Money Before Nature Will Be Costly

Indoenesia: The government’s pursuit of increased revenue at the expense of environmental conservation could see the number of water pollution cases nationwide increase by 50 percent to 70 percent this year, activists say.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) said on Wednesday that it expected a significant increase in the number of major water pollution cases, with mining and palm oil plantation operators once again the main culprits.

Mukri Friatna, head of advocacy at Walhi, said there were at least 79 major water pollution cases last year, affecting 65 rivers across the country.

Twenty-two were linked to palm oil operators, 18 to coal miners and 7 to gold miners.

Walhi said the expected increase could be traced to several factors, including more mining and plantation concessions being awarded, outdated waste disposal standards and a lack of enforcement of environmental impact analysis, or Amdal, requirements.

“Walhi has since 2000 warned the government about these ecological disasters, which also lead to frequent floods and landslides, but there has been no response at all,” Mukri said.

“In fact, looking at the environmental regulations that have been issued so far, the country’s environmental condition is only going to worsen.”

He said the government’s attitude could be summed up by a decision it made in 2004 to grant 13 companies permits to mine in natural forests, valuing the land in the deals at only Rp 120 to Rp 300 per square meter.

“The benefit to the country from these mining activities is not worth the damage that it does to our forests,” Mukri said.

“In 2009, the state only received Rp 168.7 billion in revenue from 101 corporate taxpayers in the mining sector, while in 2010, that figure was down to Rp 78.7 billion from 112 companies.”

He said these amounts paled in comparison to the estimated Rp 6.66 trillion ($740 million) lost due to corruption in the forestry sector in just nine provinces.

Mukri also took the government to task for its lack of law enforcement, pointing out that of 20 people charged with breaking environmental laws last year, only five were convicted, one was given probation and the rest were acquitted.

Rhino Subagyo, executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law, a nongovernmental group, said the country had progressive green laws that emphasized sustainable development, but had failed to implement them.

He cited the 2009 Environmental Management and Protection Law as a case in point, saying it gave the Environment Ministry greater powers to arrest violators, whereas in the past it could only flag violations.

“However, the law hasn’t been fully enacted by the government,” he said.

“The government has simply acknowledged that it’s an important law, but has done nothing in practice to support it.”

He said this lack of commitment was also apparent in the Environment Ministry’s Proper Index, which rates companies based on their environmental credentials.

While the index serves to name and shame polluting companies, it does not prescribe punishments or require them to clean up their act.

“When you see the Proper Index, it’s obvious that the government still has no clear idea how to protect the country’s natural resources,” Rhino said.

A first step, he said, is for the government to issue the necessary regulations to enact environmental laws.

Walhi estimates that ecological disasters, including floods, landslides and pollution, cost the state up to Rp 20 trillion last year.

That doesn’t include damage from Mount Merapi’s eruptions.

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