WALHI and regional autonomy

Down to Earth No. 48 February 2001

WALHI, Indonesia's leading environmental organisation, offers a critique of the regional autonomy process and recommendations for change in its annual "Environmental Outlook" paper, circulated in January.

WALHI is concerned that regional autonomy is being implemented without the necessary level of democratisation required to safeguard the interests and rights of the majority of the population and to protect the environment. Political decisions taken by regional heads are not subject to adequate public control, so that regional autonomy is becoming "autonomy for bupatis" (district heads) rather than empowering people.

WALHI predicts that the pressure to raise revenues locally will lead to increased exploitation of natural resources with severe consequences for the environment. It points to cases where interventions by bupatis or governors have led to negative consequences for the environment and local communities (Kelian mine's dispute with indigenous landowners represented by LKMTL - see DTE 47; the Moronene evictions from Rawa Aopa Watumohai National Park and the Meru Betiri mining concession scandal - see separate items, this issue.) WALHI links these with a return to the oppressive methods of community control used during Suharto's 'New Order' regime.

WALHI is critical of the focus of the government's regional autonomy efforts at the district (Kabupaten) level, arguing that management of large areas like watersheds will be made more difficult and that capacity to deal with cross-border problems such as forest fires, will be limited. Autonomy at district level may also encourage inter-clan rivalry and disputes. Also, since civil society movements are mostly concentrated in large cities, the capacity for democratic control over district government decision-making will be minimal. The document predicts that growth in the plantations sector, encouraged by easier access to conversion forest by investors through regional control, will mean that more forest fires can be expected in the coming year. The division of marine and coastal waters according to district also means that the likelihood of conflict between communities in different districts is greater as each seeks to protect its own resources from 'outsiders'. This represents an additional pressure for coastal communities, already at an overwhelming disadvantage from large scale commercial fisheries using industrial fishing equipment. WALHI cites a case in East Java where "horizontal" conflict between fishing communities has already occurred.

WALHI's environmental outlook also contains a critique of regional autonomy law No 25/1999 and lists recommendations for changes in government policy but also within civil society. These include:

  • Changing the focus of authority from district to provincial level to avoid the creation of 'raja kecil' (officials who behave like petty kings ), clan rivalry and to allow for better co-ordination of ecosystems and bioecoregions;
  • Changing to a district system of direct elections for governors, bupatis and mayors, requiring the revision of the electoral law;
  • Changing the environmental law, and introduction of a natural resources law to overcome the damaging sectoral approach to natural resources management;
  • Changes to the investment law to ensure transparency and open public access to information. All licences should be subject to public approval, with communities having the right to veto projects which affect them negatively;
  • Consistency among officials on aspirations for reform in the regions and a firm commitment to human rights, environmental law, democratisation, women's and workers' rights, which should be included in a revised autonomy law.

On civil society WALHI recommends:

  • That people organise to control and monitor the policies of regional executive and legislature;
  • They must be more forthright in questioning all policies which are against their interests;
  • People must be capable of managing the environment and natural resources based on their expertise or sustainable use patterns, which don't discriminate against other ethnic or religious groups;
  • Democracy, gender equality, human rights and refusal of discrimination on grounds of ethnic or religious group must be developed as basic principles of peoples'organisations, including indigenous peoples.

(WALHI: Prediksi Lingkungan Tahun 2001, Menyelamatkan anak-anak Indonesia)