The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, July 22, 2005



Duncan Graham © 2005

In May 2005 conservationists worldwide celebrated the 15th anniversary of Indonesia’s first non-commercial, non-government environment centre. Duncan Graham reports:

When Kermit the TV cartoon frog sang ‘It’s not easy being green’ environmentalists grabbed the phrase with gusto.

They knew all about battling bureaucracies and developers when it came to the contest between profit and preservation. But few had to cope with an even bigger obstacle: Public apathy and ridicule.

In Indonesia indifference to conservation ranges from big companies clear felling rainforests to individuals dropping used tissues in the street because they can’t be bothered to find a rubbish bin. So when East Java student veterinary surgeon Suryo Prawiroatmodjo started arguing that nature needed protection he met some blank looks and crass comments.

Even his colleagues at Surabaya’s Airlangga University couldn’t understand the young agitator’s obsession, born through childhood visits to East Java’s forests. “Are you going to organise picnics?” they jeered.

At the time the international NGO Greenpeace was vigorously challenging governments to stop whaling and dumping nuclear waste. In the eyes of the conservatives then exercising absolute power in Jakarta a young Indonesian intellectual talking conservation was clearly in the same suspect category.

But Dr Suryo silver-tongued his way through intelligence interrogations, military scrutiny - then into ministerial offices and governor’s mansions. Again and again he explained that the environment mattered and rescue should be a national concern.

“They came back with the standard lines that every Indonesian activist knows well,” he said. “Like: ‘We haven’t got the time or money to worry about such things. We’re all too busy trying to survive from day-to-day’.

“I replied that if they didn’t start conserving the nation’s natural resources these would soon vanish and with them any chance of future income. Then we’ll all be really hungry. Slowly the message got through.’

Dr Suryo won over some powerful friends who gave his campaign credibility. In 1982 he quit castrating cats and started working full-time for the Jakarta-based foundation Yayasan Indonesia Hijau (Green Indonesia). From there he won a research scholarship to the US to study conservation. Along the way he encountered overseas donors impressed with YIH’s dedication.

The potential benefactors also had thick wads of scepticism amongst their dollars. One philanthropic group included a former Dutch ambassador to Indonesia on its governing council. He told his board that Indonesians were unworthy of support: “If we give them funds, they’ll be whittled away,” he said. “It always happens. Conservationists will become corruptors and parasites.”

Replied Dr Suryo: “There’s nothing certain in life; you can’t guarantee that Indonesia is 100 per cent corrupt. Not all follow that philosophy; some of us are genuinely concerned about the future and we need your help to achieve our dream. The issue is universal.” He won, and the money started moving.

With cash from the World Wildlife Fund almost 4 hectares of poor quality land was bought near the village of Seloliman. This is an hour’s drive from Surabaya on the slopes of the sacred volcano Gunung Penanggungan, the centre of the ancient Majapahit kingdom.

Cottages and a meeting hall were built. The area was landscaped and the
Pusat Pendidikan Lingkungan Hidup (Environmental Education Centre) was formed.

Dr Suryo says more than $US 1 million has flowed into the Centre from Holland, the US, UK, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. Although legally he remains the founding director he is no longer involved in the day-to-day activities for reasons revealed alongside.

Apart from collecting influential support in Indonesia and abroad (including German architect and academic Dr Ulli Fuhrke who became a partner in the enterprise) Dr Suryo has some rare gifts. He has benign tenacity and can tolerate fools and frauds in authority without openly displaying contempt and losing their backing.

On 15 May 1990 Indonesia’s first non-commercial, non-government environmental centre was opened. Since then thousands of local and overseas people have been through its organic gardens, marveled at the improved fertility and lived in its cheerful little cottages. The slogan is Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.

PPLH has also spread to West Irian, South Sulawesi, West Java and Bali. Although foreign funds are still used to support specific projects the aim is to be self-supporting. PPLH Seloliman (the Javanese word means sleeping elephant, which is the shape of a nearby rock) takes paying guests, mostly from Australia.

The centre is seldom promoted by travel agents or government tourist officers who can’t understand why Westerners want to stay in the countryside. Most visitors find their way there through the Internet or word-of-mouth from backpackers who shy from packaged hedonism in the quest for a different experience.

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After the fall of Suharto the petty surveillance of green activists vanished. Dr Suryo won a prestigious Swiss award for his work, was nominated to join Caretakers of the Environment International and became a world figure in the conservation movement. Within the decade PPLH Seloliman had about 50 workers and was functioning beyond his most ambitious dreams. Here was sustainable agriculture thriving in the soil, not books.

Then tragedy struck. In 1999 Dr Suryo was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic, incurable and debilitating inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. He has undergone three operations and lost a major part of his bowel. Sometimes he has to use crutches.

The cause of the disease is unknown. It may be genetic but ironically it can also be caused by chemicals in the environment. It crippled him physically and spiritually as he had to withdraw from PPLH Seloliman.

“At the time I was very angry with God,” said Dr Suryo, a follower of Kebatinan, the traditional religion of Java. “I was caring for nature – but why had nature made me ill? I tend to be superstitious and always believed I was being guided in my work for the environment.

“Crohn’s disease altered everything. But I reflected on the change in my life. I began meditation. Control of PPLH passed on to a new generation of young conservationists. That might not have happened had I stayed well.

“Now I’m almost 50. I write and run workshops when the disease is in remission. I grow trees, but the environment is more than planting trees. I want people to understand the importance and inter-connection of wildlife, nature, clean air and water and unpolluted soil. We must understand and care for the land.”

Savagely underscoring his message was the death of almost 50 villagers near Seloliman in landslides following flash floods last year. The upper slopes of the mountain had been clear felled; there was nothing to break the rush of mud that exhumed boulders and ripped out roots to crash on houses in the valleys below.

In a weird twist the deforestation only came about after the end of the Orde Baru government. “Before then people were afraid to cut trees down,” said Dr Suryo. “They never knew when the military might come and start shooting if they entered the forest.

“With democracy they reasoned that it the government could give big companies licences to plunder the timber, then it was now the turn of the little people to get their share of the wealth.”

(Dr Suryo’s fears appear to be well based; about 40 per cent of the exports through Surabaya’s container terminal are timber products, yet there are few forest replanting programs underway.)

Spin-offs to Dr Suryo’s unending campaign include a post-graduate program in environmental education at the Surabaya State University, which is said to be the first such course in Indonesia. Widespread land rehabilitation programs and the establishment of the national Environmental Educators’ Network are also among his credits.

When he’s fit enough he shows government officials, teachers and land developers how to preserve the environment, recycle rubbish and make compost fertiliser. Unlike many upper class Indonesians he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.

Yet despite the real successes Dr Suryo has been damaged, and not just by the physical pain. “It is difficult to persuade people that they can have a better quality of life through changing their traditional ways of doing things,” he said.

“There are new problems arising for Indonesia. Water quality has to be addressed. Apart from pollution we have rising salt levels in ground water. Then there’s the human factor which takes its toll. It’s not always easy for some people to overcome jealousy. But I still believe in education as the source for a better future.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 April 05)


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