Indonesia and Down to Earth - a 50th edition editorial

Down to Earth No 50 August 2001

Please note: this editorial was prepared before the change of president. To see our statement on this change please click here.

Indonesia today faces an uncertain future. President Wahid is expected to be forced out of power any day and, under a future President Megawati Soekarnoputri, democratic reform could be stopped in its tracks. The last months have seen Wahid unable to prevent a return to the "security approach" practised so systematically during the Suharto years in the disputed territories of Aceh and West Papua. As the influence of military hardliners increases, opportunities for dialogue are being lost and yet more blood has been shed. The return to authoritarian control is a real danger for all of Indonesia, and the hard-liners could use today's half-decentralised, chaotic management of the country as an excuse to impose it.

The country is facing an ecological crisis too. Together with its international creditors, led by the IMF, the Jakarta government has proven ineffective at introducing the fundamental changes needed to manage the country's natural resources in a sustainable and equitable way. This is partly because the decision-makers in Washington and Jakarta continue to insist that the interests of big business and foreign investors remain at the heart of policy-making. Although a new breed of entrepreneurs has emerged in some parts of the country, the same practice of resource-stripping at the expense of local communities is still continuing at an alarming rate.

DTE's role

When DTE was set up in London, 1988 by Tapol, the Indonesia human rights campaign, and Survival International, the aim was to monitor news on the environment and development in Indonesia - to report on issues, like the impact of the state-sponsored transmigration programme on indigenous peoples; the World Bank-funded Kedung Ombo dam resettlement disaster; the proposed Scott Paper pulp mill in Merauke West Papua; the struggle to stop Indorayon's pulp mill poisoning the environment and taking people's land in North Sumatra.

DTE adopted as its editorial line the central tenet of "sustainable development" as conceived by the Brundtland Commission "that local communities should have a decisive voice in the formulation of policies about resource use in their areas."

The projects are different today, (although the fight against Indorayon - now renamed PT Toba Pulp Lestari - is still continuing) but the fundamental struggle of communities is the same. They demand recognition of their rights over lands and resources and the right to say "no" when a new project is planned for their areas. This basic right of veto is still being denied (see for example reports on Tangguh and CDC) or is being circumvented by deceit and bribery (see Siberut).

Alongside Indonesian communities and NGOs, DTE has campaigned for the recognition of community resource rights. Since 1995 we have had full-time campaigner whose work covers a broad range of issues related to forests, mining, land and community resource rights. More recently, concern about the growing influence of the international financial institutions on political decision-making in Indonesian prompted us to start DTE's IFIs information project which published updates and factsheets on the activities of the IMF, the World Bank and the ADB in Indonesia. The DTE website and translation into Bahasa Indonesia of many articles and publications is another important recent addition which enables the newsletter to reach a wider audience. From one part-time worker at the outset, our team has expanded to eight people spread around various parts of the globe, including translators, campaigner, IFIs worker, co-ordinator, email manager and web site maintenance assistant.

Twelve years ago, producing the newsletter was somewhat easier than it is today: relatively few environmental issues were reported in the Indonesian press and our contacts with NGOs were only just beginning. The flow of information - mostly by normal mail, with the odd fax thrown in - was slow and low volume. Today, we are, like most NGOs, flooded with information from a host of sources and the difficulty now is to sift through this and make decisions about which of the many pressing issues we should prioritise.

The level of activity and the fertile exchange of views is a testament to the resilience and persistence of Indonesian civil society organisations. During the Suharto era they fought to expose damaging projects despite the threat of closure under strict censorship rules. Demonstrators from communities, student groups and NGOs faced armed military or riot police - many times with fatal consequences. Thanks to their efforts, businesses, IFIs and policy-makers are being forced to make concessions. Although the right to veto has still not been affirmed, there is now a general recognition of the need - on paper at least - for some kind of community participation in decision-making about projects. The real question now is whether these achievements can be translated into effective action on the ground so that they can help heal the enormous wounds inflicted on Indonesia's environment and body politic. And whether the movement for social and environmental justice can withstand the coming backlash and evolve into a major force in shaping Indonesia's future.