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Indonesia Jokowi wants growth, but it’s not enough

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By upsetting everyone’s best-laid plans, the pandemic has made us realize the fallibility of our resolute quest for maximum effectiveness.

Among those looking for a more relaxed future, in which there is a better balance between the rewards of today and the risks of tomorrow, is Joko Widodo.

The Indonesian president has his own compass for navigating the post-Covid-19 world: a two-year stint in a remote pulp mill in his youth.

His search for answers, Widodo told me in an interview with Zoom, takes him back to Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra. It was there that, as a forestry graduate, the future furniture businessman turned politician got his first job, living with his wife, Iriana, deep in the jungle, a seven-hour drive from the capital. provincial, which itself is 2200 km (1367 miles) from the house on the main island, Java.

As we pursue our right to development, I know what it’s like to be dependent on forests for a living, he said. To extend the country’s resource wealth, he wants to reforest more than 130,000 ha (321,000 acres) an area as large as Los Angeles this year, make Indonesia a hub for electric vehicles, promote furniture made only with wood. certified wood and increase the contribution. renewable energy to 31% by 2050, compared to only 11% now. It’s about finding a balance, he says.

A year and a half into his second and final five-year term, Widodo has come a long way from Aceh, where resource exploitation once coexisted with brutal military repression.

In today’s democratic Indonesia, and particularly after Covid-19, the approach is a more participatory transformation, with sustainable development an important consideration, the president said. A moratorium on new oil palm plantations remains in place. Once the pandemic has subsided, the ambitious and controversial plan to locate the new national capital in the middle of the tropical rainforests of Borneo will resume.

As the first president to emerge from outside a tight-knit elite, Jokowi, as the 59-year-old popular leader is known, must create jobs for an ever-growing population of around 270 million, the fourth most great in the world.

The economy might need another quarter of a century to earn high income status. As China and the United States vie for world domination, it won’t be easy for Indonesia to hitchhike.

While Jokow’s immediate priority is to revive economic growth to stave off the risk of large-scale capital flight, starting with a 7% expansion in the current quarter, his task is to reinvent the market’s place. Indonesia in the global economy that will require real leadership.

The central question is whether a sprawling archipelago of 17,000 islands and atolls, straddling the Pacific and Indian Oceans, should extract all the carbon trapped for thousands of years in its peaty wetlands. Everything else, from putting more palm oil in biodiesel and setting up fewer coal-fired power plants to decongest the sinking capital, Jakarta will emanate from that vision.

Widodo wants to show he is serious about making up for lost time with new regulations expected later this year.

The world’s leading thermal coal exporter is finally seeing the need to put the right price on carbon, to tax it correctly and to bury resources in a barely exploited renewable energy reservoir. But a low-carbon future is tough in a country rich in resources and with strong business interests.

Policy reversals have slowed the adoption of wind and solar power, leaving coal cheap and plentiful with a dominant 39% share in the country’s total energy mix.

More than charcoal, however, palm oil embodies the tensions between lives and livelihoods. The thick haze of pollution released each year when oil palm planters set fires to clear land has been a constant source of irritation in recent years in Indonesia’s relations with neighboring countries like Singapore.

Last year, the Indonesian government warned that the illegal burning could pose a health hazard to coronavirus patients at home. Widodo insists that things are improving: only 296,000 ha were victims of forest fires last year, up from 2.6 million ha in 2015.

But there is no easy way out of palm oil addiction. Prior to the pandemic, Indonesia’s plan was to increase the refined palm oil content of biodiesel to 40% by 2022, from the current 30%. The shift to increased domestic demand is a way to protect 16 million direct and indirect jobs in a crucial export industry that the European Union (EU) has declared unsustainable.

The EU will phase out palm in biofuels by 2030. After the pandemic, some growers are packing their bags, with Sri Lanka recently asking planters to dig up their trees.

Despite concerns about environmental degradation and human rights violations, this is not an immediate option for Indonesia, which accounts for a huge share of global production.

Jokowis’ choices will shape the climatic destiny of Southeast Asia. Even though the world’s most popular cooking oil is indispensable in the meantime, the president needs to double his village fund program so that rural hamlets, like the one I visited in Sumatra, can decide for themselves what to do with it. way to diversify their economies with government support.

The good news is digitization help. In young Indonesia, one in five people is on the Internet at least eight hours a day, according to consulting firm Deloitte. Of the 8.2 billion US dollars (33.92 billion RM) raised by startups in Southeast Asia last year, 70% went to Indonesia.

The country is bursting with entrepreneurial energy around businesses that could be both profitable and sustainable, like the TaniHub, which allows people to buy products online directly from farmers.

Widodos’ greatest legacy will always be a brilliant state-led project: a new capital on the island of Borneo, the scene of some of the worst excesses in extractive development under the 32-year-old dictatorship of former President Suhartos.

Indonesia is one of the most stable democracies in Asia, resisting Islamist militancy even with the army returning to barracks.

The hold of the Javas on national affairs is however still strong. This is something that distant new capital can help weaken, leading to a more equitable distribution of the pie. If there is one lesson to be learned from Covid-19, it is the need to make a decisive break from centralized efficiency. People need more autonomy and choice.

The new seat of administration may be a symbol of this path, a city powered by water and wind power and serving as a nursery for 20 million seeds and saplings each year. It will be green, very green and smart, Widodo tells me.

Being able to apply the lesson the president learned as a young man in Aceh will be the biggest test of the rest of his time in power. Bloomberg

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services. The opinions expressed here are his.



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