For whom and at what cost?
06 January 2020
This article was written under smoke-stained tannin-yellow skies in Canberra and under dark blood-red skies in Merimbula. Despite not being under direct bushfire threat, these places experienced toxic haze for weeks. I had irritated eyes, headaches and nausea.
November 10, 2019: no rain fell on the Australian continent for the first known time; approximately 1,188 fires burned in Kalimantan; and over 140 simultaneous bushfires burnt Australia.
The 2019 fires in Indonesia and Australia (and everywhere else for that matter) are a global emergency: ancient rainforests that have been permanently wet for tens of millions of years and once considered fireproof are now tinderboxes; precious fauna have been burned to a crisp; and rare and ancient songbird populations have been decimated. In under four months Australia’s fires emitted an extra 250m tonnes of CO2 — half Australia’s total annual emissions; and in Indonesia over 73,000 fires have been burning since September, with some of the worst in Kalimantan. Indonesia’s disturbing 20-year pattern of now-annual rainforest and peatland fires and the toxic smoke and haze events symbolise the cultural, environmental and political futures of us all, because it’s not just the parallels between the 2019 Australian and Indonesian fires that are concerning, it’s the respective 20-year regimens of corruption, inaction and climate negligence, and the individual programs each government is using to silence those who speak out.
Palm Oil, Rice and Peat
Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer — much of which comes from Kalimantan.
The hardest-hit areas during Indonesia’s fire crisis are the palm oil centres of Kalimantan (and Sumatra). The problems go back decades. Under the Suharto regime, the Mega Rice Project (MRP) aimed to clear 1 million hectares of peatlands in Kalimantan. Traditionally, controlled fires are lit during the Dry Season by smallholders to clear fields for new planting. During the past 50 years over 74 million hectares of Indonesian rainforest and peatland — two Germanys — have been logged, burned or degraded, illegally or otherwise, to make way for industrial agriculture, palm oil and rice. Peat soil is highly combustible, and since the 1990s the fires have been getting worse. Between 2014 and 2019 Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (the KPK) charged and convicted twenty-two corrupt MPs, governors, mayors and district chiefs who issued permits in exchange for bribes. Local smallholders are being used as scapegoats, with the big palm oil firms — many of which have government connections — blaming smallholders for starting fires that then spread. Even experts can’t say how the fires start, because of government secrecy about permits and licences, and, according to a 2016 KPK report, the palm oil industry’s ‘sector-wide lack of transparency and accountability’.
Water, Cotton and Coal
Australia is the driest inhabited continent, the world’s largest coal exporter, third largest beef exporter, and a top ten cotton exporter. The problems go back decades, because each commodity is hugely water-dependent.
In the middle of Australia’s worst drought on record, Federal MPs Angus Taylor and Barnaby Joyce defrauded the Federal Government in a dodgy water licence deal, and the QLD State Government allocated Adani Group a 60-year unlimited water licence for the Carmichael Coal Mine, without public consultation.
Angus Taylor (Minister for Energy & Emissions Reduction) co-founded Eastern Australia Agriculture (EAA): a cotton farming company based in the Cayman Islands that is being investigated for a questionable $80mil water licence sale. Barnaby Joyce (former Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister for Infrastructure & Transport) was Minister for Agriculture & Water Resources at the time of the deal, which proceeded without public tender. Under the 2017 Taylor–Joyce deal, experts say the government paid above market value for ‘unreliable intermittent flood water’. So far the government hasn’t seen one drop because there’s been no rain. EAA did post a cool $52m profit, which went straight to the Cayman Islands tax haven.
In 2018 the Queensland Government allocated mining giant Adani an associated water licence (AWL) and a surface water licence (SWL). The AWL allows Adani to take unlimited groundwater. The SWL allows Adani to extract 12.5 billion litres of water from the Suttor River annually — nearly equal to all local farmers combined. Now, if a community (e.g. Suttor River farmers) wishes to appeal the merits of selling and/or granting such water licences, it needs to appeal while making a submission to a ‘public notification process’. In 2016 the QLD Minister for State Development declared the Carmichael Mine and related infrastructure projects ‘prescribed’ and ‘critical’. These declarations mean the Coordinator-General can expedite all approvals, which means there is no public notification process. Without public tender processes or public notification processes, communities are stripped of any legal or regulatory right of review or appeal. EAA and Adani expose a sector-wide lack of transparency in the agricultural and mining industries, and put on display the legalised corruption and government secrecy surrounding permits and licences in Australia.
Corruption: verb vs. noun
There’s a widespread sense that the issuing of water licences in Australia and plantation and mining permits in Indonesia are corrupt.
If we think of corruption as a set of behaviours elite people, including politicians, ‘do’ to circumvent due diligence and process, rather than the name of a specific behaviour that may be ‘corrupt’ or ‘illegal’ in and of itself we get to the crux of the matter. A politician’s action may not be illegal, but politicians write the laws, so when they create laws that legitimise and reinforce their behaviours and criminalise others they corrupt our legal and regulatory systems. The law is a low bar when critiquing the corrupt actions of politicians.
The five red flags of corruption
Despite repeated calls, decades-long, for an Australian federal Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), Australia still doesn’t have anything like Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). Here are five ways corruption occurs in both countries.
Corruption attacks and undermines all our rights
In 2018 around 164 frontline human rights and environmental defenders (HRDs) world wide were murdered while protecting their homelands from exploitation by mining, food, logging and agriculture firms. In Indonesia alone there were 171 cases of violence against HRDs between 2010 and 2018, and reported cases of violence against journalists hit 53 in 2019 (30 involved police). In October 2019 the bodies of journalists Maraden Sianipar and Martua Siregar were found on the PT Sei Alih Berombang (SAB) palm oil estate. The two supported locals in dispute with the company. SAB also attempted to murder Ranji Siallagan, head of an association of local smallholders also in dispute with the company. A 2015 expansion onto forested land by SAB was found to be illegal. The murders (and attempted murder) occurred only a month after HRD Golfrid Siregar, who was helping locals in dispute with palm oil companies, was found dead. Police ruled he died in a drunken car crash, but colleagues and relatives say he didn’t drink. In 2019 Indonesia’s parliament stymied the KPK’s powers — again. It’s no longer an independent institution; it’s been stripped of the ability to use independent wiretaps; and the very politicians and civil servants it was tasked to monitor now oversee it.
And while HRDs and journalists may not be getting murdered in Australia, the past five years have seen the constriction of rights and protections for journalists, whistleblowers and activists. Journalists face increased surveillance; laws that make it illegal to report on government activities (corrupt or otherwise); and Federal Police raids and prison. The ABC was raided in 2019 for a 2017 story about military events in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2013, and journalist Annika Smethhurst was raided a year after publishing a story about new powers for intelligence agencies. Whistleblowers have had legal protections removed and are being hounded by the Government. Witness K exposed illegal spying by the Australian Government; Kevin Frost exposed the murder of a prisoner in Afghanistan; and Richard Boyle exposed improper use of debt collection powers by the Australian Tax Office. Witness K and his lawyer had their passports seized and face gaol time; Boyle faces life in prison; and Frost took his own life in December 2019. Finally, speaking out against bad Government decisions is becoming more difficult. New laws that criminalise peaceful protest, impose harsher sentences on environmental activists, outlaw secondary boycotts, and make organising more arduous have been passed across Australian government jurisdictions.
The recent deaths of journalists and HRDs in Indonesia, and the current crackdowns on basic rights and protections in Australia have raised international concerns over political, democratic and press freedoms in both countries. It’s increasingly dangerous for HRDs, journalists and citizens to monitor and question governments (as we’ve seen in Australia in the first weeks of 2020); question permits, deals or licences; examine regulatory frameworks; or trace money and asset flows. Together these red flags paint a compelling argument that corruption — however it’s legalised — is rampant in both countries, and that in order to protect decades of dodgy deals, inaction and negligence on climate change and the resulting climate damage they’ve inflicted, both governments are now using systematic actions to corrupt regulation; reduce protections for journalists and whistleblowers; criminalise protest; and silence First Nations Peoples, local communities and HRDs who speak out.
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