Local Chief Elections and Deforestation


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Agus Purnomo

JAKARTA, Indonesia (March 17, 2011) _ Deforestation contributes almost a fifth of global greenhouse gases emissions and has been identified as one of the main problems that need to be resolved in the fight against climate change. In this article first published in Koran Tempo, Agus Purnomo, special staff to the president on climate change, highlights the link between local chief elections and increased deforestation, drawing from a recent study from the London School Economics.

This article first appeared in Koran Tempo at http://epaper.korantempo.com/KT/KT/2011/03/08/index.shtml.  It was translated with permission by CIFOR

Local Chief Elections and Deforestation

D. Agus Purnomo, Special Staff to the President on Climate Change

Elections Law needs to be improved to ensure that the rules of the game for local chief elections allow qualified and honest candidates to compete with rich or reckless participants or incumbents, who commit concessions of the areas’ natural resources to repay the ‘debts’ to their financial backers.

Deforestation in tropical forest countries contributes almost a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions and it is one of the causes of various climate disasters that threaten the existence of God’s creations. Forests and peatlands in Indonesia, which, according to the Ministry of Forestry’s statistics, lost between 1.1 million and 2 million hectares a year to deforestation in the past two decades, are one of the sources of carbon emissions.

In fact, deforestation, which annually destroys as much as twice the size of Bali, is the main source of Indonesia’s GHG emissions.

The main factors of emissions from deforestation are 1) forest and peatland fires, 2) conversion of forest and peatlands to plantation, mining sites and other land uses, and 3) forest degradation caused by illegal logging and badly managed forest uses (HPH). Efforts to dry peatlands to convert them to agricultural areas release massive amount of carbon emissions. There is a lot of carbon within the peat layers. When peatlands get dried, they become susceptible to fires, as occurred during the forest fires in 1997 and 1998, and the carbon emissions are multiples of that produced by all coal-fired power plants in Indonesia. Such significant contributions of emissions often put the deforestation rate in Indonesia into international debates.

A recent study from the London School of Economics titled “The Political Economy of Deforestation in the Tropics” (January 2011) demonstrates a close relationship between political economy and deforestation rate in Indonesia. The study shows that the increase of the number of administrative regions (the proliferation of regions) like districts in several provinces with vast forests triggers the acceleration of deforestation rate. Satellite data analysis proves that illegal logging in conservation and protected forests jumped in the two years leading to local heads elections. In conversion forests, logging soared in the year before and after these elections.

The splitting of districts is an unavoidable consequence of regional autonomy, whose regulations, effectively valid from 2001, have dramatically expanded in almost all sectors. Theoretically, decentralization is the realization of democracy at the local level. This policy was adopted to allow communities that benefit from development to control decision making processes. Good governance and strong social control at the local level are necessary to ensure a successful decentralization. In a period of 11 years (1998-2009), the number of proliferated regions drastically increased from 291 regencies into 498 regencies.

The impacts of proliferation of regions at the district and province levels were observed scientifically in the satellite images study conducted by London School of Economics (LSE). Proliferation of regions and direct elections of district and city chiefs trigger debt politics, which boost deforestation rate. Satellite datasets show changes in tree cover for 8 consecutive years, when an increase of illegal logging activities in conservation and protection forests was observed before and in the year of the local chief elections.

Annual data of forest cover from 2000-2008, using MODIS satellite, show that the increase of deforestation was in line with the number of districts that were proliferated. Overall, deforestation jumped by 7.8 percent for every additional added. Drastic increase of land clearance (deforestation) in conservation and protected forests reached 29 percent in the two years leading to local chief elections and increased to 42 percent a year before the elections. Deforestation also soared in conversion forests by 40 percent during the local chief elections and 57 percent in the year after the elections.

Many consider local chief elections as a burden to local governments’ budget, but in practice, candidates competing in these elections often have to spend money out of their own pockets to gain support and endorsement from political parties and to campaign. Unsurprisingly, local chief candidates promise forest management concessions, palm oil plantations, or mining permits to their financial backers as debt repayment for the funds used to win the elections. The acceleration of deforestation rate due to efforts to win local chief elections is public knowledge, although LSE was the first to observe it scientifically.

For Indonesia to cut carbon emissions by 26 percent with its own funds, or by as much as 41 percent with international support, there needs to be emission reductions from slowing forest degradation and deforestation, including in peat lands.

Facts show that deforestation is the biggest source of emissions in Indonesia, and special efforts need to be made to reduce the drivers of deforestation.

To prevent campaign debts to fund local chief elections, General Elections Law must be improved to limit contestants’ campaign activities while maintaining the principles of openness and fairness in an election. If all candidates are given the same amount of campaign time in print and electronic media without having to pay, future elections will give fair opportunities to be known by voters, irrespective of the candidates’ financial ability.

Elections Law should improve local elections rules, so that qualified and honest candidates can compete with rich or reckless ones, who sell out their regions’ natural resources as debts to their financial backers.

A reform in local elections is part of the efforts to reduce Indonesia’s carbon emissions from forestry and peat lands.

Funding for air time or space in electronic and print media can be included in local chief elections financing calculations in state and regional budgets. Candidates should be prohibited from making billboards and expensive campaign attributes, while ballots can be printed in black and white to keep election costs from ballooning. Local elections are democratic activities to choose qualified and honest chiefs, not to reinforce the dominance of elites and rich groups in the regions and at the central.

The success in boosting the quality of democracy can also positively affect the quality of natural resources management. The decision to have local elections is a national consensus and this democratization process needs to be continued by improving the rules of local elections. We need to prevent the return of a management style where the rulers divide natural resources to their cronies. Let’s foster a fair democracy while improving welfare through sustainable development.


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