While the government claims the new law will favour both the environment and business, experts voice concerns that it will speed up the destruction of its rainforests.
Indonesia’s new "Job Creation" bill that sparked nationwide protests since early October, has now courted criticism from the country's environment activists.
According to experts on the environment, the 812-page jobs bill, spanning 15 chapters, regulates various sectors, including labour and the environment, paving the way for large-scale deforestation.
Wahyu Perdana, campaign manager at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), told TRT World that the new bill will allow private companies to easily obtain permits to access the country's resources in forests and woodlands.
“We see the bill eases rules and regulations for palm plantation companies that have operated illegally to control the land. The government gives them amnesty. It is in contrast with the previous bill, which imposed criminal sanctions on them or the land was simply confiscated (for flouting forest laws),” Perdana said.
Environmentalists believe that by removing the environmental reviews for new projects, the contested legislation would result in the shrinking of Indonesia's rainforest cover, which helps in combating climate change by lowering the carbon emissions in the air.
Perdana said the future looks grim in light of palm plantation companies having already destroyed 2.7 million hectares of forest area by working the system and acquiring illegal permits to expand their production.
According to The Audit Board of The Republic of Indonesia (BPK), the companies planted palm trees in 2,749,453 hectares of forest land, encroaching upon the ancestral domains of forestry.
Using state-owned satellites, the auditors scanned provinces like Riau, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, North Sumatra, South Sumatra and West Papua. They found 715 companies encroaching the forest land with contested permits.
For the Indonesian government, however, the legislation is aimed at giving companies "a chance" to complete all legal formalities and shun the practice of violating the environmental regulations.
Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, recently said that between 1999 and 2000, state governments issued permits to companies to expand palm oil plantations, while there was no legal cap on the number of permits to be issued to each company.
Bakar said that while the government is certain about cutting out fraud in environmental reviews, it is also considerate about the future of the companies involved in the palm oil trade and does not wish to criminalise them.
The new legislation, she added, is not only aimed at protecting companies, but also the people who live in the forests.
“Remember, there are so many people who deeply depend their lives on the forest. The excessiveness must be ruled with strict regulation for all stakeholders. The Job Creation Law will accommodate all,” said Bakar.
Muhammad Arman, Director of Policy Advocacy, Law, and Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), said the new bill is tweaked in favour of the investors rather than indigenous people who depend on the ecological balance of the old forests.
“The bill regulates on forbidding people to harvest without permits from officials, while naturally indigenous peoples depend on the forest to survive,” said Arman to TRT World.
Arman said this bill will harm the indigenous people because they often dispute with companies over the claim of customary forest.
“Why do they dispute? Because there is no legal certainty for them to live. And the implication is they are marginalized,” said Arman.
Representative Darori Wonodipuro from the Gerindra party, who joined the deliberation of the bill, admitted that it will give companies that operate in forest areas more of a chance. While the criminal sanction for companies that offend the law is minimal, the government gives the companies with troubled permits spare time for three years to complete the administrative requirements.
Wonodipuro, who was former director-general at the Environment and Forestry Ministry, said many reports indicate that law violations had been committed by palm plantation companies. But, law enforcement acts towards them are still low, he added.
“The spirit of the bill is amnesty, but it's rarely shown by the government. Me and law enforcers found that there are violations done by companies spread in eight provinces with total loss Rp 360 trillion ($ 24 billion),” said Wonodipuro who personally opposed the new provision but has to stick to his party instruction to support the bill.
He warned that the new bill will put the forest at risk, with destructive implications like floods, forest fires, and avalanche.
The bill also has drawn global attention. On the day the it was passed, 36 global investors that manage $4,1 trillion in assets, including Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Asset Management, Aviva Investors, and Church of England Pensions Board, warned that the bill may potentially harm the environment. “We, the undersigned global investors, are writing to express our concern over the proposed deregulation of environmental protections in the Omnibus Bill on Job Creation,” said in an open letter.
Previously, in July, the World Bank also expressed their concern that the bill would undermine the workers and put the environment at risk.
The parliament has sent the new bill to President Widodo, as the protest enters its second week. Protestors have demanded that the government repeal the bill.
With additional reporting by Aryo Bhawono.