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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Uncovering the mysterious past

Wanted: A university with a strong commitment to anthropology and archaeology, or a passionate philanthropist with similar interests.

The task: To build on existing scholarly research and maintain an outstanding collection of artefacts, thereby preserving records of a mysterious past and its unique treasures.

The reward: International acclaim.

Last year Father Johannes Hammerle (pictured above), the founder and director of the Nias Heritage Museum had a major health scare, undergoing a prostate gland operation at a Sumatra hospital.

No cancer was detected and the German-born priest looks exceedingly spry. But he’s just a few months from turning three score and ten, and there’s nothing like an encounter with a surgeon’s scalpel to sharpen the mind.

Not that a Capuchin friar needs a mortality alert, but it just helps make the need for future planning even more urgent.

Nias was Father Johannes’ first posting. He arrived on 21 July in 1971 after spending months in Sumatra learning Indonesian.

“At the time if I’d had the chance to choose I would have stayed in Sumatra,” he said. “Why should I go to a little island?”

Apart from discovering that the majority were Protestant (though ministers say the introduced religions don’t run deep), the first shock was discovering that his Sumatra studies were of limited help.

The people of Nias spoke their own language. But where did it originate? Where did the people come from? What was their history and culture?

It had long been known that Nias had a megalithic culture, using stone slabs to make monuments, graves and religious symbols. But few researchers had probed deeper.

Blessed with the sort of curiosity that annoys pedestrian minds Father Johannes started to explore his strange parish, assembling more questions than answers wherever he trod the rugged mountain tracks into the dark interior.

His searches in libraries overseas were equally frustrating. Very little was known and even less had been written. During the 1920s a Danish doctor involved in a vaccination program on Nias had collected some artefacts, but these are now in Europe.

Although he had no background in anthropology Father Johannes had all the skills of scholarship necessary to help fill some of the gaps. He learned the local language and started building an information base constructed from oral traditions.

Unlike other parts of Indonesia no batu tulis (stones engraved with words) have been found to help provide clues to the people of the past. The first written record comes from an 851 account by an Arab trader and translated into French.

Some stories told of people living in a cave known as Togi Ndrawa just outside Gunung Sitoli, the west coast capital – though that’s too grand a title for what is little more than a large village. There are only around 600,000 people living in the 45 kilometer-wide island, slightly smaller than Bali but far less accessible.

The cave faced east towards Sumatra, more than 100 kilometers distant, and ideal to catch the morning sun. It opened deep into the limestone mountain 130 meters above sea level, and could have accommodated several families.

With assistance from local and overseas institutions, including Surabaya’s Airlangga University, excavations showed the old stories were true.

“We now know that people were there from at least 12,000 years ago till about 600 years before the present,” Father Johannes said. “We also discovered that some were also living in tree houses to get above the mosquitoes and snakes.

“Development started when the Chinese arrived in the 14th century AD, probably with the explorer Zheng He. They established a shipyard at Singkuang on the west coast of Sumatra opposite Nias.

“The newcomers brought new technologies, ideas and materials like iron and gold. The people began to live in simple houses and these developed into the oval-shaped timber structures on massive poles that we see today.”

However these buildings are disappearing in favor of modern homes, the changes accelerated by reconstruction programs following the December 2004 tsunami and March 2005 earthquake that together killed around 1,000 and injured many more.

Also vanished is the gold used in the elaborate crocodile skin armor and headdresses worn by the warlike people who specialised in head hunting, the trophies used to buy brides. Once colonialists arrived the gold began to move off the island.

Along with the treasures went the wildlife. The island is now strangely lacking in birds and animals.

Unlike many missionaries Father Johannes didn’t follow a philosophy of purging communities of the artefacts associated with their earlier faiths. Instead he began to collect them – and write a book denouncing the attitudes of some Christians towards pagan symbols.

Once word of a buyer got around, the market started to make demands beyond the capacity of Father Johannes’ budget. But he’s still been able to collect around 6000 items. Some are displayed in the splendid purpose-built museum, constructed mainly using donations from Germany, including his Black Forest hometown of Hansach.

As an exhibition of Indonesian culture it’s far ahead in content, quality and layout when compared with the pleasant but limited provincial State Museum in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra.

The Nias collection includes sharks’ teeth from millions of years ago when the island was under water and marvellous carved tigers, more like dogs with dragonheads for the artists had never seen such animals

Apart from linguistic studies, the latest project to uncover the origins of the Nias people involves collecting hundreds of DNA samples from people across the island. These are being processed in Europe.

Although he has become an Indonesian citizen, Father Johannes isn’t optimistic that the government will step in to help. Nor does he anticipate much assistance from overseas visitors. Most come for the surf.

“The people here are not yet interested in preserving the past,” he said. “They are too poor and concerned with getting enough food to survive, and surfers have no culture.

“I think it’s important that young people know about their culture and we have many schoolchildren visiting the museum.

“There are lots of rich people in Jakarta who were originally from Nias. Maybe they should be providing support.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 18 Aug 2010)


Tuesday, August 03, 2010



Dear World: I am Indonesian and I want to keep our environment green and clean. That’s the way to make the earth better. Sincerely, Intan Agustina.

Student Intan’s plea may not have stirred too many governments secure in their own responses to the planet’s pain. But it sure resonated among the young who care for the future – the place where they’ll be living.

Early July more than 200 high school students and their teachers from 16 countries gathered at a training facility in the East Java hilltown of Lawang ‘to make the earth better’.

The event was the 24th conference of the Caretakers of the Environment International (CEI), an NGO conceived in a Mexican restaurant on a freezing day in Chicago, nurtured in the Netherlands and now coming to maturity in Asia. (See panel)

During the weeklong conference participants visited rice fields, a rain forest, mangrove swamps and a grumbling volcano.

But it was their trip to a wildlife park that really roused their ire and illustrated a cultural and culinary distance from the West where pooches are princes and every cat a queen. Indonesia is no country for old dogs. Or any other edible beast.

The overseas students wanted the birds to have proper housing, and the alligators access to water. “They didn’t like the way the animals were being treated,” said Jakarta teacher Stien Matakupan. A prominent environmental activist she coordinated the conference titled Biodiversity and Culture.

“The students spoke to the zoo manager and stressed the importance of animals in the ecosystem and the need to treat them humanely. He listened and said he’d consider their concerns. This is how we progress. Small steps make big changes.

“Things are definitely getting better. Indonesian kids used to think that forests were full of evil spirits and rivers dangerous places. That’s changing.

“I’ve never been to an opening ceremony before in Indonesia where two ministries (Education and the Environment) were working together to support our goals.”

Commented Indonesian Carmelite Father Albertus Herwanta who is based in Rome but came to observe: “If we love God then we must respect all His creations. Jesus was a conservationist.”

Unlike many Indonesian conferences where the oldies dominate proceedings and the young are to be seen, though not heard, in this show the kids were kings.

At one stage an angry Swedish girl harangued the crowd for not paying full attention during a presentation on the benefits of wild herbs: “This is serious. We are here to learn. That’s why we came.”

The student was unfazed speaking in English in a foreign country where protocol trumps performance. The audience included many worthies, who in the local culture should be given respect even when snoring or shouting into cellphones.

Among them, but not offended and certainly alert despite being ill, was veteran greenie Dr Suryo Prawiroatmodjo. He’s a man who also takes such issues seriously and was enthused by the passion of the young.

A former zoo vet he started campaigning for the environment back in the Soeharto era when some considered conservation a synonym for communism.

He persevered, went overseas to meet like-minded others, ignored the naysayers and hostiles, stirred interest, lobbied intensively and founded CEI in Indonesia.

“This conference should help us build genuine friendships for a better future for everyone,” he said.

“It might inspire us to improve teaching systems and conditions. We need to show that good education is not necessarily expensive or unreachable.”

Most of the Indonesian schools represented at the conference were private, faith-based colleges turning out motivated students challenging the generation that’s raped the planet – holding their own amongst the outsiders and doing so in impeccable English.

But what about those who can’t afford anything more than basic State education? “The trouble is that many government staff are too frightened to embrace new ways of teaching,” Dr Suryo said.

“In Indonesia environmental issues are just taught as theory in the classroom. Overseas students go on field trips, they learn to do things practically in the wider community.”

The proof was in the projects, which included devising a high tech game involving snakes and rats in rice fields, conserving gilt-head bream in Turkey, breeding horseshoe crabs in Hong Kong, digging frog ditches in Poland and building cosy nesting sites for shivering birds in Scotland.

Prize winning student Claudia Castico wasn’t content with micro management. Her group’s project was How to Keep Portugal Clean. The Romanians also think big. They mustered 100,000 volunteers to clean up their country.

Curiously absent from the conference were participants from Australia and New Zealand, countries that are world leaders in conservation. Organisers said they’d been intimidated by travel warnings, something that didn’t bother the Americans

Oregon State University academic Dan Hoynacki, a CEI board director and frequent visitor to Indonesia, used the Lapindo mud volcano in East Java and the BP oil gush in the Gulf of Mexico to illustrate the importance of environmental care.

“These events are opening peoples’ eyes,” he said. “We can see the context and relevance. Real change has to be from the bottom up. It can only come with knowledge.

“I sense a perfect storm of change is on its way and it’s being driven by people working together across the world, particularly the young who are using modern technology to bridge the chasms, creating the global classroom on line.

“I want to see more and more school-to-school partnerships where students can ask others around the world: ‘How do you think we can fix this problem?’

“When students learn about these things in class they take the information back to their families. And so it spreads.”

Like most campaigners for the environment CEI President Birgitta Norden is an articulate and persuasive advocate. Despoilers beware; this Swedish biology teacher will have you on toast. Wholemeal, naturally.

“There’s been a big commitment by teachers focussing on landscape,” she said, “but we must also look at biodiversity in relation to culture. We need to consider the way people see the environment, the social and economic factors. There’s a need for holistic thinking. That’s what’s been happening at this conference.”

On the verandas long-skirted girls in headscarves sat alongside blondes in shorts and skimpy tops thrashing laptops and thumbing cellphones.

Here was generation green flashing ideas around the world it’s determined to save – ignoring the pessimism and indifference of generation grey. The Will Do kids, demolishing the old adage that elders are betters.

(Next year’s conference on heritage and tourism will be in Hungary.)

Craving for the right place

Back in the 1980s when Isabel Abrams was pushing ecology studies in Chicago she knew her chosen field wouldn’t boost her status as a credible science teacher.

“In those days the environmental class was for kids who couldn’t cope with the real stuff – they were seen as the lesser achievers,” she said.

She may have been in the frustrated minority but she was not alone. Chance meetings over tortillas and tamales in the windy city with people like fellow American Edward Radatz and Dutchman Arjan Wals, created the right mix to get things going.

Europe seemed more amenable to their ideas, and soon other teachers had joined, driven by personal concerns, not instructions from governments or employers.

“We were craving for a place to meet others who had the same hopes,” she said. And so the CEI was born. Indonesia came on board when she met Dr Suryo – “one of my great heroes.”

At the heart of the founders’ mission was a determination to show that studying the environment was more than collecting tadpoles, but undertaking serious classroom research and applying findings in the outside world that would benefit all.

Good teachers everywhere share a common goal whatever their discipline: Their holy quest is to find new ways of getting complex ideas across to their students, and fire the spark that ignites young minds.

Every day there’s news of yet another ecosystem collapse, species extinction and major poisoning. Coupled with these signs of onrushing disaster go calming messages from governments, debunking doomsayers and twisting research.

Climate change? A hoax. Limited resources? Impossible. There’s megaton’s more just waiting to be found. Pollution? A hiccup. New technology will fix everything.

What’s someone growing up in this world meant to think? Will there be anything left to share and enjoy?

Ms Abrams took her mission to a wider field. She turned science writer and produced The Nature of Chicago telling how glaciers created the site of the third largest city in the US, through to the need for city parks.

Her idea was to show urbanites their connection with the natural world.

“CEI wants to examine the issues; we are not an advocacy group,” she said, though that message seems to have bypassed the students calling for animal rights in Indonesian zoos.

“Young people, no matter where they live, should know why they need to be caretakers of the environment. The world is their laboratory. It must be treated with respect.”

And do the teachers of hard science still sniff at ecology majors? “I think environmental science is now mainstream.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 August 2010)