The Scapegoat Called Nature

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Laila Afifa

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  • TEMPO.CO, JakartaThe government is insisting that the flooding in South Kalimantan was caused by extreme natural events. This ignores the massive change of function of upstream forests.

    IT seems that the government has a scapegoat that it always uses when disaster strikes this country, namely nature. In the past, Palace officials were convinced that the haze in Riau was an act of God. Now President Joko Widodo has said that the massive floods affecting 11 regencies and municipalities in South Kalimantan from January 10 to 17 were the result of extreme rainfall. But the government is closing its eyes to the loss of forests in the Meratus hills and the Barito watershed, which is a water catchment area.

    Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya should not continue to insist on denying the change of function of the forest in the Barito upstream and watershed areas. And there is no need to claim that analyses from outside her ministry are invalid and not in agreement with standards, especially since the data she is providing is not comprehensive, transparent, or up to date. Minister Siti is using data from 2019 to claim that 83.3 percent of the Barito watershed still comprises forest cover.

    It is in fact easy for the ministry to present the latest facts about the Barito watershed. A study was carried out by the National Space and Aviation Agency (Lapan) using proven technology used throughout the world, namely remote sensing based on images from Landsat satellites. Based on this analysis, from 2010 to 2020, the area of prime forest in the Barito watershed shrunk by 13,000 hectares. At the same time, the area of plantations grew by 219,000 hectares.

    Neither can the government contend that the Barito watershed is still well protected and free of mining activity. According to the environmental monitoring and research institute Auriga Nusantara, 486,642 hectares of land in the Barito watershed in South Kalimantan have been turned into mining areas. A total of 118 permits covering 482,756 hectares are coal mines that obtained forest land use permits from the ministry of the environment for 2004 to 2020.

    Granting mining permits in forest areas for the stated reason of rehabilitating the critical Barito watershed is a huge policy error. Instead of restoring damage, the opening up of mines in the Barito watershed forest has seriously disrupted the water catchment function of the region. Around 80 percent of the mines opened up are in water catchment and absorption zones. It is not surprising that heavy rainfall results in the Barito River being unable to carry away all the excess water.

    In order to prevent flooding in South Kalimantan, the government should learn from the mistakes made in managing floods in Jakarta. The high incidence of floods in the capital city is closely linked to the situation on the ground in Puncak, Bogor, West Java, as the source of the problem. Land use management in the region is chaotic and has never been properly put right. Protected forests and tea plantations are slowly being replaced by villas built without permits. As long as Puncak remains chaotic, construction of facilities downstream such as catchment reservoirs and flood canals as well as work on rivers will have no effect on floodwaters coming from upstream.

    The government should stop ignoring the role played by the loss of forest cover in these floods that killed 12 people. The anomalous weather that the government claims is the cause of the floods is a result of the climate crisis, one of the causes of which is deforestation. The government must immediately correct a number of mistaken policies. This could start with a reevaluation of mining and oil palm plantation permits, a moratorium on new permits, and enforcement of the law against those who damage the environment.

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