Indonesia’s climate crisis: Gendered implications and solutions

Commentary by Muhammad Salman Al-Farisi and Bryant Martin Fiesta
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Indonesia’s climate crisis: Gendered implications and solutions A woman carries a girl among the rubble of houses and tree trunks at an area affected by flash floods in Hulu Sungai Tengah regency, South Kalimantan, Indonesia, Jan. 22, 2021.

2022 marks a consequential year for the world’s third largest democracy. This year, Indonesia serves as the chair of the G-20, headlined by a call to “Recover Together, Recover Stronger” – words that lean on themes of rehabilitation, inclusion, cooperation and stability.

This role presents an opportunity for Indonesia to underline its status as a regional leader and a serious player in the global community. Internally, however, a storm has been brewing that, if left unaddressed, threatens to destabilize not just the archipelago but the rest of the world.

Natural disasters, particularly floods, landslides and forest fires, have steadily increased and gotten worse across the country, both in severity and number of fatalities, since the turn of the millennium. The fact that many Indonesians live in coastal cities exacerbates the effects of these disasters. In 2000, the country recorded 82 disaster events. In 2021, that number rose to 3,058.

Aside from the global trend of rising sea-levels, Indonesia has seen a massive expansion of land converted into palm oil plantations, seasonal slash-and-burning of plantations, encroachment into protected forested areas, and plastic pollution, all of which emit vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

It’s no surprise then that Indonesia is the fifth largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions.

Many Indonesians have grown concerned and frustrated about this issue, which broadly remains unaddressed. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change are compounded by patriarchal norms in Indonesian society, increasing the instability of women’s experiences day by day.

The question remains for political leaders: where is the urgency to craft and implement the gender-responsive climate policies their constituents need?

Herliana Supri, 13, and her sister Siti Latifatunabilaa, 11, walk through water while selling snacks at the Muara Angke port that floods due to high tides, in Jakarta, Nov. 9, 2021. [Reuters]

Climate change: the impacts for women

Based on observations from the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, in the first eight months of 2021, 85 percent of Indonesia experienced unusually prolonged dry seasons. Several areas in Nusa Tenggara, Java and Bali currently experience months of no precipitation. This is accompanied by higher-than-average temperatures, which makes land unproductive and economic opportunity scarce.

Meanwhile, women face a negative bias in the labor force. When job opportunities become increasingly limited, men are usually prioritized. As a result, many women have turned to working overseas to mitigate the financial effects of climate change.

However, due to a largely unregulated and exploitative sector, many fall victim to poor working conditions, limited access to healthcare and legal protection, and human trafficking.

One woman from East Nusa Tenggara, for example, shared, “I left [for Malaysia] because it was my wish. I want my family to live a decent life … Even if I didn’t do anything, I’d still be hit [by my employer]. I got sick from being tortured by my employer. My whole body was full of wounds.”

On the other side of the spectrum, South Kalimantan and Papua have registered their worst floods in decades. It’s no surprise that a March 2021 survey of 400 Indonesian women about their perceptions of the direct effects of climate change identified flooding as the most salient issue they face.

Since 2000, increased deforestation and illegal logging in these provinces have directly correlated with an increase in the number of flood events per year. As a result, many residents of South Kalimantan and Papua have been internally displaced and relocated to evacuation camps. Unfortunately, sexual and gender-based violence in these camps run rampant, with women and girls experiencing abuse and harassment.

Floods and drought are not the only natural disasters made more acute by climate change. Droughts and increased pumping of groundwater stress the Earth’s crust, leading to stronger and more frequent earthquakes and tsunamis.

During the Tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004, Acehnese women died at a rate four times higher than that of men because of unpaid care work that kept them in their homes while their husbands, many of them fishermen, were out at sea, unaffected by the deadly waves that arrived onshore.

Government staff collect plastic waste and trash as they participate in the “Banda Aceh Friday Clean” at a beach in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Sept. 20, 2019. [AFP]

Male-centered policy-making

Political leaders’ commitment to improving climate policies is to be expected in an accountable and responsive democracy. Yet, despite government efforts to address climate change, implementation of such policies remains a work in progress.

Moreover, according to a 2020 study by local partners of the Berlin-based Gender into Urban Climate Change Initiative network, the Indonesian government’s climate policies ultimately increase gender injustice, as they lack “gender indicators to ensure mitigation and adaptation policies and strategies are responsive to the gender gap, and contain efforts to address it.”

One of the challenges Indonesia faces is the rise of illicit money in a political environment dominated by men. For example, the provision of land clearing permits has regularly increased in the lead-up to Pilkada (local elections), with deals being made between politicians and potential donors in the extractive industry (i.e., bribes for votes).

This directly correlates to spikes in the number of “hot spots” – areas vulnerable to current and/or future climate impacts – around the country. Ruwaida Ismail, program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), has been vocal about this issue, calling attention to the government’s problematic role in “issuing permits for land and resource exploration and use everywhere like a sale.”

Despite women’s essential role in the supply and use of energy in daily life, such as collecting firewood and kerosene for cooking and lighting their homes, women and other groups made vulnerable by the climate crisis are largely excluded from policymaking processes and the energy and natural resources sector.

“Women always raise the issue of climate change,” says Solidaritas Perempuan Chairperson Dinda Nisa Yura, yet “the government does not mention the role of women in tackling climate change. The government does not see gender justice as being related to overcoming climate change.”

Similarly, a set of economic measures that prioritize job creation sparked protests in 2020 from environmentalists, feminists, and young people, claiming the measures serve business interests, cause social and environmental damage, and reduce guaranteed public access to information.

A delegate from Indonesia attends the First Plenary Meeting of the COP26 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Oct. 31, 2021. [AFP]

Transformative solutions

But there are reasons for hope. In an unprecedented 2021 verdict, the Central Jakarta District Court held high-level government figures responsible for violating Law #32/2009 on Environmental Protection and Management, calling on them to regulate air pollution and cross-border carbon emissions.

The gravity of the climate crisis is becoming increasingly salient across the archipelago, and feminist voices are rising to demand equitable and sustainable remedies. Here are some to consider:

  • Increase the meaningful participation of women, especially those in rural and indigenous communities, in decision-making processes and the development of disaster mitigation and adaptation schemes.
  • Bolster women’s access to landownership and property rights, increase women’s economic resilience, and diversify their economic options.
  • Model the way for Indonesia’s neighbors in the Indo-Pacific to commit to progressive policies that apply gender justice to climate change solutions, for the effects of a global phenomenon must be addressed with global solutions.

Consolidating support behind these actions can help create a vibrant, independent, and environmentally healthy Indonesia for generations to come – something all Indonesians can rally behind.

Muhammad Salman Al-Farisi is a Jakarta-based researcher in politics and governance studies. He studied at Diponegoro University. Bryant Martin Fiesta is a Washington-based researcher in feminist approaches to democracy, human rights, and governance, who studied at The London School of Economics and Political Science. The views expressed here are their own and do not reflect the position of BenarNews. 


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