Green Priorities?

by Diego Salvatierra:

A stroll around a Jakarta market is enough to reveal the vibrancy of the nation’s press. Dozens of publications, ranging from serious newspapers, to tabloids, to magazines catering to every niche of society, plaster street kiosks. Since the fall of President Suharto in 1998, the Indonesian free press has flourished, contributing to the country’s political diversity and burgeoning cosmopolitan culture. In this fast-growing tropical nation, however, the media has failed to tackle one crucial subject: As the country grows, so do its environmental problems.

Due to widespread destruction of vast forests, Indonesia has become the third largest carbon emitter in the world. Most deforestation is linked to the explosive growth of palm-oil plantations. The felling of rainforests for these plantations results in the mass erosion of peat, the thick soil cover that stores huge amounts of carbon dioxide from long-dead vegetation; upon the soil’s destruction, the stored greenhouse gas emanates into the atmosphere. Indonesia has also been plagued with severe urban pollution and the depletion of marine resources. But a flip through an issue of Kompas, the most widely read Indonesian-language newspaper, revealed only one article on the environment out of over 50 articles, columns, and letters. These issues are well covered in English-language and foreign press, but they are “not the biggest priority in Indonesian language media,” according to Brian Hanley of Search for Common Ground (SFCG), a conflict transformation NGO. If media is the voice of the people, this lack of coverage does not bode well for the environment.

Teaching environmental awareness through comics, a new initiative. (Courtesy Search for a Common Ground)

While many Indonesians are aware of the environmental problems facing their country, such issues rarely take center stage. According to journalism student Boris Anggoro, Indonesians “are really concerned about natural issues, but generally, common Indonesians are more concerned about politics, or even gossip.” It is hard to say whether lack of interest causes sparse coverage or vice versa, but two particular obstacles to awareness stand out: Indonesia’s vast size and diversity, and its need for development.

Roadblocks to awareness

Indonesia is a massive nation, comprised of over 17,000 islands and home to dozens of languages. As a result, the issues that matter to people vary greatly across regions. The island of Java, home to the capital Jakarta and to over 130 million people, has long been mostly deforested because of the intensive agriculture needed to feed its dense population. Consequentially, the Javanese are less likely to feel affected by current deforestation. According to Eran Fraenkel, an expert on Indonesian media and civil society, in most regions “issues of local interest are sometimes covered, but national issues are seen as less relevant.”

The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), located on the outskirts of Jakarta, estimates that only 10 percent of Indonesians have actually been to a rainforest. Kalimantan and Papua, the most forested islands, are sparsely populated and hard to access. Few Indonesians will actually experience the effects of deforestation firsthand: “We don’t know what happens in other parts of the country; I live in Jakarta, but I don’t really know what happens to our fellows in Papua,” admitted Anggoro.

This regionalism is exacerbated by the fact that Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, is a recent construct, a quasi-artificial language developed through government effort in the 20th century. It is only spoken natively by about eight percent of Indonesians. Most grew up speaking a local language, and as a result, local language media holds considerable influence.

Popular misinformation has also proven to be a setback. According to Hanley, “most people don’t see anything wrong in palm oil plantations, in deforestation,” with environmentalist agendas sometimes perceived as hindrances to the defeat of poverty. Moreover, many view the massive expansion of the palm-oil industry as a national triumph brought about by local entrepreneurs. They wonder why Indonesia should be forbidden to do what the West did centuries ago. Indeed, even in mostly-deforested Java, economic growth and conservation seem to clash. undeveloped land is hard to spot on the two-hour-long train ride from Jakarta to Bogor, a west-Javanese city replete with traffic congestion and modern malls. More tellingly, this sprawling city is only minutes away from CIFOR’s leafy headquarters, on one of Java’s last isolated patches of rainforest. Its location is symbolic of the contrasts brought about by Indonesia’s industrialization.

Continuing pressure on the media from industry, despite a seemingly free press, also presents an obstacle to national recognition of environmental issues. Harry Surjadi, an Indonesian environmental journalist, recalled the story of a colleague who tried to write about palm-oil company Sinar Mas, which has received criticism from Green-peace. His own editors forbade him from reporting. The “media tries not to blame palm oil plantations” for environmental degradation, said Surjadi. It is not uncommon for companies to sue incriminating journalists through the nation’s “criminal defamation law.” Many journalists refrain from using company names, if they report on environmental problems at all.

Local and international solutions

Big business, local interests, and national development goals all hinder environmental concerns from becoming priorities. But new solutions, targeted at the source of these obstacles, could help. CIFOR, for example, offers policy suggestions that are both “pro-poor” and “pro-forest.” By combining sustainability and development, the Center hopes to change Indonesians’ perceptions of environmental protection as an obstacle to development.

“Forests are a resource that should be used,” explained James Clarke, CIFOR’s Media Liaison. Many Indonesians, like Anggoro, agree: “We cannot forbid [those who live near forests] to exploit nature; the rainforest has been a huge element of their lives.” Recognizing this, CIFOR supports initiatives such as reduced impact logging and the Reducing Carbon Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) plan, which use market forces in favor of forest preservation. The idea is to monetarily compensate developing nations for preventing carbon emissions from deforestation, giving countries an incentive for conservation. The government has already paid some heed to CIFOR’s ideas. President Susilo Bambang yudhoyono, who has vowed to address environmental problems, recently announced a $1 billion REDD deal with Norway.

Hanley’s SFCG is overcoming the pressures against environmental consciousness in a different way. Aware that an overly critical stance will only isolate the organization, SFCG has found a less confrontational manner of raising awareness. It publishes comic books featuring the adventures of “Gebora,” a fictional soccer team with children representing different Indonesian ethnicities. Some of the most well received issues, such as “Desas Desus” (“Rumors”) and “Harapan Menghapus Duka” (“Hope to Erase Grief”), inform readers about the harmful effects of deforestation while teaching values such as teamwork or tolerance. Such non-confrontational media allow SFCG to change people’s attitudes beginning at a young age.

A country awakens?

In addition to these efforts, there are other signs of hope. A massive mudslide in eastern Java, termed a “mud volcano,” has received considerable media coverage, perhaps pointing to increasing awareness. The disaster, which began in 2006, has lasted for years, devastating thousands of homes and acres of farmland. It was in all likelihood caused by Lapindo, a mining company owned by the wealthy Bakrie family, influential in media and government. Bakrie-owned media did not mention the company when covering the disaster, instead alleging a far-off earthquake as the cause. But Indonesians knew better: mudflow-displaced families raised complaints and hundreds rallied in Jakarta and East Java.

Although compensation is still meager, public pressure forced Aburizal Bakrie, Minister of Welfare and former chair of his family’s business, to acknowledge Lapindo’s role. The company’s involvement is now so widely accepted that the very mention of the word “Bakrie” sparked vociferous discussion of the mudslide among a roomful of undergraduates at the university of Indonesia. It is possible, though, that the disaster gained notoriety only because it struck a densely populated and central area. Deforestation unfortunately does not have that advantage.

Public awareness of what happens on the ground is crucial for developing countries like Indonesia to find the right balance between development and sustainability. Whether through modest initiatives like SFCG’s comics, vast international plans like CIFOR’s REDD, or the audacious reporting of journalists like Surjadi, many are working to build the sense of urgency that Indonesia’s fragile environment sorely needs. Slowly, it seems they are succeeding.

Diego Salvatierra ’13 is in Pierson College. Contact him at