By Hairul Sobri
from Simpul Jaringan Pantau Gambut

The conversion of peatland into plantations and exploitation of natural resources worsens deforestation and the loss of biodiversity. Ecological disasters such as forest and land fires and natural disasters (floods, landslides) are common threats each year.

In 2019, WALHI published the total number of environmental damage and ecological disasters in Indonesia; for the case of South Sumatra, the environmental damage, agrarian conflicts, and ecological disasters stem from inequality in the control and exploitation of natural resources sourced from legal activities or by obtaining licenses from the government.

Land and forest fires, as well as floods, are ecological disasters, i.e. natural events or disasters caused by systemic, destructive, and massive human activities causing environmental damage, economic losses, agrarian conflicts, human rights violations, and casualties.

Forest fires are often directly caused by destructive actions, while flash floods are often caused by systemic and destructive action. However, these two actions are a result of neglect and negligence as well as the government's indecisiveness in protecting the peace and security of its citizens from threats, shortcomings, and disruption to their sources of livelihood.

Ironically, environmental crimes are only considered to be ordinary crimes, i.e. administrative, civil and minor crimes. The case of Grandma Minah, from Banyumas, Central Java, caught stealing three cocoa beans belonging to PT Rumpun Sari Antan (RSA) in 2009 seems to be considered to be a more serious crime. Grandma Minah was sentenced to 1 month and 15 days in prison with a probationary period of 3 months.

On the other hand, environmental crimes in Indonesia have led to ecocide crimes, where the environmental crime is carried out systematically and massively, has a broad and long-term impact, and threatens the peace and security of human life.

Wetlands International's Annual Report "The Source: 2019 Annual Review of Wetlands International" (2019) states that peat swamp forests located in Indonesia's tropical lowlands are becoming targeted for land conversion by oil palm plantations and the pulp and paper industry at a large and rapid scale. Even worse, land conversion is rampantly carried out without prioritizing the long-term quality of the peat ecosystem and instead triggers peatland fires. Forest and land fires cause damage to peatlands in Indonesia almost every year.


The condition of peat ecosystems in South Sumatra is very concerning. At least 70 percent of the peatland area in South Sumatra, i.e. 1.2 million ha, has become a concession area. This consists of: approximately 400,000 ha for oil palm plantation companies, 600,000 ha for timber plantations, and 21,000 ha for mining activities.

Peatland, which is the most efficient terrestrial ecosystem for carbon storage, has now been offered in plots for plantation investment. The current regime under its second term of leadership in promoting the food estate program, which will only strengthen corporate dominance over Indonesia's forest areas. This will certainly create new problems for the environment, whilst the existing problems have yet to be resolved. This reaffirms the disadvantage brought by the food estate program.

From a hydrological perspective, peatlands play a key role in managing water resources and store 10 percent of freshwater globally. Peatlands act like sponges that can absorb water during the rainy season and releases water during the dry season. Peatland deforestation can disrupt water supplies, causing floods and droughts. The destruction of the peat ecosystem will result in a loss of important hydrological and ecological functions for nature.

The food estate concept encourages large-scale agriculture by relying on state collaboration and investment. To put it simply, food estate is a concept where farming is carried out without farmers. South Sumatra is one of the targeted areas for the food estate program, with 7,404 ha of Protected Forests, 20,819 ha of Production Forests, 1,969 ha of Convertible Production Forests, and 265 Ha of Limited Production Forests with a total area of 30,457 ha and length of 1,011.24 kilometers.

The enactment of Law No. 11 of 2020 concerning Job Creation and implementing regulations such as Ministerial Regulations that support the food estate program, will further accelerate environmental exploitation and deforestation in Indonesia. Article 3 paragraphs (1) and (2) of the Minister of Environment and Forestry of the Republic of Indonesia Regulation Number P.24/MENLHK/SETJEN/KUM.1/2020 concerning the Utilization of Forest Areas for Food Estate Development, stipulates that forest areas may be converted into food estates to support food security through changes in the designation of forest areas determined by the minister.

Applications for changes in the designation of forest areas may be submitted by the minister, head of the institution, the governor, the district head/mayor, to the head of the authorized body specifically assigned by the Government. The regulation was signed by Minister Siti Nurbaya on 26 October 2020 and promulgated on 2 November 2020. The regulation will increase the inequality in the control and utilization of Indonesia's forest areas.

Being Alert!

The Meteorology, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) estimates that South Sumatra will experience a drier dry season. This will trigger hotspots that cause forest and land fires, especially in peat ecosystem areas. The forest fires have made the community suffer, especially if it happens amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as this will create an additional burden for the community.

They are not only victims of ecological disasters but also experience food crises, harvest failure, loss of economic access, and loss of livelihood. For example, at least 500 schools in South Sumatra had to be closed due to the haze caused by the forest fires in 2019.

In the same year, the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) issued statistics that the number of Upper Respiratory Tract Infection cases have continued to increase, with 39,683 cases in June 2019, rising to 40,874 cases in July 2019, then further increasing to 50,682 cases in August 2019.

Therefore, if the government, especially the South Sumatra Provincial Government, does not review the environmental permits of companies operating in flood-prone areas, a bigger (disaster) might happen. The rampant deforestation of peat and forests in the following years will cause more ecological disasters. The ecological crisis is worsening day by day, it is likely to get worse if no serious efforts are taken. The exploitation of natural resources at a faster rate than the restoration of natural ecosystems will threaten our lives.

The government must ensure that no further development in South Sumatra is carried out without a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Environmental Impact Analysis (AMDAL). Not only as a requirement document but also as an overview of the ecological unity in the area.***

*This opinion was shared by the Executive Director of Walhi South Sumatra and Coordinator of Pantau Gambut South Sumatra, Hairul Sobri.


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