New minister weighs political, business interests in managing forests

New minister weighs political, business interests in managing forests

With massive deforestation and alarming forest fires accompanying the country's development, Indonesia's status as the third-largest area of tropical rainforest on the planet is at risk. New Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar faces a daunting task to resolve the complex environmental issues while keeping the economy on track. The Jakarta Post's Hans Nicholas Jong recently talked with Siti, who is also a member of the NasDem Party.

Question: How can you employ your experience as secretary-general at the Home Ministry and the Regional Representatives Council (DPD) in your new post?

Answer: The decision-making process in every ministry uses the same approach. The first characteristic of leadership [in a ministry] is the existence of symbols. This includes everything done by leaders at the executive level, such as ministers. The second is fast decision-making. The third is leading bureaucracy. The fourth is managing populist issues, which are issues of great interest to the people. The last is crisis-management. These characteristics exist in all ministries. My job as secretary-general was to stand by leaders through these approaches. The difference is now I'm the one making the decisions.

The question is: how can someone like me suddenly manage forestry and the environment? Actually it is not that far-fetched, because the domain of the DPD is also the environment. The three domains of the DPD are regional autonomy, natural resources and pluralism.

People tend to perceive environmental problems as a technical matter, for example water pollution, land pollution and air pollution. But in reality, the environment is a political subject because it involves public perception. We should take the decision of this Cabinet to merge the Environment Ministry and the Forestry Ministry as a blessing.

Why is it a blessing?

The Forestry Ministry is politically charged, the summit of business interests and the country's politics, while the Environment Ministry is technocratic and only deals with pollution and environmental analysis. With the merger, the scope of environmental issues will become larger. The Environment Ministry, which previously seemed small in scale and very technical, will play a greater role in the Forestry Ministry.

What's your response to those who doubt your expertise in environmental issues?

Besides being secretary-general at the Home Ministry and the DPD, I also taught natural resources and environmental management at the Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB). I don't want to become a top rank official who is only involved in bureaucracy and doesn't know anything about other issues. I also used to teach occasionally at Trisakti University. I want to charge myself not only with knowledge, but also with morals, by being close to many people.

What about criticism that you haven't been in touch with the environment throughout your career?

A: I have a Bachelor's degree from the IPB. I have a Master's degree from the Netherlands in rural issues and ecology. I have a doctoral degree from the IPB. This isn't well known because I was working as a bureaucrat. I was among those pushing for the bill on indigenous people's rights at the DPD. I also pushed for the law on geospatial information. But I don't need to flaunt that, do I? As a bureaucrat, I am used to working in a prepared and closed manner.

Is there a concern that the issuance of permits in forestry and environment may overlap?

No, because they are different in context. In forestry, the issuance of permits is more related to production planning, while the issuance of permits in the Environment Ministry is more related to the [management of] impact. So they're different, even though both are important to the business process.

Do you have a strategy to solve environmental problems?

The strategy is through pricing and tax, which are managing instruments, to respect the environment. The other is regulation. These aspects should involve the public.

What about law enforcement?

That is more severe. Our law enforcement is still weak. But what can we do when regulation is also weak?

What about the agroforestry companies that do not comply with the law and cause forest fires?

There are three types of companies. The first type is advanced companies that have become pioneers in green practices, for example Johnson and Johnson. The second is companies that simply abide by the regulations. The last is companies that have no interest in respecting regulations.

It is important for us to evaluate companies' compliance levels because forest fires in our country have harmed neighbouring countries. When companies are accused as culprits, it is not fair to also blame a company that has pioneered efforts to preserve the environment.

In the case of firms that do not comply with environmental regulations but already have business licenses, what will you do?

I'll have to study this issue first. I haven't looked at the audit report [by a joint government team]. I will look into it at the same time as looking at our regulations. Whenever there's a problem related to regulation, I always ask: what kind of regulation is it? Is it a law or a government regulation? A regulation can change when a new policy is needed.

A regulation can be created for many reasons, such as legal reasons, political pressure and scientific arguments. In my opinion, if it's not benefiting the public, then it should be changed.

What's wrong with law enforcement in our country?

If a regulation cannot be implemented, there must be a reason. Violation of law can happen for various reasons. One reason is that the policy cannot be implemented and another is that the officials don't abide by the law. We'll see why the [environmental] regulation is not working. It might be because the sanctions aren't sufficiently stringent. Many of our regulations forbid a lot of things but the punishments are not being imposed.

The previous government conducted an audit on forest fires in Riau; will there be another audit in the future? We will meet the former deputies of the [now defunct] Presidential Working Unit for Supervision and Management of Development (UKP4). I will listen to them. I know that there was previously an audit.

But will you proceed with the audit?

I don't know yet because I have to consult on the matter with the State Secretary. I can't claim that [the decision for an audit] lies with the Environment and Forestry Ministry. I have to consult first. That's why I will hear about it first from the deputies. But I think something that is good [like the audit] has to be continued. Not to mention that the process has been started and the result has been seen.

What if the audit recommends that the ministry revoke the permits of firms causing forest fires?

That wouldn't be a problem, as the UKP4 is a part of the government itself. But we don't know the next stage. I have to consult with the State Secretariat and the Cabinet Secretary.

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