Business over knowledge: Science is in the crosshairs of Indonesia’s investment strategy

Photo: Dani Albakia

After a foreign researcher was forced to leave the country, the scientific community reckons with a government in Indonesia sensitive to findings that contradict the official line.

By Zachary Frye

Earlier this year, a longtime resident and researcher in Indonesia, David Gaveau, was forced out of the country over an alleged visa infraction. His visa prevented him from engaging in on-the-ground research in Indonesia.

Gaveau, a research associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), was studying the damage caused by 2019’s forest fires on local Indonesian ecosystems.   

A dispute quickly ensued. As his immigration problems escalated, Gaveau suggested that the government’s line of reasoning was suspect. He argued that because he was not engaged in live research and was instead using freely available satellite imagery and other public data sets to estimate the extent of the damage, he was not in breach of his visa.

A hard battle. Fire Care Community in Pakning Asal village, Riau, Indonesia tries to put down peatland fire.
The Fire Care Community in Pakning Asal village, Riau, Indonesia tries to put down peatland fire.
Photo: M. Naswira Saputra

The CIFOR and the Indonesian government dispute the extent of the damage sustained in the 2019 forest fires. According to CIFOR, 1.6 million hectares of land were burned in 2019. However, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK) insist only 1.2 million hectares were burned.

After CIFOR’s data was published, KLHK responded harshly. They suggested the data was flawed. CIFOR admitted that the study had not been subject to a peer review, bypassing standard practice for CIFOR publications. The data and was subsequently taken off the website.

Instead of simply counteracting Gaveau’s numbers with their findings and engaging with him in scientific debate, the Indonesian authorities decided to deport him.

Indonesia’s investment strategy interferes with factfinding

Speaking with ASEAN Today, Kiki Taufik, the Global Head of Greenpeace’s Indonesia Forest Campaign, said that the government is sensitive to any news that upsets potential investment into the country—particularly at this sensitive time as it prepares to sign an omnibus bill on job creation.

“At the moment the government has plans to release the omnibus law, which is very problematic for the environment. You get the sense that they are sensitive [because] of the way they respond to scientific reports”, he said. “They don’t want to scare away investors.”

The omnibus law, which was sent to the House of Representatives earlier this month for deliberation, was introduced by President Joko Widodo in December of last year.

Jokowi meets Prabowo Subianto
Joko Widodo (right) walks with his Minister of Defence Prabowo Subianto.
Photo: Rahmat, public relation staff in Secretariat of Cabinet, Republic of Indonesia.

Designed to spur economic growth, it relaxes environmental standards by reducing the number of business activities that require the submission of an environmental impact analysis. Critics say that the legislation could have disastrous effects on the environment, arguing that the country would be a regional outlier if it chose to do away with assessments. 

“Environmental impact assessments are practiced universally, especially in developed countries,” said Mas Achmad Santosa, a maritime expert from the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative.

“All 10 ASEAN countries require it and the trend is actually toward strengthening it, not weakening it,” he added.

The government is letting Indonesians down on the environment

Although CIFOR decided not to comment for this article, claiming they “do not discuss matters related to staff, consultants or associates,” it was reported that Gaveau’s colleagues characterized his deportation as “another sign of the growing tension between the Indonesian government and the scientific community.”

This does not bode well for the future. Although Jokowi, as the president is colloquially known, warned against inaction in the wake of the forest fires, claiming he “told the military and police chiefs to fire whoever fails to tackle the forest and land fires,” his government’s sensitivity to contradictory findings sends a negative message to Indonesia’s scientific community.

For Taufik, despite the President’s assertions, Gaveau’s deportation is just further evidence of the government’s failure to adequately protect the environment.

“As a foreigner, he had a target on his back,” he told ASEAN Today.

In the past, “Jokowi made strong statements against the fires. He mentioned that information is important. He gives out instructions for transparency, saying that the government is doing something [about the fires], but the other part of the issue is low enforcement.”

According to a Greenpeace report, none of the biggest companies responsible for Indonesia’s forest fires from 2015-2018 were penalized with serious civil or administrative sanctions and no licenses were revoked.

“Companies get sanctioned according to the government, but the follow up is rarely clear. Follow though is muddled and the fines are too small to make a difference,” added Taufik.

Strong environmental regulation is good for business in the long run

As the government stumbles, natural land continues to face destruction and the Indonesian people are the ones who pay the price. Despite the government’s assertion that environmental regulations are a hindrance to Indonesia’s growing economy, in the long run, environmental degradation will only be bad for business.

The environmental assessment “isn’t merely an administrative document,” said Henri Subagiyo, the former executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL). “It’s guidance for businesses to protect the environment [and] if it’s ignored, then there will be environmental risk for the businesses themselves. [It] actually protects businesses from legal threats,” he added.

Other countries in the region seem to agree. Singapore, for example, one of the region’s top investment destinations, is making a concerted effort to offset environmental degradation.

In 2019, a carbon tax on carbon emissions was set at S$5 (US$3.50) per tonne of direct greenhouse gas emissions, with plans for increases after 2023.

As the age of climate uncertainty begins, there is no country with all the answers. Only sustained attention and a sincere effort will avert the worst-case scenarios of environmental degradation. With that said, Indonesia’s investment strategy of reducing environmental regulation is a mistake.

Gaveau’s deportation is just a footnote in the overall story of national malfeasance on the issue. For Indonesia to make real progress for its people and natural environment, science will need to be respected moving forward, not merely tolerated until it fails to tow the government line.