The Status of Indonesian Environmental Defenders, 2014-2023: Threats Increasing, Time For State Action

Prof. Bambang Hero -  an environmental expert, was taken to court by the oil palm plantation company PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa (JJP) over his testimony–given in accordance with his expertise–during a trial involving allegations of environmental degradation by the company in 2016. In that instance, Prof. Bambang Hero was an environmental defender, while the case brought by PT JJP constituted a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), with such lawsuits often being filed by parties disrupted by efforts to save natural resources and the environment.

From 2014 to 2023, at least 133 instances of SLAPP or threats to environmental defenders were recorded in Indonesia. Auriga Nusantara recorded this number of cases by gathering publicly available information and/or details directly from victims or other parties with knowledge of such threats.

The increase in threats to environmental defenders in Indonesia appears to be shadowing what has been happening in many countries across the world. Global Witness recorded at least 1,910 cases of environmental defenders being murdered between 2012 and 2022. This runs contrary to international insistence to protect environmental defenders, like that being voiced by the United Nations, UNEP, Global Witness, the Environmental Defender Law Center (EDLC), the Council of Europe and Human Rights Watch.

Even though Indonesia has already ratified the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, all of which include protecting environmental defenders, the country’s regulations and policies are far from adequate to do so. Some legislation even provides room for threats to environmental defenders. Examples of this are the Law on Electronic Information or Transactions (UU ITE), which enables critics to be imprisoned on the pretext of protecting a reputation, or the Law on Mineral and Coal Mining (UU Minerba), which lists mining protests as a criminal offence. Even the Criminal Code (KUHP) can be twisted to keep environmental defenders in detention to stop them defending natural resources and the environment.

It is worth appreciating that State efforts to protect environmental defenders have emerged sporadically; however, all of these have been technical rules that are easily ignored if they clash with higher level legislation. The Attorney General, for instance, has issued Guideline No. 8/2022, which in essence directs attorneys to afford more protection to environmental defenders, and opens room for their release if they have been criminalized by investigators. Further, the Supreme Court has issued Supreme Court Regulation (Perma) No. 1/2023 as guidance for judges to afford legal protection to the rights of environmental defenders.

Criminalization was the most common threat to afflict environmental defenders in Indonesia from 2014 to 2023. Criminalization is a huge scourge due to the far-reaching authority of police investigators who are under no obligation to ensure named suspects are taken to court. Consequently, both the Attorney General guideline and Supreme Court regulation are insufficient to prevent environmental defenders becoming victims of criminalization.

Increasing threats to environmental defenders, be they in the form of lack of legal assurance, high levels of criminalization, or an absence of deterrents for those inflicting violence upon them, show the State has yet to be fully supportive of protecting environmental defenders. It is time for the State to fill this void by issuing regulations that ensure environmental defenders are afforded protection. The Government should also show clear goodwill and political will because what environmental defenders are doing, namely guarding and preserving Indonesia’s natural riches, is for the greatest well-being of the people as mandated by the Constitution.

Additional information:

  • Many terms are used to describe environmental defenders, including environmental warriors, environmental human rights defenders, and others.

  • All data on threats to environmental defenders in Indonesia from 2014 to 2023 are displayed
    on the website https://environmentaldefender.id
    . To date, this includes data that was either recorded in the public domain or came to the direct attention of Auriga Nusantara, so it is highly likely that the site has yet to include other cases involving environmental defenders.

  • The environmental defenders appearing in the site are individuals who have suffered violence. Its database does not include legal entities, which have also frequently been hindered, obstructed or even pressured when protecting or maintaining Indonesia’s natural resources or environment, as has happened to WWF Indonesia and numerous other environmental organizations.

  • Data appearing in the site is specifically for cases involving environmental defenders, it has yet to include defenders of democracy in general, such as agrarian defenders or human rights defenders.

  • From 2014 to 2023, at least 13 environmental defenders were killed in Indonesia for their activities in protecting the environment: Maradam Sianipar, Martua Siregar, Golfrid Siregar and Erni Pinem in North Sumatra; Jurkani and Sabriansyah in South Kalimantan; Indra Pelani in Jambi; Yopi Perangiangin in Jakarta; Salim Kancil in East Java; Gijik in Central Kalimantan; Erfaldi Erwin Lahadado in Central Sulawesi; Arman Damopolii in North Sulawesi; and Marius Batera in Papua.


Roni Saputra, Director of Law Enforcement, Auriga Nusantara, roni@auriga.or.id