Media Interview: The Straits Times, Singapore

You can read the full article here.
1. Riau Governor Rusli Zainal was arrested for corruption involving illegal logging permits on June 14, days before forest fires in his province saw pollutant levels over the region rise to record highs. But observers and NGOs say it is no coincidence that more rampant graft has been behind the severe current haze. Part of the charges against Mr Rusli involve the dishing out of illegal logging permits in Pelalawan Regency, where a good number of hotspots have been in recent days. In a nutshell, to what extent is corruption a key factor behind the problem of burning? 
 I am not very well informed on the logging sector, as most of my research is on palm oil plantations and their link to fires and haze. However, the case of the Riau Governor that you describe sound very similar to the dynamics that exist in the palm oil sector. The illegal allocation of permits, especially on peatland, has been a serious driver of fires in oil palm plantations as well. As I’m sure you are aware, the commercial use of peatlands is illegal in Indonesia. Peat, of course, is is highly flammable, and resultant fires are very hard to put out. When peat burns, it releases carbon-rich, sooty smoke that result in very bad haze. A lot of the fires that we face today originate from peat areas.

Peatlands are attractive to oil palm companies because palms grown on peatland have higher yield of fruit bunches. I understand that peatland is also attractive to loggers because many valuable species of timber grow on peat. Furthermore, there usually are not many communities living  in the wet peatland areas, reducing the eventuality of land rights issues with locals.

Corruption and patronage linkages have enabled companies with good relationships (‘clients’) with government officials (‘patrons’) to obtain licenses and permits to use these peatlands for commercial purposes, despite the laws. When the land gets drained and cleared, either as a result of logging or for plantation purposes, the exposed peat dries quickly and accidental fires are a great risk. I also understand that sometimes illegal loggers intentionally burn the land to remove evidence of their activities. Of course in the case of oil palm, many corporations find it cheaper to burn to clear land in preparation of planting, as compared to mechanical methods.
These companies which do deliberately burn, or have accidental fires on their concessions due to negligence, are often also able to escape exposure and punishment if they have maintained good patronage relationships with these officials. Corrupt practises also come in handy in ensuring that these cases are not pursued seriously in court. It is interesting to note, for instance, that only one oil palm plantation company has ever been successfully prosecuted in court thus far for fires, and even that, with a drastically reduced sentence.
The country’s decentralization policies have only exacerbated the problem. Now, local governments are responsible for generating a large part of their own budgets. Therefore, these local officials are even more motivated to do whatever it takes to attract investment to their region, including colluding with these corporations to evade laws and also evade punishment for breaking these laws. The Riau Governor’s behaviour that you mention seem to fit in with this pattern.
2.  Based on your research, how can nipping such corruption also be part of the solution? But more importantly, how feasible is fighting such corruption? 
Of course, stamping out corruption and patronage politics would be an extremely important part of the solution. But unfortunately, I think there is little chance of this happening. Patronage is deeply embedded in the business culture of Indonesia, and it often involves officials from the very bottom of the ladder to the top. What makes corruption and patronage so difficult to stamp out is that the ones who are supposed to be enforcing the laws are also in collusion with those who are breaking them. The responsibility of the patrons in such cases would be to protect their clients for as long as it is beneficial for them to do so. Thus, as long as it continues to be profitable for both patrons and clients to engage in such behaviour, the status quo will be maintained. A solution from outside the Indonesian governance framework is needed, either through market forces or international pressure.

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