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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Indonesia Squelching Biodiversity Research

Air Date: Week of

A mother and infant orangutan. The illegal pet trade is a major threat to orangutans in Indonesia, but obstacles to collaboration with scientists make tracking their populations challenging. (Photo: Bob Brewer, Unsplash, Unsplash license)

Indonesia has one of the world’s largest tropical forests and touts itself as a global leader in conservation. But researchers from outside Indonesia say the government is blocking data to assess conservation progress and local scientists fear reprisals if they publish data that doesn’t fit the government’s optimistic narrative. Environmental journalist Fred Pearce joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss.


BASCOMB: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

Indonesia has one of the world’s largest tropical forests and touts itself as a global leader in conservation. But researchers from outside Indonesia say the government is blocking data to assess claimed conservation progress and has canceled visas of scientists who are asking hard questions. And local scientists fear reprisals if they publish data that doesn't fit the government's optimistic narrative. For more, I’m joined now by Fred Pearce, a veteran freelance environmental journalist based in London.

PEARCE: Hi Steve.

CURWOOD: Tell me, how important is Indonesia to this planet in terms of conservation and the sorts of biological diversity it has.

PEARCE: Indonesia is vital. It has more rainforests than anywhere except Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And it's been deforesting faster than any of them in some recent years. But it also has a number of iconic species; orangutans, most famously, but also their own species of tigers and elephants, which are, you know, in some cases down to their last few dozen. So it matters a lot.

CURWOOD: And today, you're writing about some foreign researchers that feel that they're being hampered by the Indonesian government for the research that they're doing, and in fact, getting thrown out, having their visas cancelled. Give me a brief overview, please, of what's going on.

Indonesian peatland burning. The government has contested research that indicates more peatland burned than the government initially acknowledged. (Photo: Aulia Earlangga, CIFOR. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

PEARCE: Yes, there's been a long tradition of collaboration between Indonesian scientists, biologists, zoologists, and so on, and outside research, sharing data, sharing analysis. Well, this has kind of broken down in the last couple of years because the government–it's rather, kind of, precious about its reputation. The touch point for the latest row was a letter–well, it wasn't a letter, it was an op-ed piece in the Jakarta Post–calling out the Indonesian government, and the environment minister in particular, for making unreasonably optimistic statements about the state of charismatic species, and in particular orangutans. I mean, basically, the minister had said numbers are going up and a bunch of researchers, there were five–there were five of them listed, said um, "No, you're wrong, we believe that the numbers are going down, and, you know, you're messing with the science, you need to think again." The ministry reacted extremely fast to that. A letter went out more or less on the day, as I understand it, telling National Park administrators to ban the five named researchers, it was the exactly same, five same people from their lands, from their parks, and to end all existing collaboration with them, and also to advise the ministry of any other researchers, foreign researchers, who are working in their territories. And of course, this has had a really chilling effect on domestic researchers as well who like the collaboration, who like joint publications, who like sharing data, and indeed, like getting foreign funding, who really feel that it would jeopardize their career if they do collaborate anymore. So they're kind of retreating from this. And, you know, I spoke to a number of domestic researchers who said, "Well, we really can't collaborate anymore."

CURWOOD: What's the risk to conservation of this conflict between the Indonesian government and foreign researchers and the skepticism, I guess, of some domestic researchers?

PEARCE: I think the danger is that if you don't do the good science, you get bad policymaking. So that–it's not just about science, it's about the business of conservation day-to-day. So if you don't know which forests burned, how much they burned, you can't establish exactly why they burned, who might have been responsible for burning, whether it was all down to climate or whether it was all, you know, down to land disputes, or whatever, you can't resolve these issues, and therefore you can't address them and therefore next time, there's going to be more deforestation than there needs to be. So the danger is that everybody backs off. And there is, again, debate is damaged. And the victims are likely to be the endangered species. There's been a dispute about how the government manages or tries to tackle trade in orangutans, in particular, which are sometimes hunted for bushmeat and more often probably are captured for the booming trade in orangutan pets. If the government says that orangutan numbers are going up, everything is going fine, no problem, then you get the situation now, which is that really nobody's doing much about the pet trade because it doesn't like a big issue because the species is doing fine.

Aerial shot of a palm oil plantation. Indonesia is struggling to reconcile its conservation goals with the economic significance of the palm oil and pulp industries. (Photo: Ricky Martin, CIFOR. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: What other areas of conservation that the government is conducting, is getting the same kind of skepticism? What else is now falling under the lens of skepticism?

PEARCE: Well, there was a row a couple of years ago which resulted in one foreign researcher being expelled from the country about how much damage was done by forest fires; there were a lot of forest fires in 2019 as a result of a period of drought and and the way that farmers tend to go in and those times and start setting fires to clear land. So you know, there was a dispute about the numbers. Some aerial studies carried out by a research institute called CIFOR there came up with rather higher figures than the numbers that were being reported by the government. It requires scientists to get together and debate it. So again, we have this problem of, kind of a war of words, a sort of backing off, everybody getting very cross, the government shutting things down. And so at the end of the day, we don't really know how much forest did burn during that fire. And that has repercussions, serious implications for, if you like, preventing that scale of burning during the next drought.

CURWOOD: Of course, for years there's been a lot of concern about the clearing of the land for the palm oil plantations. At the same time, Indonesia says it's a leader in conservation. What's going on along those lines?

Dr. Siti Nurbaya Bakar, Minister of Environment and Forestry in Indonesia. Clashes between the Environment Ministry and foreign researchers have created a chilling effect on the domestic research environment. (Photo: Ricky Martin, CIFOR. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

PEARCE: There are huge tensions in Indonesia about economic development versus conservation and the government is trying to ride both horses, understandably, probably most governments would. Huge areas of rainforest have been taken over in the last half century, both for palm oil–Indonesia is the world's largest producer of palm oil–and also for the huge paper and pulp industry. These are vast industries that have taken over large areas of land. And the government wants to reduce the amount of damage being done by these things. It would like more plantations for the pulp rather than harvesting natural forests. But that too takes land. But it also wants to engage in conservation activity to protect remaining rainforests. I know that Indonesia has been making a case that it is doing good things on the environment, it is working to protect its rainforest; there is still deforestation going on but it has slowed the pace of that. It is not issuing more licenses for deforestation for the land hungry industries. That's good. Unfortunately, an awful lot of licenses still out there that have not been activated yet. So that won't end deforestation. It's also been working to protect and restore wetlands, swamp forests, in particular, in Borneo. So it's been doing some good things. But you know, it's also doing things which are exacerbating many of the issues, the root causes of deforestation.

CURWOOD: The root causes of deforestation?

PEARCE: The root causes of deforestation lie in land hungry economic development. So that may be palm oil and pulp production. But also just simply farming. Well mining is certainly as an issue in Indonesia, but also farming. You're simply putting in roads so that people can travel around, so that people can connect up and get to markets and people in overflowing cities can move into other places. There's the new capitol city being developed as well. And these all take land. And these all make even currently remote areas of rainforest more and more accessible, which raises the risk of there being ultimately been deforested. I'm sure there will be further loss of rainforest, but I also think that they have the skills, ability, and the desire to stop it.

CURWOOD: Veteran environmental journalist Fred Pierce's latest book is called A Trillion Trees. An article about the issue of what's going on in Indonesia was recently published by Yale e360. Fred, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

PEARCE: Thanks, Steve. I enjoyed it.

CURWOOD: We reached out to the Indonesian government for comment but did not hear back in time for our broadcast. 



Yale e360 | “Silencing Science: How Indonesia is Censoring Wildlife Research”

Check out Fred Pearce’s latest book, “A Trillion Trees”

Read the op-ed featured in the Jakarta Post

Read Indonesia’s response here

Learn more about Indonesia’s incredible biodiversity here


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