TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - "We must defend the companies," said Minister of Forestry, Zulkifli Hasan, as reported by Tempo, July 1, 2013. The minister made the statement following forest fires in Riau allegedly caused by forestry and plantation companies. The minister also claimed that one of the reasons he defended the companies are simply because those companies pay taxes.
Apparently, the Minister has been defending those companies, consistently. He previously said in a number of media that forest fires in Riau is not man-made but a natural disaster. It can be safely assumed that that the Minister's latest statement reinforced his previous statements.
If any statement that blames nature for the fires is proven to be wrong, then locals are bound to be the scapegoat. They will be deemed to have a bad habit of burning lands. It has been rarely investigated, if ever, whether the people burn the land because of their own initiative or because they are told to do so, or at the requests of certain companies.
It's hard to imagine how millions of Riau residents - the very victims of the fires – feel when they read the statement uttered by the Minister of Forestry. If he defends the companies because those companies pay taxes, millions of Riau residents also pay their taxes to the state. Besides, doesn't the Constitution clearly say that the state shall protect the safety of its people, not its companies?
In the meantime, Minister of the Environment Balthasar Kambuaya has also accused Malaysian palm oil companies of being implicated in Riau's forest fires. Even the Chairman of the Presidential Working Unit for Supervision and Management of Development (UKP4) once hinted that two big companies are also responsible for the fires.
The statements made by the Minister of the Environment and the Chairman of UKP4 are the ones based on highly reliable data. For state institutions like them, it will be extremely risky to issue statements not based on empirical data and facts. Their credibility as state institutions would suffer should they made statements based on false data and facts.
However, as it turns out, the Minister of the Environment and the Chairman of UKP4 are not the only ones who suspect the involvement of big companies in Riau forest fires. Data from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) shows that 90 percent of hot spots in Riau are found within the concession area of the industrial timber plantations (HTI) and plantations, some of whose headquarters are located in Singapore.
Statement made by the Minister of Forestry which defended the companies is supposed to be related to the stance of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. After he sent his apology to Malaysia and Singapore for the haze in Riau affecting the two countries some time ago, President Yudhoyono also reminded his ministers not to name any companies allegedly implicated in the Riau forest fires.
And after President Yudhoyono issued the ban, the name of those companies allegedly involved in the forest fires vanished into thin air. Only some non-governmental organizations still claimed that several forestry and plantation companies are implicated in the forest fires.
It is difficult to interpret the statement made by the Minister of Forestry, a statement which has the same undertone with that of President Yudhoyono, as a statement made by an individual. However, it can be potentially interpreted as a government’s stance. Indeed, in other environmental issues, the government seems to have the same stand: siding with companies and letting its people struggle to fight for their rights.
In Lapindo mudflow disaster for exmple, the government also consistently held on to its belief that the mudflow is a natural disaster. The belief certainly denied the environmental rights of Sidoarjo residents. As of now, no one has claimed responsibility to rehabilitate the destroyed ecology in the region because of the mudflow.
There is a lesson learned from the same stand that the government has taken so far when an environmental issue emerge and allegedly involves a company. First, if the issue involves a big company, the people certainly cannot pin their hopes on the government to come up with a fair solution. Hoping for and waiting for the government to side with the people in such cases is just a waste of time and will end up in disappointment. It would be better if the people immediately do consolidation to defend their own environmental rights which are denied because of ecology disasters. Actions taken by the people to fight for their own rights can be materialized in the form of lawsuits and widespread campaigns.
And second, in many cases, it is easier for our government to welcome inputs from the international community than from its own people. Superficial branding imaging politic like that must be used by the people who become the victims of the environmental issues to build solidarity with the international community. Environmental issues are currently top issues among the international community, in addition to human rights issues.
Pressures from the international community are indeed very likely to humiliate this country. However, that's the price that the government has to pay for siding with several companies than siding with its own people when an environmental issue comes to the surface. Now, the government can no longer hide behind a narrow nationalism mask to defend companies which destroy the nature although those companies are owned by Indonesians. The question remains: will the government continue to take shelter under its narrow nationalism mask while letting its people become the victims of the environmental destruction committed by the companies?
KNOWLEDGE MANAGER FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, ONEWORLD-INDONESIA