Support to civil society and independent scientific research appear of little importance to Norway’s new climate and environment deal with Indonesia
Much has changed since former President Yudhoyono of Indonesia addressed the G20 in Pittsburgh in 2009. Promising to cut carbon emissions with outside help by as much as 41 per cent by 2020, Yudhoyono said that: “As a developing nation, we prioritize the promotion of growth and the eradication of poverty. But we will not achieve these goals by sacrificing our forests. We must attain both development and the management of our forests – simultaneously. Success in managing our forests will determine our future and the opportunities that will be available to our children”. Fast forward to COP 26 in Glasgow, 12 years later, and the message from Indonesia was quite different. Its Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, tweeted that “the massive development under President Jokowi must not stop in the name of carbon emissions or in the name of deforestation”.
This change in attitude from Indonesia’s political leadership is apparently reflected in Norway’s new climate and environment deal with the country. An earlier 2010 deal between the two countries, in the wake of Yudhoyono’s Pittsburgh speech, emphasized a multi-stakeholder approach, including the establishment of a National REDD+ Agency, with many members drafted-in from civil society. This was complemented by further Norwegian support to civil society, for example to religious and indigenous peoples’ groups to help them engage with anti-deforestation efforts. But Indonesia’s REDD+ agency was disbanded in 2015 by President Jokowi and its responsibilities subsumed into the newly merged Ministry of Environment and Forestry. Ever since, it is mainly civil servants in this ministry that have held formal responsibilities for delivering on Indonesia’s commitments under the 2010 Letter of Intent with Norway, for which Norway has agreed to pay USD 56 million to Indonesia’s Environment Fund.
The story of the Norway-Indonesia climate and environment collaboration as told by the responsible ministries in both countries has largely been positive to date. But independent researchers and civil society have consistently pointed to an alternative, less positive, narrative. Civil society groups in Indonesia have, for example, queried the calculations behind the USD 56 million payment, asking to what extent the dip in Indonesia’s post-2016 rate of primary deforestation is actually linked to the implementation of measures under the 2010 Letter of Intent. They also point out that the calculations underestimate Indonesia’s forest carbon emissions by excluding massive CO2 emissions from peat-soil decomposition and burning, which are typically related to forestland clearance.
Scholars have noted that the recent reduction in Indonesia’s primary deforestation rate should be judged on the basis both of its government’s actions and other developments outside the government’s direct control. Crucially, wet weather due to the La Niña climate pattern and reduced global demand for timber and palm oil must be factored-in to any serious assessment of its policies. Even academic proponents of REDD+ now recognize that several factors are behind Indonesia’s headline deforestation data, including weather conditions that reduced the risk of a repeat of forest fires in 2015 and low prices dampening incentives to expand palm oil.
Against this background, details emerging of the new forest and climate deal with Norway are concerning to us as scholars of Indonesian society and politics. Among the most significant is that the deal appears to place new restrictions on scientific publishing connected to the Norway-Indonesia arrangement. There also seems to be less space for support to civil society than under the previous Letter of Intent. These restrictions have already been described in Development Today as possibly amounting to political censorship, potentially dampening voices that are critical of the Norway-Indonesia partnership.
To understand why this is a problem, we must consider Indonesia’s recent trajectory. Although Indonesian democracy has made considerable strides in the 20 years since the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship, supported by public resources from Norway and other countries, authoritarianism still casts long shadows on Indonesian society. This is particularly the case when it comes to how it extracts and uses its natural resources to support economic growth. Government rhetoric that it will not allow environmental considerations to slow growth and job creation is accompanied by a number of legislative changes, notably the so-called Omnibus Law which restricts the public’s ability to consult on or challenge projects that may cause environmental and social harms. The Omnibus Law is so unpopular that, in 2019, it sparked large, violent, protests across major cities, the largest since the fall of Suharto.
Indonesia holds regular and free elections, but its democracy is observed to have become increasing illiberal in recent years. Its score on an index by Freedom House, which measures political rights and civil liberties, has sunk over the last five years from 65 to 59 (partly free) out of a possible 100. Systemic corruption, discrimination and violence against minority groups, conflicts in resource rich Papua and other regions, and the politicized use of defamation and blasphemy laws, undermine Indonesia’s further development into a free and prosperous nation.
That the Indonesian authorities wish to control the narrative on the performance of its environmental policies, including its climate and environment deal with Norway, unfortunately reinforces this autocratic turn. Indeed, both foreign and Indonesian scientists focused on the environment already report major obstacles from Indonesian authorities in publishing their findings. Last month, for example, an op-ed in a major English-language daily in the country by a group of international researchers questioned the Indonesian Minister of Environment and Forestry’s claim of an increasing orangutan population. This led to the issuance of a letter by the ministry to all heads of national parks and conservation centers not to collaborate with one of the involved authors. The letter further requested that the parks and centers report on all conservation-related activities by international researchers and monitor ongoing research to ensure the “objectivity” of its findings.
In order to fully understand the impacts of the public investments being made by Norway around the world in the climate and environmental spheres, it is vital both that independent scientific research be conducted into its initiatives and that domestic civil society is supported. This is particularly the case given the significant restrictions placed by the state both on scientists and on civil society in important countries for Norway’s bilateral environmental cooperation, such as Indonesia. Norwegian politicians should reconsider this new deal in light of its worrying signal effects and potential to suppress independent research.
David Aled Williams, Senior Researcher
Kari Telle, Senior Researcher
Sofie Arjon Schuette, Senior Researcher
Chr. Michelsen Institute