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, May 17, 2013


Farewell Indonesia’s Green Renaissance Man    

Here’s proof that attitudes and values can change faster than we think, and that citizens have the ability to wake interest when governments yawn.

Not too long ago conservationists were considered siblings to communists, dangerous even when just respectfully suggesting that caring for the environment might be smart.

That was the situation when Suryo Wardhoyo Prawiroatmodjo first proposed building a rural centre to promote sustainable organic agriculture and teach the benefits of nurturing nature.

Radical?  Hardly, but this was during Orde Baru (New Order) days when ideas that didn’t flow from Soeharto’s presidential palace were considered subversive.

However the credentials of the young and physically small veterinary surgeon from the Surabaya zoo were above reproach.  The son of a high-standing Javanese family educated at the prestigious Airlangga University, Suryo might have some whacky notions about trees, but there was no hammer and sickle in his kitbag.

His interest in animals and plants came from an aunt who owned a plantation, loved the outdoors and developed her nephew’s understanding of the interconnectedness of nature.

True, he was a member of the Green Indonesia Foundation. He’d been overseas studying wildlife management at the University of Western Virginia and conservation education in Britain, but unlikely to stir the masses.

So in 1988, with no red taint detected in his green credentials Suryo was allowed to set up Indonesia’s first environmental education centre at Trawas, in the hills above the steaming floodplains of north East Java using foreign funds.

Even by the mid 1990s few  tourism officials had heard of Seloliman.  But it was well known among hundreds of international  backpackers who followed instructions in the Lonely Planet travel guide to make their pilgrimage using bemo (minibuses) and ojek  (motorbike taxis) up winding tracks.

Communication was chancy and visitors had to hope accommodation might be available.  This could be a simple cottage with an open-roof bathroom set in rows of vegetables alongside bamboo classrooms.

Europeans loved the experience and ambience, but it took a few years before Indonesians felt comfortable and schools ready to bring students to stay and learn by getting their hands dirty and lose their fears in the forest.

By then Suryo was well known internationally.  In 1990 he had won awards in Geneva, Washington DC and Rio de Janeiro.  It took a further five years before his achievements were recognized in Jakarta with a medal for ‘participation in development’. 

About this time Suryo fell out with the committee running Seloliman over principles of management. He also became seriously ill with the incurable Crohn’s Disease, a rare and debilitating bowel condition, ironically often linked to environmental factors, but in his case more likely genetic. 

Buddhist architect and philanthropist Bagoes Brotodiwirjo paid for Suryo to get surgery in Singapore that included removal of much of his gut.  Back in East Java his movements were restricted by excessive tiredness, dietary needs and toilet proximity.

Despite these handicaps he turned to running seminars and travelling across the archipelago setting up environment education centres in South Sulawesi, Bali, Kalimantan and West Papua backed by the World Wildlife Fund.

Like many pioneers he was better celebrated overseas than in his homeland, lecturing in Thailand, drawing teachers and senior students from across the world to his workshops in the East Java wilderness.

At these he urged young people to hearken to the elders and appreciate ancient wisdom. He created puppets and games based on traditional tales, believing the past had much to teach the present. 

“I want to give confidence to the villagers, tell them that what they’ve been doing is a treasure from our ancestors,” he said.  “We need to love Mother Earth for sustainable humanity.”

He was quietly persuasive, not strident, and this seemed to calm sceptics.  It certainly opened the wallets of foreign aid agencies.

Academically sound he never used his education to stand aloof.  The functions he organised always included farmers and professors, faith leaders and bureaucrats.

Suryo had little time for modern mainstream religious practices and was a student of the 14th century Majapahit empire that once ruled much of Southeast Asia from its East Java heart. Not because of its military and trade triumphs, but because it worked with – and not against - nature.

Mt Penanggungan from Suryo's house
He loved the 13th century Panji stories of wandering royals, which originated in East Java, spread up to Burma and are entrenched in wayang (shadow puppets).

Suryo built a modest multi-level cottage with his partner Anton Ayungga in the village of Tamiajeng that matched his outlook, gazing across green paddy to dark Mount Penanggungan.

This is the dormant volcano magically transported from India to Indonesia to become the mother mountain of Java’s Hindu and Buddhist religions. Its slopes are an archaeologists’ heaven with about 100 known sites, including temple remains.
Sadly Suryo was not in his beloved home entertaining friends with food cooked to ancient recipes served in Majapahit-style pottery when he died this week (wed 8 May) in a Jakarta hospital following a relapse. 

He was aged 57 and was Indonesia’s Renaissance Man, drawing knowledge from every culture, every land, and full of wonder at everything.  As a teacher he had the ability to infect others with his enthusiasm and awe.

Suryo’s story is proof that the individual can make a difference, even when confronted by a suspicious state. Publicly he was always optimistic, but privately he regretted that Indonesia was slow to realise that destruction of the environment and waterway pollution was a serious problem impacting on all citizens and their future.

His ashes will be scattered at Candi (temple) Kendalisodo on Mount Penanggungan.

Suryo was an environmental agitator, a pioneer and a hero,” said Jakarta environment lecturer Stien Matakupan who along with hundreds of teachers here and abroad is helping spread his philosophy of care for the land to future generations.

“His spirit, his inspiration will stay with us.” 

(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 May 2013)


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