Indonesian candidates find common ground in support for palm oil

Environmental activists have criticised Indonesia’s two presidential candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, for not addressing the negative aspects of palm oil production, which both are pushing as a feedstock for biodiesel.

joko widodo
Incumbent Indonesian president Joko Widodo and his opponent Prabowo Subianto have both pledged to increase the production and consumption of palm oil should they win the April 17 election. Image: uyeah, CC BY-SA 2.0 via IFPRI Flickr

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his challenger in this year’s election, Prabowo Subianto, have both vowed to increase the use of palm oil in biofuels to achieve energy self-sufficiency.

The pledges came during the pair’s second presidential debate, held on Feb. 17, where the themes included the environment, energy and infrastructure. Nearly 200 million people are eligible to vote in the April 17 election, a repeat of the 2014 poll, when Widodo defeated Prabowo by a narrow margin.

Under Widodo, Indonesia, the world’s biggest producer of palm oil, has pushed for greater use of palm oil feedstock in diesel. The diesel currently available at the pump contains a 20 per cent blend of this biodiesel, and the government wants to increase it to 30 per cent, or B30, by 2020. The move is aimed at increasing domestic consumption of palm oil, which is largely exported at present, as well as slashing fuel imports and thereby narrow the current-account gap.

During the debate, Widodo said he was ultimately aiming for 100 per cent biodiesel, or B100, from palm oil feedstock. “The plan is clear, so that we can reduce our dependence on imported oil,” he said.

Prabowo also said he planned, if elected, to boost the use of palm oil in diesel, as well as develop ethanol fuels from palm sugar, cassava and sugarcane.

“Palm oil is an important commodity, and it has potentials for biodiesel and biofuel [sic],” he said. “We want to use palm oil as an option for our fuel resources, because soon enough we will be a net importer of oil fuel, even though we [produce a high quantity] of palm oil.”

Prabowo said he would want to enlarge the proportion of smallholders’ share of the country’s palm plantations, which stands at about 40 per cent of the 120,000 square kilometres of planted palm estates, according to government data. But there’s a high degree of uncertainty over just how much land smallholders actually control.

Prabowo didn’t elaborate at the debate about how he would achieve his plan, although his published platform includes a program to restore 880,000 square kilometres (340,000 square miles) of “damaged” forests and lands — an area double the size of California — by converting them into industrial forests (typically for pulpwood and timber), restored forests, and food-plant forests.

The candidates’ statements came in response to a question about how they would reform the domestic palm oil industry, which has been plagued by environmental issues and conflicts with small-scale farmers.

Environmental activists and experts have criticised both candidates for not addressing the negative aspects of biofuels made from palm oil or other agricultural feedstock, whose cultivation is a major driver of deforestation, whether in Indonesia or other countries.

“They appear to have this idea that switching from fossil fuel to biofuel is good enough for the environment,” Andika Putraditama, a sustainable commodities and business manager at World Resources International (WRI) Indonesia, an environmental think tank, told Mongabay.

“But in the biofuel mix you’ve got palm oil, which has a high carbon footprint,” he said.

Arie Rompas, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia, said the issue of using palm oil feedstock for biofuel was already a controversial issue for other countries. The European Union, most notably, has committed to phasing out all palm-based motor fuels from its market by 2030 under its Renewable Energy Directive. In 2017, Norway voted to ban its government from purchasing palm-based fuels.

A 2018 report from the Rainforest Foundation Norway projected that global demand for palm oil-based biofuel by 2030 would be six times higher than today if current trends held, leading to a surge in deforestation that would clear 45,000 square kilometers in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s two biggest producers of palm oil.

Rompas said the Indonesian presidential candidates, in their stance toward palm oil, were too heavily focused on the voter-pleasing aspect of economic gain from increased biofuel production, while “ignoring the environmental and social impacts.”

Merah Johansyah, the executive director of Jatam, an NGO that monitors the mining industry in Indonesia, called the emphasis on biofuel “a fake solution” to the country’s dependence to fossil fuels, particularly given how the industry benefits just a handful of major corporations.

“The business approach to biofuel is still the same as that of fossil fuel: massive, industrial and prone to corruption,” he told Mongabay. He cited the example of the Arsari Group, a conglomerate that, in 2017, struck a deal to develop biofuel in Indonesia using ethanol from sugarcane. The group is owned by Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo’s younger brother.

Ahead of the debate, Jatam published an exposé that looked into the sources of funding for the two candidates’ campaigns. Much of the donations were found to come from companies or individuals with deep interests in mining, energy and plantations.

Law enforcement

Besides their shared commitment to greater pal oil production, both Prabowo and Widodo also pledged stronger law enforcement against forestry crimes and pollution.

Since he took office in 2014, Widodo said, the government has won court rulings against 11 companies for burning land. The punitive judgments in those cases amount to 18.3 trillion rupiah ($1.3 billion) in fines. Widodo also said Indonesia hadn’t experienced any forest or peatland fires in the past three years.

The first claim was misleading: while the court rulings are indeed final, the government still hasn’t collected a single rupiah from any of the companies. The second claim is outright false. Fires have been reported every year since the massive blazes of 2015 in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo, including hotspots last year that threatened to disrupt Indonesia’s hosting of the Asian Games.

“Jokowi oversold his achievements,” said Nur Hidayati, the national director of the Indonesia Forum for the Environment (Walhi), who was one of the experts tasked with drawing up the questions for the debate. “Prabowo could easily have countered, yet he didn’t, maybe because he doesn’t really have an environmental perspective.”

Prabowo’s take on environmental action, instead, was to promise a crackdown on public officials carrying out backdoor deals with private firms, enabling environmental destruction and pollution on a massive scale.

“Many big companies, multinational companies, think they’re above Indonesian laws and they can do whatever they please,” he said. “Whoever is elected, we must be more stringent against environmental polluters, those who don’t comply with the regulations.”

But despite these promises to impose stricter law enforcement, neither candidate had a plan to implement preventive measures, said WRI’s Andika. He said greater transparency in government data on natural resources was an important issue that neither candidate broached.

“Transparency is key in ensuring that environmental crimes won’t happen again,” Andika said. “There was talks about digitalisation, but neither of the candidates used it to talk about improving transparency.”

Land ownership

One of the most talked-about points in the debate stemmed from an exchange about land ownership issues in Indonesia. Widodo said his administration had never given out massive concessions to big companies, and had instead returned control of millions of hectares of land to the people, including customary forests to indigenous communities.

He then noted that Prabowo retained control over a combined 340,000 hectares (3,400 square kilometers, or 1,310 square miles) of land in the provinces of East Kalimantan and Aceh.

Irwandi Yusuf, the suspended governor of Aceh who is currently in detention on corruption charges, confirmed the day after the debate that Prabowo controlled a concession in the province through a pine-logging company, PT Tusam Hutani Lestari, according to local media.

During the debate, Prabowo acknowledged his ownership of the concessions, saying he held them under right-to-cultivate permits for plantation and farming, known as HGU permits.

“These lands still belong to the state, and if the state asks for them to be returned at any time, I’ll do it wholeheartedly,” he said. “It’s better that I control these lands instead of letting them fall into the hands of foreigners, because I’m a nationalist, a patriot.”

Prabowo also said Indonesia’s “land and water, and the resources within” must be controlled by the government. “We believe that the government must be present thoroughly, firmly and actively to correct inequalities in welfare,” he said.

For Walhi’s Nur Hidayati, the candidates should have explicitly guaranteed that their administrations would not be tainted by business interests, including plantations and mining.

“It was bold of Widodo to bring up Prabowo’s landbank,” Nur said. “However, though Widodo may not have a direct interest in land concessions for plantations or extractive industries, some of his current ministers and supporters do.

“There must be a real effort from both candidates to clean up Indonesia from land ownership by the elites,” she added.

Activists were further disappointed by the candidates’ failure to elaborate on how they would tackle the issue of climate change.

“Indonesia’s commitment to reduce emissions will never be achieved if the development strategy is still based on fossil fuels and expanding biofuels, which results in massive land clearing,” Leonard Simanjuntak, the head of Greenpeace Indonesia, in a statement.

Indonesia has vowed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 29 per cent by 2030 (or 41 per cent with international assistance). The country has also been approved for its first carbon payment from a $1 billion fund committed by Norway under the REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) scheme.

“The candidates now are being very nationalistic, to the extent that they can’t come up with a narrative of how Indonesia’s achievements in climate mitigation would benefit global efforts,” WRI’s Andika said.

He said Indonesia needed a path for economic growth with an eco-friendly orientation, but that neither of the candidates had shown they had a blueprint for that kind of development over the next five years.

“Their answers were very narrow, and there wasn’t any emphasis from either candidate on a development strategy that’s in line with environmental and human rights protections,” Andika said.

Jatam’s Merah called for a reform of Indonesia’s political and electoral systems to get rid of what he called the influence of oligarchs.

“If the systems stay the same, then whoever enters the race will be controlled by big parties that need a lot of money, which is eventually sourced from mining businesses,” Merah said.

“The election’s already over, and the winners are the mining and coal oligarchs.”

This story was published with permission from


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