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Steps Towards Environmental Sustainability in Indonesia

An interview with

Indonesia is both—worst affected by the annual fires and haze in Southeast Asia, and at the forefront of attempts to address this multi-faceted challenge which has grave consequences for the environment and on the lives of people living in the region.

BRINK Asia spoke with Mr. Tjokorda Nirarta Koni Samadhi, the Indonesia country director for the World Resources Institute (WRI), on the steps being taken by the country to tackle age old practices that are harming the environment, some successes on the journey to more sustainable agricultural practices, and areas in which the various involved stakeholders need to come together and do more.

BRINK Asia: One of the things that is often talked about is the lack of effective governance across ASEAN when it comes to environmental concerns. Do you think positive steps are being taken or things remains to be done in that area so that countries in the region can work together?

Mr. Tjokorda Nirarta Koni Samadhi: I will emphasize on Indonesia, as that is the area I know best. In Indonesia, I would say that improvement is being made, but there is still room for a lot more than we are currently seeing. On the one hand, the government is aware of problems associated with the destruction of peatland because of fires, and is willing to revoke the concessions.* That is a good thing, but on the other hand, the government seems to limit the level of transparency and information-sharing that is actually mandated by existing laws. If we’d like to be progressive in handling concessions that are endangering the environment, we need transparency to allow stakeholders to monitor. The private sector, for instance, needs to provide such information and clarification such as accurate concessions data as well as information on concessions’ utilization plan. This will enable the government to set policies for the private sector and check if the concessions are being utilized according to the original plan, particularly because the private sector has been partially responsible for the damage to the environment. As such, I’d say that while there is progress, it is being hampered because the government hasn’t championed transparency enough.

At WRI, we are trying to find initiatives to bring more information out in the public domain, with the hope that such information can empower communities at all levels to collectively contribute to the protection of our environment. Without a checking mechanism from public, good governance could be hard to achieve and the business landscape would fail to change. However, achieving transparency is a tough challenge. We have to obtain information legally to be able to share it with the public, but no one is obliged to disclose information to us. Hence, while there is improvement, it is not big enough to the extent that it can change the landscape of business.

BRINK Asia: You say that there needs to be more information-sharing to ensure that all stakeholders have more information. Can you talk specifically about what kind of information?

Mr. Koni: The government has tried to be stricter towards concession-holders, but some concessions are still managed against government guidelines. That is the information we all should have access to. Who owns these concessions? What are the boundaries of the concessions? Are there communities living in the area without any concession? Is there any plan that can be shared with regards to utilization of the concessions? The government has access to this information, which is not confidential in nature—so it is important to put this out in the public domain so that people can start helping and supporting the process. Letting information out would of course raise questions, such as the reasons behind the issuance of some licenses in areas where communities have already resided for two or three generations, knowing their lives could be disrupted. But we still need to know such information.

‘To be progressive in handling concessions that are endangering the environment, we need transparency.’

Here’s another example. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is committed to having information on the concessions in a format they could control, to measure the high conservation value and to monitor change within the concessions and so on. But within the RSPO itself, some members are not willing to share information because perhaps they haven’t complied with the stipulated procedures when securing the concessions. Based on our existing regulations, the government is not allowed to share concessions-related information, but the company is allowed to do so. Certain companies take benefit of the law that prohibits the government from sharing this information.

So, we see that even within the industry, and even within an organization such as RSPO that is championing transparency, there are still challenges. That is why we’re trying to push for transparency as much as possible, so that every civilian can make informed decisions about land, and in this case, concessions.

BRINK Asia: There has been a lot of talk about how over the past three or four years businesses have taken several initiatives focused on sustainability. Is there, in your opinion, real change on the ground in terms of how businesses are approaching the problem?

Mr. Koni: Yes, there is. Take for example, the Tropical Forest Alliance and the Consumer Goods Forum. These initiatives come from the global private sector to ensure that their supply chains are sustainable. But those initiatives are championed at the executive level. Truth is, the supply chain is long and it is such a complex process. As a result, even those who have good intentions cannot oversee what is happening along the supply chain. Even if they have a preferred buying scheme or are willing to pay a premium price, it does not necessarily translate well in the process.

To achieve real change, we need a full understanding of the cycle so that we can make interventions at any points within the supply chain. There is a thought process now within the industry, thinktanks and civil society organizations—to combine the climate economy and sustainable business practices, which is being referred to as the new food and land use economy. In this scheme, the private sector goes beyond collecting and providing funds for use, for example, by civil society organizations or think tanks to conduct studies. The private sector would like to use this to leverage change in the supply chains in a more integrated way. They are bringing in academics, thinktanks, government representatives and civil society organizations to the table to come up with an integrated effort to make changes in the supply chain. This process started recently through a big workshop on the New Climate Economy in London.

BRINK Asia: For a long time now, the perception outside of Indonesia has been that businesses that many hold responsible for the haze and the fire are not scared of the ramifications of their actions and they feel they cannot be held accountable. Is that changing or do you agree with that assessment? 

Mr. Koni: Not entirely. Things have changed. There are some companies that have been brought to the court and have been fined in Indonesia. But as you would probably predict, these cases were selective. For some, not much has changed, because those concessions are tied very closely to various vested interests, which complicate the law enforcement process. You need to have strong leadership to resolve this issue. And to the best of my limited knowledge, this administration shows the potential to do more because the companies have no leverage with the current administration.

* Concessions provide the framework for commercial logging in Indonesia. They refer to the award of licenses in primary natural forests and peatlands by the government to companies or cooperatives to commercially tap forest resources spanning certain tracts of land, typically in the form of leases.

Tjokorda Nirarta Koni Samadhi

Country Director, Indonesia for the World Resources Institute

Tjokorda Nirarta Koni Samadhi, is the Indonesia country director for the World Resources Institute.

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