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How to Get Indonesia’s Leaders to Accept Some Inconvenient Truths | The Jakarta Globe
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How to Get Indonesiaʼs Leaders to Accept Some
Inconvenient Truths
By Erik Meijaard on 08:00 pm May 25, 2014
Category Commentary, Opinion
Tags: Indonesia sustainability, land use, science
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(JG Graphics/Modina Rimolfa)
Presidential hopefuls Prabowo Subianto and
Joko Widodo will face off again on Sunday
night, June 22, in the third of five debates with
the focus on international affairs and national
defense. Some polls suggest that Prabowo is
narrowing the gap over Joko, who had been
leading by a significant margin just a few weeks
ago. Who do you believe is leading?
The essence of science is a willingness to question assumed truths by objectively and transparently testing them.
As a scientist I would never claim to know the truth — how arrogant would that be? — but I am happy to give it my best shot,
based on the best available data and analysis, and stick to that “truth” until someone else proves me wrong. No drama, no hard
What has baffled me, however, is that many decisions and policies made in Indonesia regarding land use seem to ignore
credible research and science — acting as if these simply do not exist. As a result of this, a number of environmental disasters
have occurred across the archipelago, which could have been prevented with better science-based planning.
Both are about even
View Results
Total Votes 146
I specifically refer to the apparently random way that land-use decisions are made. Many people, including myself, are really not
sure what informs whether or not a piece of land will be allocated to, letʼs say, an oil palm plantation or whether it stays under
Page 1 of 4
How to Get Indonesia’s Leaders to Accept Some Inconvenient Truths | The Jakarta Globe
6/20/14 10:36 PM
forest cover. One may assume that the decision-making is often based on personal connections between business and political
leaders. And such “behind closed doors” deals are by necessity opaque and are not supported by broader public, let alone,
scientific consultation.
If this is the case, Indonesia is making costly mistakes in its land-use planning. These costs are especially high in
environmentally sensitive areas. It is easy to ignore those costs, because they tend to accrue over longer time frames, whereas
the revenues from development come in much quicker.
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For example, turning the peat swamp forests around the Danau Sentarum National Park in West Kalimantan into oil palm
plantations will provide the companies working there with solid revenues in about 4 years after the forests have been cut down.
Honoring the
The environmental impacts, however, will be felt only over much longer time frames. They will be significant, largely irreversible,
and affecting hundreds of thousands of people. This includes much-reduced revenues from fish that would normally breed in
peat swamps. It also includes the increased severity and frequency of floods because of the reduced rainfall absorption in
drained peat lands — the impacts of which will be felt far downstream in major towns such as Sintang and the capital Pontianak.
Another one is the increased likelihood of fire in drained peats, which can have major environmental impacts, although with
prevailing dry season winds blowing north the smog will mostly affect Malaysia and Singapore so that doesnʼt really matter, right?
And, oh yes, the developments will kill a few hundred orangutans — gone forever.
So the benefits accrue to a small group of people who own plantations, politically support them, or those who find employment on
the plantations. Quick and rich wins for a few lucky souls. But the costs accrue over long time frames and will ultimately affect
The scientific side of the problem is that we can fairly accurately quantify the net revenues from oil palm development. But doing
this is much harder for the costs. After all, how do you measure the economic impact of the annual floods in Kalimantan that
displace 500,000 from their homes, as our studies show?
Or what does it really mean if millions of people in the Southeast Asian region walk around in thick, acrid smoke because of the
mismanagement of Indonesian lands? Presumably, politicians at central level in Jakarta would act a lot more decisively on the
issue of land fires if the smog blew towards Indonesiaʼs capital city and there were large crowds blocking Jalan Sudirman to voice
their objections.
The political side of the problem is that Indonesian land-use decision-making clearly does not make enough use of the science
that is available, or even use the precautionary principle when the science isnʼt yet 100 percent clear.
As to why, I have a few guesses. First, there are the earlier mentioned vested interests in decision-making that would rather not
use rational analysis of societal cost and benefits. Second, home-grown Indonesian science — as shown by many data sources
— is still weak and has to mature further to be able to stand up to public scrutiny as credible and reliable. Third, the existing
knowledge may not meet the dynamic demands of the Indonesian political decision-making process. Scientists generally (both
Indonesian and foreign) need to get much better at understanding what kind of information decision-makers really need and how
to make it palatable.
The bottom line for Indonesian political decision-makers is to 1) improve the nationʼs educational standards, 2) listen more to
scientists, and 3) clearly articulate the science they need to better inform their decision-making.
Sticking our heads in the sand and acting like rational objective thinking and solid scientific analysis are not worth paying
attention to might be a pleasant way to proceed, but it is a pretty irresponsible way to develop the countryʼs economy and decide
how to make best use of its vast natural resources.
Ignoring the science is a major cost for Indonesia.
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Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures — Science for Change program from Jakarta.
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Tony Whitten
23 days ago
Ah, but it is wrong to think that Muslims have no positive role to play in conservation - see
http://www.kent.ac.uk/dice/fil... and also http://tinyurl.com/ns2zg9z.
• Reply • Share ›
Page 2 of 4
How to Get Indonesia’s Leaders to Accept Some Inconvenient Truths | The Jakarta Globe
PR Newswire
24 days ago
As you said Erik, education is the key word, the only path to understand science. Educated citizen will surely
listen more to scientific inconveniences, but not religious islam citizen. Corruption on ALL level caused
education to stagnate.
With 240 million to feed, 240 million to educate, the choice is simple.
Religion is regarded by the COMMON people as TRUE, by the Scientist as false, and by The CORRUPT
ruler$$$$$ as useful.
BTW Max as usual touché.
• Reply • Share ›
6/20/14 10:36 PM
25 days ago
What amazes me is Indonesians know the country's corrupted, like VERY corrupted, on every level, in every
sector, but they can't see the effects on everyday decision-making. Corruption ruins a country, and it is
happening right now !
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• Reply • Share ›
25 days ago
unfortunately it is not just about making decisions on land-use based on science - it is also about enforcing
the countries laws - mining companies are not paying their dues, so the communities and government lose out
- see http://lepmilsoutheastsulawesi... - resulting in less money for public services.
• Reply • Share ›
Swasti Prawidya Mukti
25 days ago
I'm not sure about how Indonesian scientists differ from foreign scientists, but I have this assumption that
many of Indonesian scientists are way too busy with their studies and the studies get too complicated for the
general public (including the govt) to understand, let alone to employ. People study and get degrees on
wildlife, forestry, marine ecology and many more but when it comes a time to act by doing campaigns, public
engagements, educations..that's the work of NGO people, not scientist :(
• Reply • Share ›
Swasti Prawidya Mukti • 25 days ago
They differ a lot. First they believe in ghosts, tuyul, kuntilanak and pocong and they know what Gods
• Reply • Share ›
Swasti Prawidya Mukti • 25 days ago
Two comments about that Swasti. Any science can be translated into language that most people
should be able to understand, however, complicated it is. Even Stephen Hawking manages (well, at
least to some extent -- admittedly, I didn't get all he said in A Brief History of Time). Anyway, my point
is that scientists should try to speak in a clear language to lay audiences if they want their science to
be used. And I would like to push that argument a bit further. Considering that much research is
funded by the state and ultimately the tax payer, we should as scientists make at least some attempt to
generate science that is relevant to society, and make our scientific findings accessible to people. Or
even if we are "too busy" ourselves, and want NGOs to tell our story, then we still need to package our
science in a way that makes it interesting to NGOs. So, there is no way around. As scientists, we have
to make ourselves more relevant, if indeed we want our science to be used.
• Reply • Share ›
Ruli Manurung
Erik • 25 days ago
While I agree that some scientists might not be doing enough to make their findings have a
clear impact on society (myself included), I would say that in the Indonesian context this is
much less of a factor than the lack of commitment from governmental institutions who actually
want to make use of research findings to help improve current conditions. I once approached a
governmental agency with a working proof of concept that could potentially address an urgent
societal need, but the response was a mixture of indifference and an outright and-what's-in-itfor-me-? attitude.
I agree, perhaps NGOs, who have more experience dealing with government, would be a better
partner to communicate research ideas to stakeholders.
Max Headroom
• Reply • Share ›
a month ago
"...Ignoring the science is a major cost for Indonesia....." - agree fully - BUT (capital letters!!!) it does fill the
pockets very quickly of those who are able due to their various connections to simply get what they want and
of course it also does fill the pockets of the ones who are in charge granting permits. Just look at the
EXTREMELY pompous lifestyle of those civil "servants" (even from the lower pay-scale) - may it be
administrative staff in the forestry departments or the police - a flashy lifestyle which puts even really wealthy
people in developed countries to shame. Now, nobody really wonders where the money is coming from - one
suggestion - by selling out basically everything which rightfully belongs to the People of Indonesia as natural
resources to the highest bidder regardless of any laws whatsoever - and not enough with stealing and robbing
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How to Get Indonesia’s Leaders to Accept Some Inconvenient Truths | The Jakarta Globe
6/20/14 10:36 PM
resources to the highest bidder regardless of any laws whatsoever - and not enough with stealing and robbing
this country poor for their egoistic wishes - on top of it they treat the people from whom they steal with
disgust and arrogance.
• Reply • Share ›
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