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Widodo Puts Islam Front and Center Ahead of Polls



Indonesian leader’s running mate Islamic cleric has neutralized an extremist threat to his campaign, though critics say to the detriment of issues more crucial to voters

To no one’s surprise, conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin, the 75-year-old running mate forced on President Joko Widodo at the nomination deadline, is proving to be little more than a passenger as Indonesia edges toward simultaneous legislative and presidential elections in April.

Amin is likely to be even more so if Widodo is re-elected, although minorities fret over what influence he might try to bring to bear on such issues as the potentially disastrous Halal Bill – or worse, if something ever happens to a seemingly healthy president.

In the end, analysts may argue that although Amin won’t likely win Widodo any more votes, he at least has arrested a threatened deterioration in support among the conservative Islamic community, which drove the president to seek a running mate with religious credentials in the first place.

For some, Amin has already served his purpose by dividing the so-called 212 Movement, the conservative coalition which brought down Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama in early 2017 and which had set its extremist sights on Widodo as well.

Amin helped found the protest movement, then saying its job was done after Purnama was jailed for blasphemy, he walked away. He now claims to regret sending the popular governor to prison, explaining in self-serving piety that the law was simply following its course.

Dr Ma'ruf Amin, the running mate of President Joko Widodo in the upcoming election in Indonesia. He is chairman of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) and former supreme leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world's biggest Muslim organisation.

Ma’ruf Amin in an October 18, 2018 file photo. Photo: AFP Forum

For all that, the 212 Movement already appeared to be disintegrating, initially losing hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab, who fled into self-exile in Saudi Arabia in mid-2017 to avoid criminal charges he claimed were politically-inspired.

Even spokesman Kapitra Ampera, once an attorney for Shihab and also Tommy Suharto, ex-president Suharto’s youngest son, has left to become a parliamentary candidate for Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) in the southern Sumatran province in Riau.

Azyumardi Azra, head of the graduate school at Indonesia’s State Islamic University, asserts that 212 – named after a mass anti-Purnama rally in Jakarta on December 2, 2016 – was more a political movement than a religious one and was always destined to drift apart.

For all the concerns at the time, it was difficult to see how the factors that conspired to drag down an ethnic Chinese Christian governor in the cauldron of the country’s biggest city could be replicated across a much wider national stage.

As the former president of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s and the world’s largest Muslim organization, and also the serving chairman of the influential Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the nation’s top clerical body, Amin may have unmatched religious credentials.

Indonesian Muslims hold dawn prayers on December 12, 2016, one day before Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama's first trial as some Islamic groups have vowed to maintain pressure until he is prosecuted for blasphemy. The high-profile case has emboldened hardline groups and stoked fears of growing intolerance in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. Photo: AFP / Kahfi Syaban Nasuti

Indonesian Muslims hold dawn prayers in Jakarta on December 12, 2016. Photo: AFP/Kahfi Syaban Nasuti

But the son of a little-known west Java religious scholar has seen his career shaped as much by his prowess as an Islamic politician as by his expertise in Islamic law. With that has come a deft ability to shift with the political winds.

Bringing together disparate Islamic groups and parties earned Amin a local leadership role in NU, which now boasts 45 million card-carrying members, and eventually a seat in the Jakarta provincial assembly in 1971, a position he held for the next 11 years.

The strongman Suharto regime removed him as a prospective national candidate for the United Development Party (PPP), the party NU was forced to amalgamate with in 1973, and it was not until the long-serving president’s fall in 1998 that Amin returned to practical politics.

Amin won a seat for NU’s newly formed National Awakening Party (PKB) in the first post-Suharto democratic elections in 1999, but he quit parliament in 2004 after a falling out with pluralist ex-president Abdurrahman Wahid, a descendent of one of NU’s founders.

Azra calls Amin an opportunist who, as an adviser to ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was responsible for pushing a succession of edicts and policies that led to an alarming slide in Indonesia’s reputation for religious tolerance between 2008 and 2014.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (R) and his running mate Ma'ruf Amin (2nd L) take part in a peace declaration for the general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on September 23, 2018. - Campaigning for Indonesia's presidential election in April kicked off on September 23, pitting incumbent Joko Widodo against a former military general in the race to lead the world's third-biggest democracy. (Photo by Adek BERRY / AFP)

President Joko Widodo (R) and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin (2nd L) take part in a peace declaration for the general election campaign at the National Monument, Jakarta, September 23, 2018.  Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Indonesians are intrigued how the man who habitually wears sandals and sarongs will tackle economic and other worldly matters in planned televised debates with millennial tycoon Sandiaga Uno, opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto’s running mate.

Certainly, he will be a persuasive voice against campaigners seeking to cast Widodo as un-Islamic and a closet communist, but most polls show he has had little overall impact on Widodo’s popularity, which remains above 50% compared with Prabowo’s 28-29% in opinion polls.

Indeed, in one recent survey Widodo actually loses 1.5% with Amin on board, while among younger voters the gap is 8-10%. But that belies other political realities, particularly in the two bastions of Islamic conservatism – Banten and neighboring West Java, Indonesia’s most populous province.

Widodo lost heavily there in 2014, two of five provinces where rival Prabowo emerged triumphant. In Banten, Amin’s home province, Widodo currently trails 58.7% to 39% and may slip even further depending on his response to the recent Krakatau tsunami disaster.

But Amin is little known in Banten’s staid Islamic community. He left there with his parents at an early age to study at the influential Tebuiring boarding school in Jombang, East Java, which was established by NU founder Hasyim Asy’ari in the late 1890s.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (L) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno gesture as they attend a peace declaration for the upcoming general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on September 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (L) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno at a peace declaration for the upcoming general election campaign at the National Monument, Jakarta, September 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

In the main battleground of West Java, where the president is determined to win, different political factors, including the support this time of the second-ranked Golkar Party and also reformist provincial governor Ridwan Kamil, a Widodo ally, give the incumbent a narrow lead.

Widodo began courting Amin soon after the Purnama affair wound down, but he did not consider him as a running mate until his allies in the ruling coalition rejected his preferred choice, former Constitutional Court chief justice Mohammad Mahfud MD, who they feared had political ambitions of his own.

Leading that revolt were PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, who sees her daughter, human development coordinating minister Puan Maharani, 45, as a prospective candidate in 2024, and ambitious PKB chairman Muhaimin Iskander, 52, deputy head of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR).

Ironically, while Prabowo has so far steered clear of primordial issues, perhaps in part because of the money he needs from the ethnic Chinese business community for his cash-strapped campaign, it is the Widodo government which has taken the offensive.

During a national meeting last November, the Indonesian Mosque Council (IMC), headed for a second five-year term by Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, issued an edict that the country’s 800,000 mosques should not be used for political activities.

While Azra doubts its ability to enforce the directive, it is a clear effort to stop places of worship from becoming points of opposition mobilization, as they were during the anti-Purnama campaign when Kalla, ironically enough and to Widodo’s chagrin, supported winning candidate Anies Baswedan.

Indonesian Islamist groups rally outside the parliament calling for the government to suspend the Christian governor of the captial and for the courts to convict him of blasphemy, in Jakarta, Indonesia February 21, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Wahyu Putro A/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. - RTSZL0M

Islamist groups rally against then Christian governor Basuki Purnama in Jakarta, February 21, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto via AFP Forum/Wahyu Putro A

Although it attracted little media attention when he was appointed early last year, IMC’s panel of experts includes State Intelligence Agency (BIN) director Budi Gunawan, a member of Megawati’s inner circle since he served as her police adjutant.

BIN issued a report at the time of the November meeting warning that 41 mosques in one Jakarta neighborhood alone were preaching extremism and religious intolerance to worshippers, many of whom were government workers.

More recently, PKB – one of the six parties making up the government coalition – expressed support for a suggestion from doctrinaire Acehnese clerics for the presidential candidates to undergo a Koranic recitation test, which Prabowo might struggle with as the only Muslim in a family of Christians.

What worries critics is that the preoccupation with religion ignores the fact that elections should be fought on issues that affect the everyday life of Indonesians, who still pay more for rice than any other Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) citizen and have now been told that their tsunami warning system has fallen into disrepair.

Amin seems to encapsulate all that, a prospective vice-president whose real-world experience is confined to Islamic banking and little else.  Azra said: “People are worried not only about his health [he has heart problems and tires easily], but his lack of expertise in anything outside religion.” Atimes*


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Encounter Typical Painan Tunjang in Jakarta



Carocok Beach, Painan, West Sumatra. Telegraf

Padang cuisine or also called Minangkabau cuisine is well known in the world. Very good promotion in social medi; Rendang has once placed the world’s favorite dish (google file). This delicious rendang which is cooked with special spices mixed with thick coconut milk makes this West Sumatran cuisine connoisseur popular not only by Indonesians, but also by foreigners from around the world.

The trip from Jakarta to Painan Nagari in West Sumatra can be reached within 4 to 4.5 hours from the city of Padang, including on the plane. Painan is a village, a small town, and it is the capital of Pesisir Selatan (South Cost) district. The city which is included in the IV Jurai Subdistrict area can be accessed through West Sumatra Trans-Highway. Flanked by two streams of rivers; Batang Pinang Gadang and Batang Pinang Ketek rivers originating from Timbulun which have a seven-level waterfall, it is vivid that we can imagine the beauty of tourism in Nagari. Through Timbulun, the city of Painan can be passed to Alahan Panjang, this river flows into Carocok beach which is the icon of Painan Nagari and Muaro Painan beach. These two beaches lead us to the very calm Painan Bay, flanked by Langkisau Hill and Pincuran Boga.

Gulai Tunjang. Photo Telegraf

According to the story of the local ancestors, the name Painan derived from the word ‘paik’ (in Padang language means bitter) and ‘nian’ (meaning very, once), meaning that the life of the people of the South Coast who migrated to Painan at that time was very difficult because Painan area generally consisted of swamps. From historical records, in 1523 a tiny mosque was established in Painan, a religious education institution in Minangkabau. In the 16th century, the island of Cingkuk in Painan already became a successful international shipping port known as the Golden Port of Salido.

In 1660, the Dutch government wanted to move its representative office from Aceh to Padang city considering its better location and air, but this wish was rejected by the authorities of Padang city. It was initiated by Groenewegen which has opened the door for the Dutch to set up a fortress in the city of Padang, in addition to their representative offices in Tiku and Pariaman. The representative office in the city of Padang was moved to Cingkuk Island, but in 1667 it was moved again to Padang. The colonial government-owned building caught fire in 1669 and was rebuilt a year later.

Painan Nagari is located right on the coast and it influences the culture and social life of the people who reside there, including the culinary delights that mostly use fish as basic ingredients because it is easy to find. However, there are Painan people who live in the villages near the mountains so they also have special dishes that use beef as basic ingredient such as Rendang, Dendeng Balado, or Gulai Tunjang. Delicious Padang cuisine is synonymous with the selection of fresh ingredient; such as meat, fish, vegetables, the use of various kinds of fresh spices, coconut milk, and cooking methods that follow the standard.

Then how to satisfy your taste buds with the tasty Gulai Tunjang typical Painan without having to go far there? When I think about Padang cuisine, my mind drifts to the figure of Ms. Sri Wahyu Purana (62) who, although her name is identical to the Javanese name, but half of her blood comes from Painan Nagari. Ms. Sri Wahyu Purana is usually called as Aunty Ina by people who know her, now more involved in the culinary business after entering her civil servant retirement.

Ms. Sri Wahyu Purana is usually called as Aunty Ina. Photo Telegraf

Aunty Ina, who likes maroon color, has long been known as an expert in Padang cuisine amongst her big family and friends, especially Gulai Tunjang. When many people are advised to work or do activities from home, Aunty Ina also uses it to process Padang food ingredients into delicious culinary to be enjoyed, cooking is her passion.

Gulai Tunjang is a Padang dish consisting of beef gravel and 16 kind of spices, including candlenut, asam kandis which is also known as asam gelugur in Malaysia and Thailand, or garcinia atroviridis in Latin word, then there are lime leaves, bay leaves, lemongrass, red chilies and gravy thick coconut milk have greatly affect the taste quality of Gulai Tunjang.

Aunty Ina, who likes traveling, explains one by one the spices she uses and how to process beef gravel to avoid bad smell. “Cooking Gulai Tunjang is not a hard work, even for beginners,” said the woman who likes tours to the mountainous area. As long as the beef gravel is of good quality, using fresh spices and proper cooking methods, it is guaranteed to produce a perfect beef gravel curry. We had lunch Gulai Tunjang that day, which was really delicious at Aunty Ina’s home in Central Jakarta.

Now Aunty Ina has begun to be flooded with orders for various Minang specialties through online applications and social media. This plant-loving woman dreams that one day Gulai Tunjang will travel around the world, following Rendang, which is already well-known in cyber and in major cities in the world.

Written by Nia S. Amira, an Indonesian author, journalist, and linguist. She writes on culture, international affairs, multiculturalism and religious studies. Her articles have appeared in over thirty media, published in Europe, Asia, and the US.

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Hun Sen’s labor sop will cost Cambodian industry



Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political move to hike the minimum wage for textile and footwear workers threatens to undermine the crucial industries, which combined account for two-thirds of the nation’s exports.

Under the executive order, announced last week, garment and footwear factory workers’ minimum wages will increase around US$2 to $192 per month beginning January 1, 2021.

Employer groups that have argued for wage reductions for next year say that this additional burden could make the sector even more uncompetitive and hinder recovery amid the pandemic-induced economic crisis.

Almost a quarter of Cambodia’s workers have been laid off since the pandemic began and after the European Union partially knocked Cambodia from a privileged tariff-free trade scheme, known as Everything But Arms (EBA), in reprisal for Hun Sen’s democratic backsliding.

The National Council for Minimum Wage, a tripartite body composed of representatives from the government, trade unions and employer groups, meets annually to discuss minimum wage increases. But it couldn’t reach an agreement for what the basic salary should be in 2021 after weeks of debate.

Most industries in Cambodia have no set minimum wage, but the salary of textile workers tends to be the highest.

Trade union representatives went into this year’s discussions demanding a wage hike of $11.59 for next year, which they say is a necessity given the ever-increasing cost of living in Cambodia. Employer groups, which had tried to have these discussions postponed by a year, demanded a $17 cut.

There are conflicting reports as to why Hun Sen intervened. One claim is that the National Council for Minimum Wage simply couldn’t agree on a figure so turned the decision over to his government to settle the impasse.

Another suggestion is that the council agreed to keep wages the same for next year, only for the prime minister to then intervene with his raise.

This isn’t out of character for the national leader. In 2014, 2015 and 2018, Hun Sen added a few dollars to higher minimum wages that his ministers had previously agreed.

While unions and business groups have tacitly accepted the decision of Cambodia’s strongman leader, who has been in power since 1985, neither side are pleased with an outcome that appears to most benefit the government.

Hun Sen is keen to maintain some calm in a country that has seen escalating youth-led protests in recent months, especially after the arrest of prominent trade unionist Rong Chhun in July. Placating garment workers with even a limited wage bump is the other side of the coin to his government’s violent crackdown on these latest protests.

It was also a populist measure by Hun Sen who has been keen in recent years to woo garment workers, who in the past typically voted for the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the largest opposition party until its forced dissolution in late 2017.

A promise to boost the minimum wage was key to the CNRP’s campaign ahead of the 2013 general election, at which it won 44% of the popular vote. Afterward, this policy was immediately appropriated by Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) as a way to curry favor with this part of the electorate.

The minimum wage for textile workers rose from just $80 in 2013 to $190 this year. Government propaganda circulated on social media shows images of Hun Sen being embraced by adoring garment workers, alongside the boast that Cambodia is the only country in Southeast Asia that has increased the minimum wage during the pandemic.

Core inflation reached 3.2% in June as Cambodia’s consumer price index hit a five-year high. The cost of living has increased significantly over the past five years. The price of fresh fish, for instance, rose by 11.4% in June compared to the same month last year.

Phnom Penh, home to many of the typically young, female migrants from the countryside who work in the textile factories, is now the sixth most expensive city in Southeast Asia, according to the Numbeo Current Cost of Living Index. It ranked fourth last year.

It is estimated that one in five Cambodians depend on salaries earned in the textile sector, as workers send home large chunks of their wages to families back in the countryside. The considerable decline of the sector during the pandemic has contributed to rising poverty in rural areas, analysts say.

Government data claims that textile exports fell by only 5.4% in the first half of this year, compared to the same period in 2019, an official figure that has raised a few suspicious eyebrows considering the loss of certain tariff-free trade privileges in the EU.

The government also asserts that only 50,000 jobs have been affected by the pandemic-induced economic crisis. But the Garment Manufacturers of Cambodia (GMAC), the main industry body, puts the number of job losses at 150,000, out of around 700,000 pre-pandemic.

In February, Hun Sen promised that furloughed textile workers would receive 60% of the minimum wage, or roughly $114 per month, with the majority being paid for by the state and the rest by employers.

Two months later, however, the leader reduced the amount to just $70 per month. It remains unclear whether Phnom Penh caved to demands from employers for the original sum to be reduced or, more likely, the government realized it didn’t have the funds to make the payments over a medium or long-term period.

Most years, employer groups have gone into minimum wage discussions with the goal of keeping salary hikes as low as possible. Seldom, however, have they demanded a cut in minimum wages, as they did this year.

Textile factory owners contend that the minimum wage is something of a red-herring, as most workers receive more than the basic salary.  Employers must also pay overtime bonuses, a $7 monthly accommodation allowance, good attendance add-ons, and seniority payments for long-serving staff.

It is thought that these bonuses, on average, cost employers an additional $15 per month per worker.

Phnom Penh has put a positive spin on the minimum wage hike. “The raise is also a message to attract more investment and new factories to Cambodia,” Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng told local media.

Yet it is difficult to see how the move to increase costs would necessarily attract new investors. Indeed, if the textile sector is to recover to near pre-pandemic levels it will need substantial investment in the coming years, mostly from overseas.

Some of the factories barely surviving at present are expected to collapse once state bailout funds are withdrawn. Others will need to raise working capital to pay for operations and wages, since earnings from exports are rarely paid up-front.

A recent GMAC survey found that only 35% of factories have enough orders until the end of the year, while quarter 25% reported having no orders until the end of 2020, the Southeast Asia Globe reported last month.

To raise the necessary investment, Cambodia’s textile sector will need to show it remains competitive against its more developed and higher-end rival producers in Thailand and Vietnam.

Not only has the pandemic significantly reduced demand from Western buyers for Cambodia-made textiles, the country also recently lost many of its trade privileges with the EU, traditionally its largest textile market. Last year, the EU purchased the majority of Cambodia’s textile exports.

In August, tariffs were slapped on one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports to the EU, including some goods from the textile sector, though it is difficult to estimate the costs of the new charges.

Kimlong Chheng, director of the Centre for Governance, Innovation and Democracy at the local Asian Vision Institute think tank, has claimed that total removal from the EBA scheme would cost Cambodia’s economy as much as $650 million each year.

Given that only a fifth of trade privileges under the EBA was cut, the cost may be around US$130 million each year.

Much depends on whether textile factory owners shoulder the additional costs of tariffs by cutting into their profits, or whether they shift the additional costs onto clients by increasing prices, making Cambodia’s textile exports less competitive.

Now, factory owners must also find additional money for higher wages. If the textile sector was to recover to near full employment next year, representing around 750,000 workers, the minimum wage hike will cost employers an additional $1.5 million each month, or $18 million annually.

For years, analysts and industry insiders have warned that Cambodia’s textile sector was losing its competitive edge vis-a-vis neighbors.

Vietnam, now a Southeast Asian powerhouse for manufacturing exports, boasts far higher standards of transport infrastructure, a more productive workforce and easier export capabilities for business owners.

Cambodia’s minimum wage was already higher than its more productive neighbors, which in comparison have avoided hefty wage hikes in recent years to maintain their competitiveness.

Wages for Thai textile workers are currently $191 per month, compared to Cambodia’s US$192 from next year. In Vietnam, where wages differ based upon location, the highest salary i$182 per month. In Laos, the minimum wage is just $88 per month.

Another reason for Cambodia’s faltering competitiveness is political unpredictability. For almost two years, textile owners and investors were left guessing whether Hun Sen’s government would loosen its political stranglehold to maintain economic benefits with the EU. He didn’t and now business owners and workers are bearing the costs.

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Indonesian bill an environmental, economic disaster



Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a peatland forest in Payung Sekaki regency in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Sumatra, on August 2, 2019. Photo: AFP / Wahyudi

Indonesia’s  parliament is poised to pass a massive “omnibus bill” stimulus package by early October to help offset the economic damage incurred by the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, that package currently contains provisions that will allow unbridled deforestation that will both harm the environment and sabotage the bill’s economic growth potential.

The omnibus bill involves the insertion of 174 new articles into 79 existing laws governing areas including taxation, labor, investment and the environment. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s government has pitched the bill as an essential job-creation tool designed to streamline business-unfriendly bureaucratic processes in order to boost investment.

However, some of the bill’s provisions would also directly increase the risk of massive deforestation by eliminating existing legal protections for primary forest cover.

Specifically, the bill would loosen requirements for environmental impact assessments for industrial and agribusiness projects and empower the central government to approve business and investment in officially designated forest and peatland areas, which are currently protected by a deforestation moratorium.

The bill also eliminates the legal requirement that provinces maintain a minimum forest cover of 30% on provincial land by allowing them to set such standards “proportionately.”

And it includes a provision that could increase the regional risk of catastrophic haze from plantation fires by lifting the existing strict legal liability for companies with fires occurring on their concession areas.

According to an analysis by the Indonesian non-governmental organization Madani of these provisions, their potential impacts are nothing less than catastrophic. The NGO warns that the omnibus bill if passed in its current form could lead to the complete destruction of natural forest cover in the provinces of Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, Bangka Belitung and Central Java over the next two to three decades.

This assessment is reinforced by a public letter sent to domestic and international financiers by a coalition of Indonesian civil-society and environmental NGOs. They warned that the result of the bill’s passage will be that “Indonesian​​ current laws and regulations will no longer​​ comply​​ with​​ globally accepted​​ environmental and social safeguards.”

These concerns aren’t limited to environmental organizations. In July, the World Bank’s Indonesia and Timor Leste country director, Satu Kahkonen, criticized the bill by warning that in its present form it “is basically not helping Indonesia” because it will “move Indonesia’s environmental legislation further away from the implementation of best practices.”

Tragically, the severe environmental consequences of the omnibus bill will also directly undermine its stated intention of economic stimulus and job creation. That’s because the environmental harms wrought by the bill will harm Indonesia’s  attractiveness as an investment destination and exporter. That will in effect reverse recent hard-won progress by the Indonesian government and the private sector in reducing widespread deforestation and destruction of peat lands.

One of the sectors that have the most to lose from the omnibus bill’s pro-deforestation elements is the palm-oil industry. The sector – whose exports constitute more than 2% of Indonesia’s annual gross domestic product – has made strides in recent years to shake its well-earned reputation as a major driver of forest destruction by implementing “No Deforestation, No Peatland, No Exploitation” (NDPE) policies.

Those policies, in tandem with Indonesian government initiatives, including the enactment in August 2019 of a permanent moratorium on forest clearing for timber and plantation development, helped reduce deforestation in Indonesia in 2019 to its lowest levels in almost two decades.

But rather than decrying the omnibus bill’s pro-deforestation elements, Indonesia’s palm-oil sector has instead taken a position of complicit silence.

The glaring exception to this has been Astra Agro Lestari, a subsidiary of the British conglomerate Jardine Matheson. Astra Agro Lestari, Indonesia’s second-largest palm-oil producer, has significant influence within both the palm-oil sector and the Indonesian government through Joko Supriyono, Astra’s vice-resident director and chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association (GAPKI).

Despite Astra’s adoption in 2015 of an NDPE policy, in February this year, Supriyono expressed unqualified support for the deeply flawed omnibus bill as “a solution to the complexity of licensing in the palm-oil sector.” He described GAPKI’s support for the bill as essential to “the interests of the national palm-oil sector.”

That stance suggests willful blindness to the damage that the omnibus bill poses to the palm-oil industry, both domestically and internationally. Major palm-oil importers including the European Union and United Kingdom are considering increasingly stringent environmental standards for agricultural imports, including palm oil. Those standards, if enacted, will in effect block any Indonesian agricultural exports linked to deforestation that this omnibus bill, in its current form, would fuel.

The Indonesian government and its palm-oil industry have a choice. They can allow the passage of an omnibus bill that will worsen deforestation and undermine economic growth by discouraging foreign investment and stigmatizing key agricultural exports, or delay the bill’s passage and allow for meaningful public consultation on its environmentally harmful provisions to help ensure that economic stimulus measures are built on a foundation of environmental sustainability rather than destruction.

With the Indonesian parliament expected to approve the bill within weeks, President Widodo, legislators and the private sector need to move urgently to address the bill’s flaws before it’s too late.

Phelim Kine is the senior director for Asia at the environmental campaign organization Mighty Earth and a former deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. He is also an adjunct professor in the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York. – ATIMES



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