Regional autonomy, communities and natural resources

Down to Earth No. 46, August 2000

In this time of great economic, political and ecological uncertainty in Indonesia, regional autonomy is just one of the big question marks hanging over the country's future. It is a particularly complex issue because it concerns much more than the devolution of authority from Jakarta to regional level. Regional autonomy is also about the development of local democracy; it involves major changes in the way Indonesia's crisis-hit economy is handled; and it raises fundamental questions about the future direction and shape of Indonesia as a democratic state.

The financial crisis which precipitated the downfall of Suharto has endured, despite - or perhaps because of - IMF-led interventions. The economy remains in tatters and the burden of Indonesia's massive national debt has been exposed. Less than ten months in office, the democratically elected government of President Abdurrahman Wahid is now seen as weak and splintered with a patchy record on reform. The bloody conflict in Maluku continues to claim hundreds of lives. Aceh and West Papua are pressing hard for independence. The ecological crisis is deepening as legal and illegal logging tear down huge areas of forests leaving forest fires to do the rest. Indonesia's poor - marginalised by three decades of Suharto's rule - have been impoverished further by the economic collapse and the accelerated destruction of their resources.

What impact will the government's decentralisation measures have on this complexity of urgent but seemingly intractable problems?

Regional autonomy has been held up by government ministers as a panacea for political unrest. It has been promised as an antidote to the highly centralised political and financial structure used by former president Suharto to profit from Indonesia's resources and deprive communities of their livelihoods. But it has also been dismissed as a cynical attempt by central government to dupe the population into believing that it is ready to share power, when in reality it is reluctant to relinquish any. How far any (or all) of these views are valid will not become clear for many months - and possibly years.

After the downfall of Suharto, President Habibie's interim regime passed new legislation in 1999 giving greater financial and decision-making powers to local government. This was, in part, a knee-jerk reaction to decades of oppressive and corrupt centralistic control. The demand for democracy and reform had to be acknowledged if the social unrest which characterised the last months of the Suharto era were to be curbed. Further pressure for political reform came from the resource-rich regions which were bitterly resentful of the way their natural wealth had been stripped to line the pockets of the Suharto clique. At the same time, Indonesia's prolonged financial crisis was a powerful economic incentive to decentralisation - offloading the costs of the country's massive bureaucracy (which Jakarta could no longer pay for) onto local administrations.

The public debate on the future shape of Indonesia as a nation state has not yet taken place. The months immediately after Suharto's demise were characterised by euphoria followed by intense political wrangling and uncertainty. Strengthened demands for independence in Aceh and West Papua were joined by calls for a federal system from Riau, Maluku, North Sulawesi and East Kalimantan. Rather than addressing the issue of federation openly, Habibie sought to avoid it by promising more local autonomy. Exactly what was on offer was never made clear: decentralisation of administration or devolution of power. Along with many other pieces of new legislation, the new laws on autonomy were quietly pushed through in the last months before June 1999 elections - the first democratic vote for over 30 years.

The result is that the regional autonomy legislation is deeply flawed. It fudges important questions about the degree of central and local power and responsibility, particularly over decision-making and natural resources. The situation has been further confused by the operating regulations which followed the laws, because instead of spelling our how the laws operate in practice, these shift the balance of power back towards the centre. So now, all kinds of actors on Indonesia's political stage are trying to interpret the implementation of Laws 22 and 25 to best suit their own roles. In short, this is a highly complex and politically explosive mixture.

For President Wahid, the main purpose in continuing the regional autonomy project he inherited from the Habibie government is to prevent the disintegration of Indonesia. Wahid has blamed most of the country's problems on the centralised system of the past and sees the need for "full autonomy" in the regions. Last year he told a mass meeting of Indonesian Democracy Party of Struggle "Whatever happens, this country should never be allowed to break up. There should be no (region) breaking away, and we should remain united." (AFP 27/Jan/00)

But these efforts to "save" a unitary Indonesia have already been rejected by independence movements in Aceh and West Papua. In June, leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the Free Papua Organisation (OPM) were joined by the self-proclaimed Republic of the South Moluccas (RMS) in announcing their co-operation in the struggle for independence. "Our common aim is independence, autonomy is an obsolete stage," said GAM official Zaini Abdullah (AFP 30/June/00). Here, then, regional autonomy has been dismissed as an irrelevance.


Indigenous and rural communities

For many other regions, the question of regional autonomy is of huge importance. Decentralisation of control, if it goes ahead in any real sense, will have a profound impact on the lives of indigenous peoples and rural communities and on the way Indonesia's natural resources are managed. For local communities and the forest, land, freshwater and marine resources they depend upon, regional autonomy will succeed or fail according to whether or not it can help stem the tide of destruction now engulfing many parts of Indonesia.

Many Indonesian peoples' organisations and NGOs believe that the real test will be in the strength of local-level democracy - how quickly and how far local communities can ensure that they take a full part in decision-making over natural resources management and protection.

Ideally, success would mean democratic control over decision-making, effective law enforcement and clean and transparent local government. It would mean the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of the whole community present and future.

On the other hand, failure, at its worst, could see the transfer of power to regional power centres whose leaders behave like petty despots and who merely duplicate at regional level the Suharto-era practices of resource plunder for maximum personal gain. Or - if central government continues to insist on retaining most control - the result will probably be more of the same social injustice and environmental abuse that has associated with the concentration of power in Jakarta until now. This would lead to further explosions of social unrest and greater political instability.

This special issue of the Down to Earth newsletter attempts to draw together some of the main issues concerning regional autonomy, local communities and natural resource management, set in the wider economic and political context. It aims to highlight some of the impacts and implications - both positive and negative - and to present some of the criticisms, experiences and recommendations of Indonesian and international organisations involved in the regional autonomy process.

We hope that this report will provide a useful contribution to current debates about regional autonomy in Indonesia. We also hope that it supports our Indonesian colleagues in their efforts to promote sustainable community-based resource management and local democracy.