Science key to better environmental decision

Jakarta Post – July 30, 2007
Opinion: Douglas Sheil and Erik Meijaard

In the 1980s, over a million hectares of Central Kalimantan’s peat forests was cleared and drained for growing rice. To the government, this was a battle against poverty and hunger. Environmental concerns were easily brushed aside.

This vast area, once a rich productive forest is now a wasteland. The forest is gone and not one sack of rice was produced.

Such hard lessons should be a thing of the past in Indonesia. Scientists and researchers have built up a solid body of knowledge of soils, ecology and environmental impacts that can help policy makers avoid repeating past mistakes and to help address rather than exacerbate environmental problems. But this knowledge is seldom used.

Those with power and influence often find it advantageous to ignore well founded environmental concerns. Think of George Bush’s past stance on global warming. Sometimes the politicians are not wholly to blame.

In Indonesia, few people are able and qualified to improve the uptake of scientific information by decision makers. Environmental sciences are especially ill favored.

Talented students are likely to look for careers with better rewards than those earned by environmental scientists in Indonesia. Or, more worryingly for Indonesia’s development, pursue a career overseas. Those that persevere in national systems must confront a hierarchy and a culture where debate, let alone dissent, is not encouraged. Indonesia possesses few internationally recognized academics in environmental sciences.

This is not to say real efforts are not being made. They are. We are often impressed by the hard work and commitment of our local colleagues in teaching, researching and publicizing the need for conservation, environmental awareness and applied sciences. But their task is much harder than for western scientists like us.

It doesn’t help that the most visible environmental science, as wielded by international NGOs, seems more concerned with animals than people. Many of Indonesia’s decision makers view scientific research with skepticism, and concern for the environment as a dispensable luxury.

We can’t expect public decision-makers to locate and read two-hundred scientific reports every time they make a decision. In wealthy countries, governments employ experts and advisors to read and apply this knowledge. But in Indonesia such well informed advisors are scarce.

An up-to-date environmental expert must keep abreast of the latest studies, concepts and debates. This requires well-funded libraries, top-class internet services and a strong culture of critical reading and evaluating evidence. Too many of Indonesia’s scientists are on the wrong side of the digital divide when it comes to modern libraries stacked with expensive up-to-date journals and high tech information services.

Many publications, journals and books are prohibitively expensive, and libraries often lack the resources to keep their collections accessible, safe, and up-to-date.

Expertise in Indonesia is still strongly grounded in age and experience – the immediacy of the dynamic publishing, learning, sharing and debating culture found in westernized countries remains largely non-existent. English, the common language of modern science, is often a hurdle too high for many Indonesian researchers and decision makers.

The future of Indonesia’s natural environment is too important to allow this situation to continue. Environmental scientists and scientific advisors – from students to senior researchers – must be given the skills, access, tools and opportunities to better draw on current knowledge and build a strong Indonesian research community.

This is where international donor agencies can make a real difference beyond their overseas scholarship programs. They can improve access to knowledge by providing translations, subsidizing electronic media, and publishing cheap attractive non-specialist books such as the Ecology of Indonesia series, which summarizes and provides context for a vast amount of past research on the Indonesian environment.

An example of how donors can assist occurred with our own recently published books in Indonesian and English on reconciling forest management with wildlife conservation in Borneo. With support from the World Bank, UNESCO and others, we were able to ensure the books better addressed the needs of local scientists, policy makers and forestry professionals. We summarized a large number of practical recommendations, outlined the research behind them, and offered guidance and solutions to decision-makers.

Most importantly, donor support allowed us to make the books available not only in English and Indonesian. But also–and this is significant for developing country scientists–donor support allowed us to give them away free via our website, hosted by the donor funded Center for International Forestry Research ( Extensive feedback from Indonesian researchers suggests this approach is valued and that the books are an important contribution to forestry and conservation practices in the region.

Support from within Indonesia is also crucial. We hope the Indonesian government realizes the importance of a strong national community of scholars.

Researchers (local and foreign) can do more to ensure their research is useful and that its implications reach decision makers. Local universities should encourage more publishing among staff and students. This requires training, outreach and perhaps a change in the way we work. Indonesia needs dynamic scientific communities that can help develop technical debates over the pros and cons of policies and the means to address environmental concerns.

One good example is development seen in the donor-supported Asia Forest Partnership (AFP), a forum for national and international policymakers and researchers to share concerns and solutions to pressing forestry challenges in the region.

Are mistakes like the million hectare rice scheme still possible? Perhaps they are. Recent years have seen several proposals to plant oil palm along Kalimantan’s mountainous interior border region — despite the fact oil palm plantations cannot grow economically in most of this area. The government continues to say no to the proposals. But proponents remain active and the outcome remains uncertain.

It is true decisive action to address environmental problems requires political will. But too often, decision makers and the voting public lack the information needed to act wisely. Scientific understanding is essential to cleaning-up and maintaining Indonesia’s air, rivers and seas and ensuring sustainably productive forests and fisheries.

Douglas Sheil is a researcher at the Center for International Forest Research, Bogor, Java. Erik Meijaard is a senior science advisor to The Nature Conservancy, Balikpapan, East Kalimantan