Indonesia defers legislation seen as harming the environment

Indonesia’s outgoing parliament has decided to hold off passing a slate of new mining and land reform bills, that have been criticised as being pro-business and anti-environment. But the postponement may be fleeting, critics say.

Miners in Jawa Timur Indonesia.
Miners working in Jawa Timur, Indonesia. Image: Tiomax80, CC BY-SA 2.0

Indonesian lawmakers have chosen not to pass a raft of controversial legislation that critics say would dismantle environmental and social protections, in the face of massive student-led protests.

The legislators had signaled they would pass the bills, including one on mining and one on land reform, on the final day of their term in office on Sept. 30. Both of those bills have been heavily criticised for favouring the interest of companies in the extractives sector over those of the environment and vulnerable rural communities, including indigenous groups struggling to maintain already tenuous land rights.

None of the bills were passed, however, amid protests in Jakarta and other cities across the nation led by university students incensed at the earlier passage of a bill widely seen as gutting the much-lauded national anti-corruption agency. At least two students were killed in the protests, the latest of which took place outside parliament on Sept. 30 as legislators ended their term. The protests had prompted President Joko Widodo to earlier ask parliament to suspend deliberations of the contentious bills.

“I want to convey my appreciation to the public, especially university students who have conveyed their aspirations to parliament in relation to the plan to pass some bills,” Bambang Soesatyo, the outgoing parliamentary speaker, said in his closing speech on Sept. 30. “Parliament is responding to those aspirations by postponing the bills’ passage.”

But that postponement may be fleeting, critics say, thanks largely to another piece of legislation. Passed last week, the so-called carry-over mechanism allows deliberations of bills left pending to be resumed from the same stage by the next batch of legislators, rather than deliberations having to start all over again, as was the case previously.

Activists have raised concerns that this mechanism was introduced specifically to ensure that the controversial bills could be carried over and passed by the new legislators as soon as possible. Parliament has agreed to carry over five bills, including those on mining and on land reform.

Because the parliament and the government brutally want to issue regulations that pose high risks for the environment and the public, they use violence to smoothen the road for the regulations [to be passed].

Khalisah Khalid, head of politics, Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi)

“They [the previous lawmakers] postponed [the bills] until the new legislators [came to office]. But the materials have already been prepared, so the new legislators can just bang the gavel [to pass the bills],” said Aryanto Nugroho, the Indonesia advocacy manager for Publish What You Pay (PWYP), a coalition calling for financial transparency in the extractives sector.

The “new” batch of legislators, sworn in on Oct. 1, is largely the old one: nearly 60 per cent of the outgoing legislators were elected to another five-year term in office. Aryanto said this made it likelier that legislation such as the mining bill would be passed without much objection or scrutiny from within parliament.

Khalisah Khalid, the head of politics at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s biggest green NGO, criticised the apparent eagerness of both parliament and the government to push through the bills. She blamed this zeal for what she called “the worst transition period” after Indonesia’s transition to democracy in 1998, which also saw a heavy-handed government crackdown on student protesters.

“Because the parliament and the government brutally want to issue regulations that pose high risks for the environment and the public, they use violence to smoothen the road for the regulations [to be passed],” she said.

Zenzi Suhadi, the head of advocacy at Walhi, said he was concerned that the carry-over mechanism would result in more land and forest areas in Indonesia being given over to the control of companies.

He said parliament had historically tended to pass bills allowing companies to grab land from local and indigenous communities for natural resource extraction. He cited similar flurries of legislation at the tail end of parliamentary periods in 1999, 2004 and 2009.

“Those bills have resulted in 30 million hectares of Indonesia’s lands and forests” — about 74 million acres, an area the size of Italy — “being controlled by companies, which are connected to politics in Indonesia,” Zenzi said. “We’re worried about how much more of Indonesia’s lands will be given to companies with the passage of the new bills targeted by parliament.”

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