PSPD in English Archive 2000-10-31   1857

Walhi, the Guard of the Environment in Indonesia

Walhi, the Guard of the Environment in Indonesia
Correspondent of Hankyoreh21 in Indonesia Kim, So-Yeon 

Profiles of Indonesian Civic Groups in Action

The advent of civic groups in Indonesia and their growth can be explained along with the ebb and flow of the former dictator of the country, Suharto. He made his presence felt publicly on September 30, 1965 right after he successfully suppressed the coup attempt by the Communist Party. During his tenure, he accomplished economic progress for the poverty-stricken nation under a 5-year economic project, dubbing his cabinet Cabinet Under Development. He stabilized political conditions as well.

The 1970s can be defined as a period of securing power under the guise of economic development and political stabilization. Suharto ended up oppressing the people. He organized Golkar, his own political power base, restructured the opposition parties, and regulated any kind of anti-government civic groups. Still, many other Indonesian civic groups appeared. But within the limited scope of political movements, these groups were eradicated long before they could achieve social reform. Political oppression prohibited them from making a difference in society. Their roles were confined to such social movements as enlightening farmers and offering medical or welfare services for citizens.

In the 1980s, the country’s civic groups played a more active role and moved closer to the true ideals for which they were formed. It became more and more obvious that Suharto, his family, and his circle of favored people were involved in corruption, including embezzlement, and monopoly. Yet no opposition parties or groups dared to challenge Suharto, since the opposition groups were actually puppets of the incumbent power and they could survive only under government regulation. In fact, there were no opposition parties in Indonesia. Accordingly, student activists organized civic groups to address social issues. They resolved to remain independent of the established political power. Energetic action in the environmental movement (and particularly, in the Green Party, which had drawn international attention) might have been good role models for the Indonesian social activists. Amid such political tensions, Walhi, one of the country’s major environmental activist groups, emerged. But the notorious long-term dictator Suharto totally barred the civic groups from achieving their goals.

The situation continued until the mid-1990s, when all kinds of anti-government groups were mercilessly oppressed. For instance, Tempo, the 20-year-old progressive magazine of the country, which was published by student activists of 1970s, was forcibly shut down. The pressure on civic groups suffocated them so much that no one could even dream of resisting such political power. To boost their strength, these civic groups’ established a wide network with other NGOs in the country and in the rest of the world.

Consequently, the world has come to know the problems of the country, thanks to these civic groups initiatives. In 1998, Suharto was forced to step down. Indonesia’s civic groups could finally enjoy the reform fever and regained their freedom from the shadow of the dictator. National mass media put the spotlight on the civic groups, which expressed firm opinions on social matters. The groups voiced out its views and actions by solidifying cooperation with other NGOs. Since the fall of Suharto, Indonesia has seen an unprecedented rise in the number of civic groups, such as ICW(Indonesian Corruption Watch), ensuring people’s political and social empowerment.

Please give us a background on Walhi’s history and current activities.

Since the 1970s, Indonesian civic groups have been organizing themselves for more public roles. PUBI (an Indonesian family planning association), BINA SWADAYA (a social welfare group), and BINA DESA (a consumer protection organization) seem to have been the first generation in the brief history of civic groups of the country. But these groups could not perform their roles as true civic groups under the pressure of the government. Walhi, the biggest group of all, was born in the 1980s when many other groups appeared, disappeared, or grew. It has 411 branch offices around the country, including 22 regional centers. Branch offices have been established in each state and district. These offices work autonomously while the head office serves as an office bureau. A general meeting is held every three years. The president of the group is elected through direct voting.

Walhi was originally organized as a coalition of 10 student groups, which shared a common view of the importance of environmental matters and tried to raise people’s awareness of these. They aimed to influence government policy starting in 1985, when they recognized that the environmental issue could not be separated from current political matters. Such issues as the evacuation of indigenous people living in forests and logging rights are closely related to government policies. Since 1997, the group has focused on heightening citizens’ political awareness. The governments export-driven economic policy has encouraged the exploitation of natural resources and led to today’s economic crisis. Thus, we have earnestly kept our vision of reform and democratic progress as well as environment protection.

Tell me more specifically how environmental issues are related to government policy.

Environmental issues and political corruption are very much connected in this country. This means that the environmental issues are directly controlled by the political power. As you know, Indonesia is abundant with forests and other natural resources, such as natural gas, oil, timber, various sorts of mines, and wide coasts. Since the country’s progress depends so much on the preservation of its natural sources, it is vital that environmental groups continue to exist in Indonesia. The most dynamic activities of these civic groups aim at protecting the environment. Using development as an excuse, a handful of well-connected business-political networks have plundered the whole Indonesian territory. International environmental organizations have warned against the serious issue of denuded forests. Worse, the environment is being destroyed with total disregard for the rights of indigenous forest-dwelling communities. These peoples’ way of life has been sustained in their traditional setting, so they cannot survive out of the forests. Reckless development threatens to destroy their living grounds.

All over the country, politically charged environmental conflicts have erupted. Recently, there was racial trouble in the region of Sambas, Kalimantan, which apparently attests to the serious effects of devastated forests. Similar issues have rocked another region, Irian Jaya. Underlying all these troubles are power and corruption, since any kind of rights to pursue business interests, in mining and exploiting, for example, cannot be exerted without the permission of the government. The final battleground for the environmental groups is the political field. Thus, these groups do not limit their activities to merely environmental matters. Questioning the political logic that skirts the issue of environmental destruction, Indonesian environmental groups implement various activities ranging from political issues to social ones.

[Related civic groups include: Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (Walhi), Dana Mitra Lingkungan, Lembaga Alam Tropika Indonesia, Lembaga Pengembangan Sumberdaya Manusia, Yayasan Wisnu, and others. ]

How does the campaign against the foreign debt led by Walhi work?

(Walhi serves as the central bureau of the campaign.)

I have heard that Korean CAGE 2000 (The Civil Action for the 2000 General Election) led a successful rejection campaign against corrupt candidates. We also launched a campaign against the foreign debt with the support of many civic groups, but our movement has yet to make a strong impact on the public and mass media.

The economic crisis in Indonesia was caused by the development-oriented economic view. The prices of exported goods such as agricultural products have dropped, but we cannot do anything but keep selling our products to other countries. To pay back our foreign loan, which has reached 150 billion dollars, we have no choice but to sell out our natural resources until they are drained away. Consequently, the matter of foreign debt is closely related to the environmental problem. We go through endless rounds of incurring new debt to pay back the old one. So the core activity of this campaign runs against the new debt and calls for cutting back on the current one. For what does the world lend the money to Indonesia? The World Bank itself revealed that so much money offered to Indonesia had been the result of or had been used for embezzlement and corruption. The World Bank is partially responsible for this corrupt system, since it had already known this situation and still lent the money. About 30% of the financial aid given to the Indonesian people goes back to the payment of the nations foreign debt. Much of the governments budget is also used for loan repayment. All kinds of the government subsidy for public welfare services have been cut back. So this campaign directly fights for the interests and rights of the people. Up to 200 organizations, including those of farmers, students, and indigenous people, have joined the campaign.

Street parades, posters, stickers, and newsletters are all part of our attempt to get more support from the public. In addition, we will try to hold public hearings and workshops with experts. We want to raise public awareness through media. Through lobbying activities, we will push the government for reforms.

But the road to reform is not easy. As we experienced last year, only with the rumors that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank would delay raising the debt, troubles in the exchange market of the country immediately affected domestic business. Under these circumstances, with too many sensitive matters left unresolved, the new government might well be disinclined to approve of the campaign. The government will probably be more interested in pleasing organizations like the IMF or World Bank. It might take some time for the campaign to get on the right track. But Indonesia, half of which is still poverty-ridden, cannot expect a bright future unless the burden of foreign debt is lifted.

What is the Freefort-related trouble all about?

Freefort is a company that develops and exports the gold, silver and copper mines from the Irian Jaya area. It is the first foreign capital firm in the country that reflects various types of corruption, embezzlement, and environment destruction. By looking at the Freefort case, we can figure out the relationship between environmental issues and the political links that plague Indonesia today.

From the time it was launched, Freefort was beset with potential troubles. On March 27, 1967, the Indonesian government and Freefort signed an agreement to hand over the rights of exploiting a part of Indonesian territory. This happened just 15 days after March 12, the day Suharto rose to power. By suppressing the 9.30 affaire, Suharto became a top-ranking leader. On that day, Suharto was given executive authority by the former president Sukarno. He was elected as the Acting President through an irregular general meeting of the National Conference. Considering that the 9.30 affaire was a communist coup attempt and that the Indonesian economic development project was a pro-West policy for drawing foreign equity, Suharto? business interests and political clout might have been instrumental in the unprecedented contract conditions with Freefort, an American corporation. Mr. Yohannes Simblon, a reporter of Jakarta Post, said that Freefort had recorded a surplus under the IMF bailout period. He bluntly stated that Freefort is a company that will never lose money.

In short, all kinds of corruption-related exploitation of natural resources ruin the environment, and Freefort is a typical case. All natural resources belong to the nation according to the Indonesian national law. Thus, the people? rights were surrendered to the power-holders and entrepreneurs who were in collusion. For instance, the recommended timber quantity for logging is limited to 35 million cubic meter but the actual number reaches 77 million cubic. You can imagine how seriously the forest has been devastated. The Freefort case is one of the many examples of how Indonesian property is being given away to foreign countries. No less than seven mountains have disappeared since Freefort exploited the area. While the recommended daily average of timber products is 120,000 tons, the actual amount reaches 300,000 tons. Despite obligatory tree-planting, about 2.4 million hectares of our forests remain denuded.

Waste stones thrown away by those exploiting the mines have weighed 2.7 billion tons. Water was polluted, forests were destroyed, and the indigenous life of the society was disrupted. For the past 30 years, the voice of the native Irian Jaya people has not been heard. Their rights have been violated, and they were made to work as slaves.

Freefort has not encountered any problem in sustaining its business. It gets political support, even though it has long been a target of environmental groups. But it can no longer resist the mainstream of public opposition, especially with the pressure of environmental reports and democratization. The people of Irian Jaya themselves have strongly appealed to change the contract, and they intend to participate in the whole process of the development.

Lawmakers, the press and public opinion have all clamored for changing the contract. But Henry Kissinger, the executive director of Freefort, visited Jakarta last February and insisted on maintaining the contracts conditions as had been agreed the last time he met with the president Goose Dure. He reconfirmed that there would be no amendment. This is absurd. As the territory of Irian Jaya did not belong to Indonesia when the contract was signed, this agreement is not valid. How can the contract be effective when it was made in a territory to which the parties involved had no right? Why do we have to take responsibility for a contract which was made by a dictator? Even the contracts article no. 20 affirms that the covenant can be terminated if, after sufficient warning and a waiting period of 180 days of obligatory implementation, the obligatory provisions in the clauses were not properly performed. Recently public opinions are being gathered to change the contract and even the Congress has pressed the government for amendments. Henry Kissinger is ignoring the democratic process in Indonesia by abusing the diplomatic power. Therefore, the only way to solve these problems is to set up a clean government and strong civil society.

PSPD (People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy) has emphasized and repeated the need for uniting civic groups in Asia.

What do you think of this idea?

The solidarity of civic groups in Asia is very important, but for me, uniting the South and the North is most urgent. The countries in the northern hemisphere seem to have been dominating the other half of the world. It seems like a process of recolonization until now. In particular, it is also urgent and indispensable to work hand in hand with Africa and Latin America to overcome the unjust situation under the control of the IMF, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank. This problem should be solved immediately. However, what is depressing is that even the solidarity with the countries in Southeast Asia is not implemented properly. Solidifying our networks within our country might be helpful to secure more support.

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