent extractive industry figures (Rosan Perkasa Roeslani, Aburizal Bakrie, and Prabowo’s brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo) have been strongly associated with Prabowo over the years.  

Worse, Prabowo’s implication in past human rights violations is an open secret. This history must serve as a warning, as threats against environmental defenders are on the rise; Auriga Nusantara recorded 103 threats of various forms, particularly criminalisation, 2019-2023. The Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA) found at least 241 agrarian conflict cases in Indonesia in 2023, involving an area of 638.2 thousand hectares. 

It is no mistake to say that, without vigilant oversight from civil society supported by external partners, the victory of Prabowo-Gibran in the 2024 Indonesian presidential election could sound a death knell for Indonesia’s forests and for addressing the climate crisis. In its political dialogue and trade dealings with Indonesia’s new government, the EU must strongly defend human rights and core democratic values, including participatory rights, in addition to its climate and anti-deforestation goals.

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Madani Berkelanjutan is a climate and forest NGO in Indonesia.

This article was edited by Nicole Gérard.

Kategorien: News, Forest Watch, Partner Voices, EU-Indonesia Free Trade Agreement, EU Regulation on deforestation-free products

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