The Indonesian balance

US aid reductions for environment undercut political aims

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As protests erupt again in Indonesia, recall how this time last year forest fires raged across the archipelago, casting a smoky haze as far away as the Philippines.

The links between Indonesia's political and economic upheaval and its besieged environment should be painfully clear. Its environmental devastation has paralleled its plunge into economic and political chaos. International leaders grappling with the Indonesia crisis need to recognize that this nation is not only a global economic linchpin, it is one of the Earth's two richest biological repositories, rivaling Brazil in record numbers of plant and animal species.

Rather than address this, the Clinton administration is considering doing just the opposite. United States funding for environmental efforts in Indonesia could be slashed. The US Agency for International Development's (USAID) plans to reduce by half spending for natural resources management. This is despite the fiscal year 1999 congressional appropriations bill which directs that the USAID Indonesia mission budget be increased by more than 100 percent, to $75 million. The allocation for the Indonesia mission's environmental initiative is a mere 7 percent of the overall mission expenditure, down from 25 percent over the last several years.

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This is particularly alarming because USAID traditionally has been a leader in supporting conservation efforts the world over. And USAID investments in the environment in Indonesia have long had strong, essential ties to efforts to promote human rights and civil society. This agency, perhaps more than any other, should recognize that an economically stable democracy and environmental protection are not either-or choices.

Indonesia's natural resources are its richest economic asset. Sustaining basic resources for a population of 210 million is necessary for recovery and growth.

Last year, the smoke that choked Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore came from fires on 3.5 million hectares of Indonesia's forests and other lands, according to the Indonesian government's own estimates. The El Nio drought was only one factor behind these fires. Destructive logging and plantation land burning are widely blamed.

Some 80 percent of Indonesia's coral reefs are at risk. Yet Agriculture Minister Soleh Solahudin recently said Indonesia will become the world's biggest exporter of fishery commodities because it has vast marine resources not yet fully exploited. Can such a contradiction be reconciled unless natural resource issues are part of the economic rescue package?

The country's economic crisis coupled with drought and fires have put many rural people in a very precarious situation. In Java, approximately 10 million families face famine. Another 7 million families outside of Java, particularly in eastern Indonesia, face severe food shortages. Under these circumstances, any sources of food and income will be exploited.

Along with illegal poachers looking for quick profits, impoverished people hunt for endangered species in national parks. Marine resources are extremely difficult to protect from over-fishing.

Because environmental groups work so closely with grass-roots communities, they can guide donors and the government to ensure food aid and other disaster relief efforts pay attention to rural regions where the poor are putting the greatest pressure on forest and marine ecosystems.

Environmental groups with no formal links to the government have some of the most extensive outreach to grass-roots communities in Indonesia's isolated outer islands. While putting in place environmental projects, they have also played a crucial role in promoting civil society. USAID's environmental work has expressly sought to bring natural resource decision-making to the provincial and local levels, moving governmental powers from Jakarta to the communities.

Many rural Indonesians have seen the government confiscate their lands for various development projects - yet they rarely if ever see revenues from land conversion schemes. Environmental groups have championed the cause of these people for decades. Indeed, some of the people who bravely stood up to Indonesia's former president Suharto in his final days of power were environmentalists, including former Minister of Environment Emil Salim.

Even with Suharto out of the picture, Indonesia's timber, mining, oil and gas, and fisheries operations still are largely under the control of an elite few. Anger and unrest as a result of these operations are increasing, resulting in riots not only in the capital, but also in other parts of Java, Irian Jaya, and Sumatra. Established and trusted environmental groups are often the best link to disenfranchised people, and can help tremendously toward constructive resolutions of these conflicts.

The US is rightly emphasizing political reforms necessary to bring about democratization and a stable economy in Indonesia. But this can't occur at the expense of the environment. If the US ignores the environmental link between economic strength and democracy, the effort to bring about Indonesia's recovery will fail.

USAID's Indonesia environmental portfolio must be restored or increased.

* Peter A. Seligmann is chairman and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International. Jatna Supriatna is the organization's Indonesia program director.

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