Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Haze of democracy

Schools were closed for over a month due to the forest fires - Ardiles Rante/Greenpeace
Published: Dec 20, 2015

Elections are fuelling the forest fires in Central Kalimantan

Ward Berenschot

On 9 December voters in Central Kalimantan were supposed to elect a new governor. In early November I travelled to the province to follow the campaign. I expected the talk would revolve around the forest fires that had enveloped Kalimantan for almost two months. A poisonous yellow haze had practically brought everyday life to a standstill. Dangerous levels of fine particles in the air had forced offices and schools to close and whole families to evacuate. Those who stayed behind walked around in masks. Children were kept in sealed rooms for days on end, while their parents sprayed water on the walls to keep out the haze.

When my plane landed, the rains had finally arrived. Life had gone back to normal with surprising speed – including the election campaign. While supporters of the three candidates for governor busied themselves handing out medicine to those still suffering headaches and breathing problems, the candidates themselves had surprisingly little to say about the disaster. None of the campaign events I attended mentioned any measures that could be undertaken to prevent the forest fires from returning next year. The election programs of the candidates hardly mentioned the fires. They offered no concrete ideas about how fires might be prevented or the palm oil industry better controlled. So why were the fires not at the top of the agenda?

Elections are expensive

The PDIP candidate, Willy Yoseph, was previously a district head. Before that he had been manager of an Australian timber company during the logging boom of the late 1990s. He used his earnings there to secure election in 2003 as district head of Murung Raya, in the province’s deep interior. This position enabled him to extract rents by issuing licenses to the budding palm oil industry. His competitor, Ujang Iskandar, was not much different. He had also made a fortune in the logging industry before developing a symbiotic relationship with palm oil companies. From 2005 to 2010 he was district head around Pangkalan Bun and Kotawaringan Barat, in the west of the province. The third candidate, Sugianto, had the most intimate palm oil links. As a palm oil entrepreneur with limited government experience, he seemed an unlikely candidate for governor. Rumour had it he did not finish high school. His big asset was his uncle, Abdul Rasyid, a fabulously wealthy businessman with a notorious reputation for intimidation and cunning, who built a conglomerate spanning logging, shipping, media and very large palm oil plantations.

Many hoped that democratisation would be an antidote to the dominance of such business elites. Indeed, in Java in particular new, non-oligarchic figures did rise up. But the backgrounds of these candidates suggest that in Central Kalimantan democratisation has done little to loosen the embrace between resource extraction and politics. 

This is largely due to high price tag on election campaigns. Even becoming a candidate is a costly affair. The law stipulates that any candidate must enjoy the support of at least one political party holding a minimum of 15 per cent of the seats in local parliament. This means parties can sell their support. In Central Kalimantan, the bargaining turned into an auction. There were more popular candidates than these three. But Willy and Sugianto easily outbid them. Rumour had it Willy paid Rp.30 billion (US$2 million) to secure PDIP's support. The party was about to support the outgoing vice-governor, but Willy's big, last minute offer swayed the balance in his favour. As my informants put it, ‘his logistics were better’. 

The actual campaign costs even more. There are events to organise in remote and, hence, costly locations. Donations, feasts and other ‘incentives’ to persuade local leaders and religious or ethnic organisations to join up, cost too. In the last week before election day, a candidate can hardly avoid having to buy thousands of votes. Informants estimate that a provincial governor’s campaign can cost up to Rp.100 billion (US$7.2 million). In an economy dominated by natural resource extraction, no candidate can raise that kind of money without either owning or supporting the palm oil and mining business.

Palm oil and politics

Politics and natural resource extraction are in a tight embrace. Palm oil and mining companies provide the money to capture political power, while the captured power serves to acquire more plantation and mining concessions.  The interdependence is generating powerful clans. Family connections are very useful in such an environment. Abdul Rasyid, for example, is propping up Sugianto in a conscious attempt to expand his mining and palm oil activities. In the December 2015 gubernatorial elections, three such budding dynasties competed for political power as well as for control over natural resources: the Rasyid family, Willy's family, and the clan of outgoing governor Teras Narang, who tried but failed to get his nephew Asdi Narang nominated to succeed him. 

For these families the stakes are very high. Candidates are not above using every trick in the book. In late November, Sugianto succeeded in convincing the election commission to disqualify Ujang Iskandar. The latter appealed to an administrative court which overturned the disqualification. As a result of this legal wrangling, the elections in Central Kalimantan have been postponed until early 2016. 

Over the last 15 years the number and total size of palm oil concessions awarded in Central Kalimantan has exploded. According to data from the provincial government, the total land mass of palm oil plantations went from less than 200 thousand hectares in 2001 to 1.7 million hectare in 2015. This number excludes the large tracts of land for which concessions have been awarded but plantation has not yet started. The environmental organisation Walhi has calculated that local governments in Central Kalimantan have been awarding plantation licenses (IUP) for a total of 400 to 600 thousand hectares per year since 2004. Before that, the total land mass licensed out to the palm oil companies never exceeded 180,000 hectare per year. 

This increased licensing activity is to a large extent due to the advent of direct elections. Politicians need to use their licensing power to amass the necessary campaign budgets. A common strategy for a planter to acquire a license is to donate generously to a candidate during election time, obliging the successful candidate to reciprocate afterwards. Some district heads take a more active approach and start their own plantation companies in the name of their family members or friends. In most cases, these companies are set up with the express purpose of receiving plantation licenses, after which they can be sold to an actual (foreign) palm oil company.  

Much money can also be earned by turning a blind eye when plantations do not have the necessary paperwork. According to an assessment by the Institute for Ecosoc Rights, of the 300 operational palm oil plantations in Kalimantan, only 82 possess all the required licenses. Bureaucrats and the police are happy to heed the wish of their political masters to overlook such transgressions. It allows them to extract sizable bribes for themselves. And anyway, a principled refusal could be a career-stopper. 

Democratisation has failed to generate effective accountability mechanisms to halt such practices. On the contrary, as politicians need to find sources of campaign funding, direct elections in Central Kalimantan have contributed to the expansion of palm oil plantations. 

No public sphere

The expansion of palm oil plantations and savage forest fires go together. Fires in the dry season have always occurred, since the indigenous Dayak population practice slash-and-burn agriculture. But since the mid-1990s they have grown so enormous that the resultant haze has troubled Singapore, Malaysia and even Thailand. New plantations are established by logging the forest and draining the land. Digging drainage canals dries large tracts of previously swampy peat land, creating a highly combustible soil. This actually suits palm oil companies, as the resulting fires make the establishment of new plantations easier and cheaper. 

So why do voters not punish their politicians for their dealings with the palm oil industry? In fact, it is not easy for them to know about how politicians are supporting the palm oil industry or how this relates to forest fires. Central Kalimantan hardly has a public sphere where such issues can be debated. Most local media are owned by politicians. Abdul Rasyid's group has shares in three newspapers. The political party PDIP owns another. Local newspapers depend heavily on government advertising. All this makes editors very hesitant to publish critical reporting. The brave little group of critical observers in Central Kalimantan is fearful of voicing its criticism publicly. Harassment of journalists is common. 

Even if voters were to know about these things, however, they might not really care. In the run-up to the elections, most conversations revolved around ethnicity and religion. The electorate in Central Kalimantan consists of three big groups: Dayak, Banjar and immigrants from Java. Members of these groups carefully scrutinise the backgrounds of the candidates, while campaigners do their utmost to negotiate support from leaders of the ethnic groups. To have a (vice-) governor from one’s own community serves to assure them, in the words of one voter, that ‘we would be cared for’. That is not an irrational or ‘primordial’ concern. Given the arbitrary, personalised nature of local government, citizens can hardly rely on their rights for access to public services or health care, and they struggle continually with the uncertain legal status of their land. Cultivating informal links with those in power – through such ethnic organisations – is a realistic strategy.

Yet such a strategy hardly requires careful scrutiny of the policy proposals of candidates, let alone of the shady deals they engage in. In the absence of critical public debate, the embrace between politics and the palm oil industry goes unchallenged – even after an apocalyptic month of poisonous haze. In the absence of smart electoral reforms, democracy is not a solution but an obstacle in the struggle to tackle forest fires and to protect Kalimantan’s rapidly deteriorating environment.


Ward Berenschot (berenschot@kitlv.nl) is a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute for South East Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), working on a book on local politics and clientelism in Indonesia. See www.informalpolitics.org  


Inside Indonesia 122: Oct-Dec 2015{jcomments on}

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