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Struggles in East Kalimantan Underscore Need for Better Access to Environmental Information

In 2011, two children drowned in a mining pit on the outskirts of Samarinda, the capital of Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province. Companies have excavated several mining pits near residential areas and abandoned them without taking proper environmental and safety control measures. These pits often fill with rainwater and become drowning hazards. From 2011 to 2013, 11 people have drowned in unused mining pits in East Kalimantan.

In the hopes of preventing these kinds of fatalities in the future, the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), a group of Indonesian NGOs and community organizations, wanted to determine what companies were doing to mitigate mines’ environmental and health impacts. While more than 70 percent of Samarinda’s land is allocated to mining concessions, little information is provided to citizens on companies’ compliance to safety and environmental health rules.

JATAM requested from the Provincial Environment Agency the environmental impact assessments (EIAs) of more than 60 mining companies in East Kalimantan—information citizens are legally entitled to through the country’s 2008 Public Disclosure Act or Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. They found that despite Indonesia’s FOI law, actually obtaining critical, government-held information can be exceedingly difficult. This situation leaves Samarinda’s citizens vulnerable to environmental, health, and social injustices.

Requesting Information from Indonesia’s Government

Kahar Al Bahri, JATAM’s East Kalimantan Coordinator, describes the process of requesting environmental information under Indonesia’s FOI law in an interview on YouTube.

According to Article 22 of Indonesia’s Freedom of Information Act, every “public information applicant may submit a request to obtain Public Information to the relevant Public Agency in writing or otherwise.” The Public Agency must submit a written response no later than 10 working days from the receipt of the request—either to provide the information or explain a refusal. However, in practice, JATAM’s experience was much more arduous. A summary of their process is as follows:

  1. JATAM initiated the process on January 12, 2012 by sending a letter to the Provincial Environment Agency in Samarinda, East Kalimantan. After their request went unanswered, they sent and re-sent letters to the Provincial Environment Agency in Samarinda, the Environment Agency of East Kalimantan, and the Information Commission of East Kalimantan. Still, JATAM received no response. They then filed a formal complaint with the mayor of Samarinda, who claimed that the information they requested was private.

  2. JATAM then sent a formal complaint to the Information Commission of East Kalimantan, which agreed to mediate a meeting between JATAM and the Environment Agency of East Kalimantan. The Environment Agency, however, did not attend the first meeting, and at the second meeting, the Environment Agency’s head denied the legitimacy of JATAM as an organization that could file a FOI request. Eventually, through the Information Commission’s mediation, the Environment Agency agreed to give JATAM the EIAs in one month.

  3. Less than a month later, the Environment Agency claimed that the meeting did not follow the correct legal procedures and refused to comply with the Information Commission’s decision. JATAM involved the local court system and, after several months, the court ruled that the Environment Agency had eight days to comply with JATAM’s EIA request.

  4. In May 2013, the Environmental Agency was delaying the request, but had begun issuing one EIA per week.

To date, JATAM continues to work towards acquiring all the information they need.

The Access Initiative’s STRIPE Project

In order to obtain environmental information to which Indonesian citizens are legally entitled, JATAM had to make multiple requests over more than a year, file multiple formal complaints, and, ultimately, bring their fight to the local court system.

This mirrors The Access Initiative’s (TAI’s) own experience with the Strengthening the Right to Information for People and the Environment (STRIPE) project. Launched in 2010, the STRIPE project was an initiative in partnership with the Open Society Foundations, Thailand Environment Institute, and Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), with support from Washington State University, Vancouver and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. STRIPE sought to empower communities in Indonesia and Thailand to protect their environmental health by improving access to information. Like JATAM, The Access Initiative and its partners also found that information was difficult to attain using the FOI Act in both Indonesia and Thailand. ICEL, for example, received complete, comprehensible responses to only 40 percent of its 145 FOI requests.

STRIPE, the Jakarta Declaration, and the Need for Proactive Disclosure

In response to this finding, STRIPE partners held a Regional Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia in April 2013 and issued the “Jakarta Declaration for Strengthening the Right to Environmental Information for People and the Environment.” The Jakarta Declaration urges governments to improve access to all information on air and water quality pollution—including Environmental Impact Assessments—and offers a detailed road map on how to do this. It asks Indonesia’s and other governments to do more on making information available, specifically to promote proactive disclosure of environmental information.

As we can see through the experiences of JATAM and The Access Initiative’s STRIPE project, in many countries—including Indonesia—FOI laws are not enough. To really improve access to information, governments and companies need to proactively disclose environmental data in ways that communities can easily understand—such as by publishing it in newspapers, making warning notices available in local communities, or putting it on public websites. Such information should be made available even without a formal request for information.

Next Steps

There is definitely room for improvement in Indonesia. Timely access to information should be a priority for the country, especially because it has just become the chair of the Open Government Partnership, a global initiative to boost government transparency. As Indonesia adopts its second action plan under the partnership, a priority should be ensuring better access to information in the environment sector —including environment quality and health information.

The Access Initiative and its partners will continue to promote the proper implementation of FOI as an advocacy tool. We’re launching the second phase of STRIPE this week in Jakarta. The project will focus on building strong civil society coalitions to advocate for corporate disclosure of information. We also aim to increase civil society’s ability to analyze, use, and visualize information received from government in evidence-based advocacy campaigns.

More importantly, the Access Initiative and partners will push for the recognition that proactive transparency of environmental information is paramount—both in Indonesia, and in countries around the globe.

LEARN MORE: To learn more about The Access Initiative and receive updates on STRIPE Phase II, sign up for our newsletter here.

A special thanks to: Ariana Alisjahbana (WRI) for translating the many steps of JATAM’s right to information (RTI) request.

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