Indonesian conservation bill is weak on wildlife crime, critics say

  • Lawmakers in Indonesia have submitted for review to President Joko Widodo’s administration a bill that would overhaul the country’s 28-year-old conservation law.
  • While environmental advocates have long pushed for updates to the law, the new draft has alarmed many with its various provisions that critics say represent a regression from the existing legislation.
  • Problem articles include a “self-defense” clause that would waive criminal charges for killing protected wildlife; a more nebulous definition of wildlife crime that some fear could make it harder to crack down on traffickers; and the opening up of conservation areas to geothermal exploration and other “strategic development” projects.
  • The ball is now in the court of the government, which is required to review the bill before sending it back to parliament for final passage. However, a minister says the government will “hold off” on its review, and suggests the existing conservation law is sufficient.

JAKARTA — Environmental advocates have warned that proposed revisions to Indonesia’s conservation act could provide new loopholes for wildlife traffickers, who already enjoy a thriving trade in one of the world’s most biodiverse countries.

The revision of the conservation act, formally the Natural Resources Conservation Law of 1990, was widely anticipated to help authorities crack down harder on the illegal wildlife trade. And the latest draft submitted by parliament to the government for review does make some moves toward that goal: it would ban the trade in species not mentioned on Indonesia’s list of protected species but that are regulated by CITES, the main international treaty on endangered animals and plants. For instance, it could help close a loophole that allows traffickers to move items such as African elephant ivory through the Southeast Asian country with impunity.

But critics point to a longer list of problems with the bill. It makes no mention of online trafficking, a growing problem as traders move to platforms such as Facebook and Kaskus, Indonesia’s largest internet forum. It doesn’t seem to address the issue of giving endangered animal parts as gifts — a practice still carried out in places like Papua province, where officials have been known to distribute souvenirs made from rare birds-of-paradise.

Neither does it upgrade sentencing guidelines for wildlife crimes that conservationists say are in dire need of change. Under the current legislation, traffickers can receive a maximum sentence of five years in prison. But in reality, offenders are rarely prosecuted; on the few occasions they are, they typically receive token sentences far below the maximum. Conservationists have called for the introduction of minimum sentences to combat the problem.

“This bill falls short of our expectations,” Samedi, program director at the Indonesia Biodiversity Foundation (Kehati), said at a recent press conference in Jakarta, convened by NGOs to air their concerns about the bill. “It weakens the current law which is already pretty weak.”

Trees in a rainforest in Sulawesi, one of the largest islands in the eastern part of Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Conservationists have long pushed for new legislation on wildlife crimes. Not long after a smuggler was arrested in 2015 with a suitcase full of rare cockatoos stuffed in plastic water bottles, prompting dozens of people to turn over their illegal pet birds to the authorities, the government announced plans to revise the 1990 law.

Since then, myriad versions of the new conservation bill have been proposed by NGOs, the government and lawmakers. On Dec. 5 last year, the parliament officially submitted a bill to the government for review. Once the government signs off, the bill will go back to parliament for final passage at a plenary session.

However, Justice Minister Yasonna Laoly told reporters on April 4 that the government would “hold off for the moment” on advancing the bill, as quoted by Kompas. Speaking after a cabinet meeting chaired by the president, he suggested the current law was adequate for addressing Indonesia’s conservation needs. It’s unclear what will happen with the bill now, but sources in the government told Mongabay the administration was unhappy with the draft submitted by parliament.

Defining wildlife crime

One of the biggest differences between the existing legislation and the proposed bill is in the language around wildlife crime. The 1990 law clearly states that anyone who “trades, keeps, distributes or kills” a protected species has committed a crime, punishable with imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of up to 100 million rupiah ($7,000).

But the new bill omits that key point. Instead, it employs the umbrella term “utilization of natural and biological resources,” and says this may be carried out with a permit. (Failure to secure a permit to “utilize natural and biological resources” carries the same maximum sentence as before and a much heftier fine of 5 billion rupiah, or about $363,000.)

Critics say the new language muddies the definition of what constitutes a wildlife crime, and would make it harder for authorities to crack down on the illegal trade in animals and plants.

For a law to work well, “every prohibition must be clearly stated,” said Henri Subagiyo, executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL). He suggested the new bill could effectively “legalize” wildlife trafficking if it was passed in its current state.

Firman Subagyo, a lawmaker on the parliamentary committee that came up with the current draft, rebuffed those concerns, suggesting that penalties for wildlife trafficking were best addressed by the Criminal Code. “Laws should not include rigid provisions,” he told Mongabay by phone. “It’s impossible that the bill degrades the previous law,” he added. “What we want is to strengthen the existing law.”

An Indonesian university lecturer was prosecuted by authorities after posting to Facebook pictures of endangered macaques he had killed. Photo: Facebook.

Online trafficking

In 2015, authorities in the port city of Surabaya arrested a man selling rare eagles on Facebook. The bust came amid a growing outcry over people showing off dead or abused animals on social media. Lawmaker Viva Yoga Mauladi said at the time that the revised bill would address online trafficking.

Last year, the Wildlife Conservation Society, an international NGO that helps the Indonesian police catch traffickers, said that at least 40 percent of illegal wildlife traders in the country used online platforms such as WhatsApp to carry out their transactions since 2011. It also estimated the value of this illicit animal trade at 13 trillion rupiah ($910 million) a year.

While existing legislation on electronic transactions does address the online wildlife trade, it is far from adequate to stem the actual practice, said Sofi Mardiah, wildlife police program manager at WCS-Indonesia. Any revised conservation law, she said, must lay the foundation for a monitoring scheme that filters out wildlife or products made using animal parts from online platforms, including social media and e-commerce sites, where the trade is prevalent.

“Wildlife traffickers are looking for stealthy ways and means to trade the animals,” she said.

Self-defense clause

Other provisions in the revised conservation bill could create loopholes for traffickers, critics say.

ICEL’s Henri pointed to Article 152, which states that no law enforcement action will be taken against perpetrators “who have good intentions and are compelled to commit [wildlife crimes] in order to make their daily living.”

The same article could conceivably be used to waive charges against people who kill protected animals, such as orangutans, on the basis of self-defense, Henri said.

“This provision is very dangerous because the indicator is vague,” he said. “How are you going to decide whether someone has good intentions or not, or whether they are forced to do it or not?”

A number of wildlife killings by locals who claimed they were attacked by the animals have been reported in recent months.

Two rubber farmers in Central Kalimantan province beheaded and shot an orangutan multiple times in late December for allegedly charging at one of them when they tried to scare the ape away from their plantation. In January, four farmers in East Kalimantan also cited self-defense for the killing of an orangutan they shot at least 130 times. In March, villagers in northern Sumatra stabbed a Sumatran tiger to death after it attacked and injured two men from a hunting party that had been trying to get the animal away from their village.

An underwater ecosystem in a marine national park in the Komodo Islands of Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Geothermal exploration

Another major change in the conservation bill is that it would open up conservation areas, except nature reserves and the core zone of national parks, to so-called strategic development projects.

The move is seen as a nod to the energy industry, which has long sought access to Indonesia’s world-leading geothermal reserves but been thwarted by existing protections under the current conservation act. Much of Indonesia’s geothermal potential is believed to be locked deep under existing conservation areas, for which exploration permits currently cannot be issued.

The proposed revision has drawn criticism from conservationists, who say it provides a loophole to allow operators in the extractive industries to exploit more protected areas.

Next steps

The government convened a cabinet meeting on April 4 to discuss the draft bill submitted by parliament, but looks to be in no rush to send it back for passage.

The meeting, meant to generate feedback and concerns over the content of the bill, concluded with President Joko Widodo ordering his ministers to ensure the bill was aligned with the constitution and would benefit Indonesia in the long run.

Environment and Forestry Ministry Siti Nurbaya Bakar told Mongabay her office would discuss the cabinet’s feedback with parliament to perfect the bill, but Justice Minister Yasonna suggested there was no need for the bill at all.

“We think that what we have now [the 1990 conservation act] is enough to protect our conservation [areas] and natural resources,” he said, according to Kompas. “We just need to improve the synchronization between stakeholders.”

He also noted that the bill as it stands would require at least 30 supporting regulations to clarify some of the new provisions.

ICEL’s Henri called for the discussion to continue, citing a pressing need to revise the current law. He said he hoped the review would be transparent so that civil society groups could weigh in on the process.

“The longer we wait to discuss the bill, the more time we give companies to continue manipulating the current conservation law,” he said.

An orangutan hanging between trees in a Bornean rainforest in East Kalimantan, a province in the Indonesian part of the island. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Banner image: A hornbill in Mount Leuser National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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