Indonesia is one of the top three rainforest nations in the world, after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). But while Brazil, under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is reaching out to the world to help it save its rainforests, and even the DRC is showing signs of more progressive forest-protection policies, Indonesia is shutting down criticism of its conservation policies and suppressing news unwelcome to the government OK.

Published online as html 15th May 2023.
Story one of Issue one (Jan.-Mar.) 2023.

By Fred Pearce


For a while, Indonesia, under President Joko Widodo, was a beacon of enlightened conservation activity. Now there is a rising tide of concern; in particular about clampdowns on unwelcome research findings, and an ending of long-standing collaborations of its own scientists and conservation agencies with foreign researchers. This reached a new pitch last autumn when a group of well-established ecologists from the US, Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere were barred from entering the country to collaborate with local researchers and collect data, including on charismatic endangered species, such as orangutans, elephants, rhinos and tigers.

In response, some of the country's academics are planning a fight-back in the courts. In January 2023 a coalition announced plans that it would take legal action against their government, charging it with unconstitutional academic suppression.

The government says numbers charismatic animals are increasing, whereas most independent research says that, despite the country's relatively enlightened conservation policies, numbers continue to decline. Indonesia's government, says the critics, is not an environmental bad guy, but it doesn't like bad news. It is suppressing data, including peer-reviewed research by its own scientists, thus banning those scientists from sharing data and working with foreign colleagues. That limits access to research funding from aboard.

As a result, the scientific debate that could untangle the conflicting data on trends in some of the world's most treasured megafauna is being thwarted. In response to the censorship, a group of academic, working with Indonesian and international environment and human rights NGOs, in January announced plans for a court action against the country's Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the president's office.

The most recent clampdown began last September, following an article in the Jakarta Post, Indonesia's leading English-language newspaper, in which Dutch ecologist, Erik Meijaard, with four other foreign researchers, criticized the country's environment minister, Siti Nurbaya, for claiming that the country's orangutans were increasing in numbers and “will continue to have growing populations.”

The authors, with a collective hundred-year record of researching Indonesia's forest mammals, said this was untrue. In fact, the habitat for orangutans was shrinking, and population densities within that habitat were also falling. “This means a high likelihood of extinction,” they wrote. They were backed up by a study, headed by Maria Voigt of the University of Kent, published last year in Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation. [See]. That work projected a likely habitat loss of around a quarter by 2030 for the estimated 100,000 orangutans remaining in Indonesian Borneo (ok ??? -- YES). Much of the loss would be in forests earmarked for timber and oil palm plantations.

Within days, the environment ministry accusing the foreign authors of "negative" intentions to "discredit the government." A letter, subsequently leaked, told its national parks and conservation agencies to end long-standing cooperation with the article's authors and stop sharing data, and withdrew permission for them to conduct field research. It also asked the agencies to report to central government any activity in their areas by foreign scientists.

The clampdown is part of a long-running assault on foreign conservation scientists, says Herlambang Wiratraman, a lawyer at the Gadjah Mada University, and founder of the Indonesian Caucus of Academic Freedom, one of the initiators of the planned legal action. The Widodo administration "has excessively controlled all research agencies in the country," says Wiratraman. At the end of 2019, it had cancelled a 25-year collaboration with the international conservation group WWF for monitoring wildlife, putting hundreds of staff out of work, after it had criticized the government's handling of a spate of forest fires. Soon after, French ecologist David Gaveau was expelled from the country, allegedly for a visa violation, after 15 years working there. The action came shortly after Gaveau had published data from satellite images suggesting damage from forest fires that year was much greater than government estimates.

Meanwhile, researchers report that data collected in collaboration with national park authorities and other government agencies is being kept under wraps for years because ministers refuse to sign off for publication. This includes a 2018 DNA analysis by Wulan Pusparini, an ecologist currently at Oxford University, of elephants in national parks in Sumatra, which suggests a 75 percent decline in one important population.

The effect of these controls on research and publication is chilling for science, says Serge Wich, a primate biologist at Liverpool John Moores University. "For decades we have shared data. But now the ban [on foreign scientists] means collaborators within the country are not keen to share their data, because it would have repercussions with the government."

The environment ministry says that the order against foreign researchers is not intended to hinder their work, but "as a form of controlling research activities aimed at optimizing the benefits of research results." The result of that policy, say the foreign researchers, is a chilling effect on domestic researchers too. They say that in recent months, Indonesian collaborators on a range of papers on conservation topics have asked for their names to be removed as authors.

Deforestation has been more than halved since Widodo became president in 2014 and imposed a ban on new licences for clearing primary forest. His conservation policies have been widely applauded and have brought offers of international help to speed the process, including a billion-dollar deal signed with the Norwegian government last September. Nonetheless, deforestation continues, at about 500,000 acres per year, and wildlife is being squeezed.

An environment ministry's spokesperson, Nunu Anugrah, has defends his minister's claim of increasing orangutan numbers. He argues that data collected at 24 forest monitoring sites had revealed a 69 percent increase in orangutan numbers between 2014 and 2022, and that this sampling data was superior to the "misleading and inaccurate information" used by the ministry's critics.

Foreign researchers say they don't trust the either the data collection processes or the analysis behind the ministry's claims. "If you look at their data and try to model the trends, you find such growth is not possible, because the animals don't reproduce that fast," says Wich.

The impending court action against the government follows a correspondence between the government and its critics. Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir, a political scientist with posts at the universities of both Jakarta and Melbourne, who is coordinating the action, says the lawsuit will center on the government's failure to address charges made in a formal “objection letter” sent last year following the ban on the foreign scientists.

The critics allege "mal-governance" by the environment ministry for not making research the basis for conservation policymaking and call on the courts to halt the government's suppression of science. Sadly, they note, the ongoing row threatens to tarnish Widodo's reputation as a pioneer of enlightened conservation policies. And the science that should underpin effective conservation of some of the world's most valued species continues to be sacrificed because the government does not like bad news.

The url is monitored by random visits from site editor (Helen Gavaghan). Tracking logs are switched off, but this is a shared server. This is item one of issue one (Jan.-science, people & politics issn 1751598x. The magazine is owned by science, people and politics ltd. co no 05901911.