Indonesia: Prabowo’s Pledge To Prioritize Energy Security Stirs Environmentalist Concerns


By Tria Dianti

Environmentalists are expressing deep concerns about Indonesia’s ecological future because of President-elect Prabowo Subianto signaling a strong preference for boosting mining industries and sectors that exploit natural resources.

Prabowo, set to assume the presidency in October, has pledged to carry on with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s strategy of developing these sectors to their full potential through converting forests into plantations to secure food and energy. 

“President Joko Widodo has built a strong foundation and I’m determined to build on that foundation. Indonesia must be self-sufficient in food and then energy security,” Prabowo said during a speech at the Qatar Economic Forum last month.

Reducing poverty, he said, required “a massive campaign, massive effort.”

“We have to concentrate on processing our natural resources. We have to make a great effort in downstreaming and to industrialize,” Prabowo said, reiterating one of the planks in his campaign platform.

But that will require a heavy reliance on coal to power some of these industries, environmentalists warn.

Downstreaming refers to the government’s strategic policy of transforming raw materials into higher-value products before export. This policy aims to boost the country’s economy by developing industries that process natural resources such as minerals, palm oil and other commodities into finished goods.

Environmentalists say that the swift industrial expansion and the risk of increased pollution pose severe threats to Indonesia’s rich ecosystems.

“The situation in the extractive industry could worsen under Prabowo’s presidency,” said Melky Nahar, coordinator for the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), an NGO.

Melky raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest, noting the involvement of politically connected business people in the upcoming government. 

Prabowo’s brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, is a business tycoon with interests in mining, palm oil, pulp and paper. 

“Questions have been raised about the blatant extractive approach during President Jokowi’s administration, notably the initiatives to allocate forested lands for industrial uses,” Fanny Tri Jambore, head of campaigns for the environmental organization Walhi, told BenarNews.

“Massive nickel mining, particularly in forest areas, presents a grave environmental challenge,” he said.

The term “extractive industry” refers to companies that take minerals and other raw materials from the earth.

Fanny said the growing demand for coal, fueled by the energy needs of nickel-processing plants, could exacerbate environmental damage across the archipelago.

Nickel processing

The government’s strategy involves the downstreaming of 21 commodities including nickel and bauxite, as well as crops such as palm oil. 

“The strengthening of Indonesia’s industrial capabilities, especially in industries that depend on Indonesia’s mineral resources, will continue, will intensify, and the sector will scale,” Prabowo wrote in a commentary published by Newsweek. “I am committed to advancing Indonesia toward achieving its objective of becoming a fully developed country by 2045.”

Prabowo has said that the downstreaming initiative is projected to need an investment of about U.S. $545 billion.

Following a 2020 ban on nickel ore exports, Indonesia has seen the rise of 43 nickel processing facilities, according to government data.

Data shows that nickel mining concessions in Indonesia expanded to over 2.47 million acres in 2022, with a significant portion located within forested regions, Fanny said. This represents an increase from 2021, further raising concerns about deforestation and habitat loss, Fanny said.

He warned that the nickel industry’s reliance on coal-fired power plants is driving increased coal production elsewhere, thus amplifying environmental damage across Indonesia.

In addition, policies focusing on processing resources are reducing the involvement of local communities in managing these resources, he said.

On Sulawesi island, Indonesia’s largest center for the production of nickel ore, reports have surfaced about water and air pollution, deforestation, waste dumping and human rights violations.

Walhi’s records reveal 862 cases of violence against communities over the past decade, ranging from intimidation and prosecution to physical violence, sometimes resulting in deaths or loss of community rights.

“This will accelerate environmental degradation, following the pattern established during Jokowi’s administration. If this pattern continues, the situation will only worsen,” Fanny said.

Batteries for e-vehicles

The Indonesian nickel industry is largely dominated by companies from China. 

Most of the nickel processed in these facilities is destined for export, catering to the growing international demand for renewable energy solutions, notably batteries for electric cars. Indonesia’s ambition is to become a major hub in Southeast Asia for the manufacturing of electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, JATAM’s Melky criticized the Jokowi government for its practice of amending regulations to serve vested interests, particularly the allocation of revoked coal mining permits to religious groups.

Jokowi signed a decree last month giving religious organizations permission to manage mining concessions revoked from companies, citing the contribution made by these groups to Indonesia’s independence struggle.

The regulation follows an announcement by Jokowi’s administration in 2022 that it was canceling mining and plantation permits covering millions of acres because development was moving too slowly.

“This practice of bypassing regulations exacerbates the situation, allowing continuous mining operations across Indonesia,” Melky said.

Climate goals

The government has set ambitious climate goals, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 32% below the business-as-usual scenario by 2030 through domestic efforts, and by 43.2% with international support.

Mahawan Karuniasa, an environmental analyst from the University of Indonesia, said that because of Indonesia’s dwindling non-renewable resources and an approaching energy shortage, it is important for the country to concentrate on the later stages of production, such as processing and distribution.

“Nickel represents Indonesia’s hope, as the country has traditionally only been a market,” he told BenarNews. 

“We must ensure that environmental concerns do not compromise Indonesia’s sovereignty in managing our natural resources, especially due to foreign parties who wish for Indonesia not to pursue downstreaming,” he said.

“Therefore, there is no other choice but to move forward.” 

In a speech to the People’s Consultative Assembly last year, Jokowi said his government was committed to a sustainable approach in downstreaming, emphasizing the use of renewable energy and reduced environmental impact. 

Prabowo has echoed this commitment, according to Sufmi Dasco Ahmad, a senior official at the president-elect’s Gerindra Party.

“The downstreaming policy will be subject to comprehensive environmental impact assessments, factoring in the technology employed and measures for environmental conservation,” Sufmi told BenarNews.


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