Corruption alarm bells are ringing again, clamoring for our attention. This time, it is the case involving Amran Batalipu, regent of Buol in Central Sulawesi. Facts have come to light, showing the extent of the collusion and bribery between businesses and officials in the region. We must be wary of these links because the damage they cause goes far beyond crime and ethics. It also impacts on the environment.
Amran Batalipu was detained by Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) officials while accepting bribes from the owner of an oil palm plantation last month. Discussions by telephone, as revealed by KPK wiretaps before the arrest of Hartati Murdaya, CEO of Cipta Makra Murdaya and Hardaya Inti Plantations, appear to show that billions of rupiah in bribes were paid to grease the way for the expansion of her oil palm plantations. Murdaya is a well-known businesswoman and member of the Democrat Party Advisory Board.
The investigation is not yet complete. Much information still needs to be verified. Hartati Murdaya's statement that the Rp3 billion she gave to Regent Amran was a donation for the local elections, cannot simply be accepted at face value. It appears to be a deliberate attempt to ensure there will a less severe legal consequence and to make it appear no link exists between bribery and oil palm plantation licenses.
The fact is that there is a serious problem with the license sought by Murdaya for her plantations in Buol. According to regulations, only 22,000 hectares of the plantation are covered by a business license (HGU) allowing the cultivation of oil palms. The remaining approximately 4,500 hectares are not entitled to such a permit.
Murdaya applied for an HGU, but the regent refused to grant it. According to the KPK, it was this rejection that led to the attempt to pay a Rp1 billion bribe. The subsequent Rp2 billion bribe is allegedly linked to the request submitted to Regent Amran for the expansion of her plantations, to cover 75,000 hectares.
There is nothing new about an incumbent selling licenses in the run-up to regional elections. We must be on the lookout for such illegal fundraising tactics. More than a breach of campaign regulations, it is clearly against the law. The money was not a gift. It is briberya form of corruption. Its consequences to the environment deforestationcan be devastating.
The most serious deforestation occurred at the start of the decentralization process, from 2000-2004. Forestry use permits (HPH) and almost every stage in the HGU process were transferred from the center to the regional chief executives. Unfortunately, the regents turned this into a giant sale. As a result, deforestation caused by new plantations reached 3.8 million hectares per year, or almost three times the figure during the 1990s.
Today, the authority to issue HPHs and part of the HGU has been returned to the central government. Regents can only issue location permits and recommendations for HGU covering limited areas. But this does not mean an absence of collusion or trickery, especially prior to regional elections, particularly when it involves a lot of money. The main conditions for an HGU recommendation, namely the environmental impact analysis, acceptance by local residents and details of land ownership, are often ignored.
The link between officials, businesses and the sale of permits is more than idle speculation. At the end of last year, Robin Burgess, a professor at Britain's London School of Economics, investigated the links between deforestation and local political dynamics. In a paper entitled The Political Economy of Deforestation in the Tropics, Burgess analyzed statistical data of location permits, HPHs, HGUs and the dynamics of Indonesian politics between 1998 and 2008. This was a time of dramatic changes in the Indonesian political landscape, including in the practices of granting forest clearing licenses.
Incumbent officials running for reelection stepped up the process of granting licenses. Local governments tend to be more willing to issue forest clearing permits as elections near, says Burgess. Deforestation and the sale of forest conversion licenses increases by 40 percent in the year before an election, and soars by 57 percent in the year, after the polls. This is why conflicts over the ownership of land around oil palm plantations have been on the increase.
Issues involving money and officials can have other serious implications. The seeds of conflict can grow and spread to other areas, such as when tensions occurred over land ownership at Mesuji, Lampung. The unresolved issue flared up again at the beginning of this year. This is why the KPK must thoroughly investigate the Buol case, if only to prevent hundreds of similar conflicts waiting to happen.
No. 48/12, July 24, 2012