WALHI sues government over mega-project

Down to Earth No 43, November 1999

Indonesia's prominent environmental organisation is taking court action against the President, ministers and other officials involved in the disastrous plan to convert over a million hectares of peat swamp forests in Central Kalimantan into rice-fields. Meanwhile, new, more ambitious plans for plantation development in the area could lead to much more devastation.

WALHI launched its action in August this year after the million hectare mega-project - known in Indonesia as 'PLG' - was officially scrapped by the Habibie government. The organisation registered a civil suit at the central Jakarta district court against the President and nine ministers, six director-generals of institutions involved in the project and the governor of Central Kalimantan Warsito Rasman. The aim of the suit is to make the government publicly accountable for the disaster, encourage Indonesians to demand "good governance" and ensure that future projects avoid the same mistakes.

WALHI's figures highlight the scale of the mega-project's impact: 500,000 hectares of forests and productive community gardens destroyed by fire and 800,000 people worse off. 13,000 transmigrant families (around 50,000 people) face an uncertain future. The project has disrupted the hydrological function of the whole area, increased the likelihood of flooding in the wet season and drought in the dry season. "The PLG project is an example of the arrogance of power and an insult to the Indonesian people", said WALHI.

According to peat scientist and project critic Dr. Jack Rieley, "Not one fruiting head of productive rice has been grown and a landscape of one million hectares lies devastated and useless. Its rich biodiversity has gone and it lies festering in the tropical heat."


Corruption investigations

Until its cancellation, the project was estimated to have squandered around Rp 3 trillion (US $428 million). The money came from the state coffers and, on the instruction of former President Suharto, over Rp 527 billion (US $75 million) of it was channelled into the project from the Reforestation Fund - money meant to restore forests not destroy them. Now evidence is emerging about the whereabouts of much of that money.

Six senior figures involved in the project - including the former minister for Public Works Radinal Mochtar and local government officials are under investigation by the state court in Kapuas, Central Kalimantan for misappropriating Rp126 billion (US$18 million). According to a former employee of the main contractor, PT Sumatera Timur Indonesia (STI), the company paid monthly bribes to government officials in Jakarta and Kalimantan ranging between Rp 500,000 and Rp 15 million ($70 - $2,140). The court is also investigating the violation of regulations on tendering of contracts.

In July members of the Indonesian parliament in Jakarta demanded that the names of all companies involved in the PLG project should be published.


Future project will cause more damage

The project has been not been abandoned, but repackaged as an Integrated Economic Development Area (KAPET) covering the 'Kakab Watershed'. 'Kakab' is an acronym for the names of the three river watersheds that define the project area (Kapuas, Kahayan and Barito). It now covers a staggering 2.7 million hectares - far greater than the original mega-project.

All the indications are that the government has not learnt from past mistakes. The project continues to emphasise large scale commercial exploitation and fails to take the land and resource rights of indigenous communities into account. Government officials involved in the new project persist in the belief that peat swamps can be successfully and profitably converted to agricultural lands and appear to have a blind faith in technology. Minister of Public Works Rahmadi Bambang S, who also chairs the KAPET management board, said at the project launch in July: "Quite a large potential of natural resources will mean little unless there are qualified human resources with a good mastery of technology." The resource development targets include forestry, plantations, mines and tourism. State Minister for Research and Technology, Zuhal, said the peat-land area was suitable for the cultivation of "rubber, oil palm and other kinds of agro-industry". Earlier provincial Governor Warsito Rasman announced an 'open door' to investors wanting to enter the region (see DTE 42:8).

Where will these plantations be developed? According to the Jakarta government's PLG project review, 275,000 hectares of the original project area are suitable for food crop production, and 357,000 hectares for plantations. But these figures are hardly credible when it is already evident that almost all of the million hectares have already been turned into an unusable wasteland. It means that the new plantations will be developed in the 1.7 million hectares of the new KAPET area which fall outside the original project area. This huge area contains large tracts of intact peat swamp rainforests, traditionally owned and used by indigenous communities, home to orang utans and countless other species of fauna and flora.

Timber companies clearing the forest, project contractors and corrupt government officials made millions from the PLG project. If the KAPET project follows this model it too will become a screen for timber barons and their friends in the government to make quick profits as they lay waste the forests. To them, the success or otherwise of the rubber and oil palm plantations will be only of secondary importance. Much of Central Kalimantan's rainforests, including so-called "protected" areas are already being destroyed by fire and illegal logging in the climate of lawlessness which has taken hold since the fall of Suharto. What Central Kalimantan does not need now is another mega-project, even bigger and more devastating than the last.

(Sources: WALHI press statement 16/8/99, J. Rieley: Death of the Mega Rice Project! Creation of another Monster? 22/8/99; Suara Pembaruan 14/7/99; AFP 19/8/99; Kalteng Pos 16 & 17/9/99 forwarded by WALHI Kalteng; Antara 10/7/99.)