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Indonesian priest's hydroelectric plan loses its spark

Project to allow villagers to generate their own electricity is beset by accusations of mismanagement and graft

Indonesian priest's hydroelectric plan loses its spark

Children play near a storage facility that was used to supply water to a small hydroelectric power plant in Rego in Ruteng Diocese in this 2020 file photo. The plant is no longer working amid accusations of corruption and mismanagement surrounding the project. (Photo: Father Alexander Jebadu)

Nearly a decade ago, Father Marselus Hasan set out on a mission to provide hydroelectric power to villagers in Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province.

What has been generated since are accusations of mismanagement and corruption in the implementation of his projects.

The priest has led efforts to construct five micro-hydropower plants in Ruteng Diocese since 2012 in collaboration with Budi Yuwono, a hydroelectric expert.

This spurred well-known Indonesian director and actor Nicholas Saputra to feature his endeavors in a documentary called Semesta (Universe) released in 2019.

He was also entrusted with other projects initiated by the United Nations Development Programme, the Ministry of Environment and local authorities.

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However, controversy is now dogging the priest, sparked by Divine Word Father Alexander Jebadu, a professor at the Ledalero School of Catholic Philosophy in Flores, who published a report criticizing a hydropower scheme in Rego, a village in West Manggarai district.

He claimed the 2017 project was beset with irregularities and tainted by financial mismanagement.

“My family were among the victims. I heard about and saw how shocked they were because of how shoddy and costly it was,” Father Jebadu told UCA News.

Swallowing 1.28 billion rupiah (US$91,000), part of which was borrowed from a provincial-owned bank, the project involving 160 families proved disastrous, with the electricity being shut off after only a few months due to a lack of water and broken machines, he said.

"Meanwhile, residents still have to pay off the loan to the bank," Father Jebadu said, adding that each family borrowed $248.

He accused Father Hasan and Yuwono of only seeking profit as they should have known from the beginning that the water supply from the nearby Wae Leming River was not sufficient.

“Both hid this from the community and ignored it. [Because] if the project was canceled, they would get nothing,” he said.

He also questioned why Father Hasan tried to control all financial matters by making himself the project treasurer and the lack of transparency in the way he carried out his duties. 

The priest said the community was provided no details about expenses, and then suddenly they were told the costs had more than doubled from the $37,000, originally quoted. This led people to suspect the price of equipment was being marked up.

Father Jebadu reported his findings to President Joko Widodo and the minister of social affairs, asking them to help pay off the bank loan.

"I considered this a disaster, so I asked the government to help the villagers,” he said, adding that he hoped there would be a police investigation.

Father Jebadu's accusations led to another from a former partner of Father Hasan.

Fransiskus Kanis Laja, manager of the Ruteng-based Ayo Mandiri Cooperative, said he had worked with Father Hasan and helped finance the first power plant in St. Damian Parish in Bea Muring in 2012 by lending villagers $16,600 

However, he said, there are still 31 members who had not paid off the loan. "The priest no longer cares about that,” he told UCA News.

Priest's rebuttal

Father Hasan has denied the accusations against him and says he has conducted things, including financial matters, transparently. "There's nothing to hide,” he told UCA News.

He said the electricity was cut off in Rego due to a lack of water discharge and the community did not work on a self-help project they agreed to from the start, namely to widen their local dam and drain water from one of the closest rivers to it.

"Presently, this makes electricity only available during the rainy season," he said, adding that he was trying to discuss a solution with the community.

"Regarding the bank loan, it’s the villagers’ responsibility to pay it off," he said.

Regarding Laja’s accusation, Father Hasan said he had cut ties with the cooperative as it had defaulted on an agreement they had made.

“I had worked to promote the cooperative in my parish and encouraged parishioners to join. We agreed that part of the dividends for the members had to be given to the parish, but the cooperative did not honor this,” he said.

Ruteng Diocese has been forced to intervene in the row. According to its vicar general, Father Alfons Segar, Father Hasan’s projects were carried out with the bishop's full knowledge, the villagers were informed about them, "and technically the calculations can be justified.”

He admitted that the bank loan and some governance issues needed to be fixed, but “Father Hasan with the diocese’s assistance is working to resolve them.”

Albert Dodol, a community leader in Rego, says he is praying for the row to be resolved.

"Villagers feel the burden of having to continue paying off the bank loan when the power plant is not working," he said.

He said the Church must also show that it is trying to solve problems honestly.

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