At 24 years old, Zainul Wahyudin looks like any other millennial of his generation. Continually leaning over the screen of his mobile phone, hooked on various TV series and worried about the future of the planet. However, even though Indonesia, the country of his birth, is key in the global fight against climate change, Wahyudin’s concern for the environment is almost a rarity in the Asian archipelago. “There is a lack of understanding here about what climate change means and how it affects us,” says Wahyudin.
The last presidential elections, in April, were a good example of how these issues are missing from public debate in this south-east Asian country. “In Indonesia, we do not pay as much attention to environmental issues as we do to religion or intolerance,” says Agus Dwi, an activist with Walhi, one of the country’s leading environmental organisations. Although the government recognises six religions in Indonesia, about 90 per cent of the country practices an Islam that has become more conservative in recent years. “It is difficult for us to campaign during these periods,” continues Dwi. “Political identity is closely related to religious identity. Climate change is the last thing [that goes through] their minds,” adds Ratri Kusumohartono, a Greenpeace forest activist.
To get environmental issues on the electoral agenda, a coalition of NGOs launched the Golongan Hutan (Groups for Forests) initiative, abbreviated to #Golhut, which, in turn, created a platform on which voters could send conservation questions to presidential candidates. According to Greenpeace (one of the nine organisations involved in the initiative) despite the fact that more than 6,000 questions were received only one minority party provided answers. Neither President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, who has renewed his mandate, nor the main opposition candidate, Prabowo Subianto, commented on the environmental concerns of Indonesians.
For many in Indonesia, that disinterest has turned into denial. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Cambridge and the YouGov consultancy, along with the Guardian newspaper, almost one in five Indonesians do not believe that climate change is related human behaviour.
Indonesia has the highest percentage of deniers of the 23 countries analysed in the survey (Saudi Arabia came second along followed by the United States, Mexico and Australia, amongst others).
“It is more difficult to convince people in developing countries, owing to their education and their economic concerns,” says Kusumohartono. “But also, we [the environmental organisations] have not been able to translate the problem of the environment so that it can be understood by people,” says the activist.
Nevertheless, some of the world’s biggest environmental battles are being fought in this archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. Indonesia has the eighth largest forest mass in the world; today jungle covers almost 50 per cent of the country’s territory. But, according to World Bank data, in 1990 it covered 66 per cent of the country’s surface area, reflecting the rapid shrinking of the tropical forests caused by the growth of the palm oil and paper industry in recent decades.
Indonesia is also a natural sink for carbon dioxide thanks to its 13 million hectares of peat, a type of soil created from accumulated organic material that locks in millions of tons of greenhouse gases. However, deforestation causes the carbon dioxide to be released, often in violent fires such as those that covered much of south-east Asia in a dense cloud of smoke in 2015. Furthermore, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country, and ranks second for the most plastic thrown into the sea.
But the impact of climate change will be felt not only in the forests and on the coasts but also in Indonesian pockets. According to the Asian Development Bank, climate change will mean economic losses in Indonesia of between 2.5 and 7 per cent of GDP by 2100, an economic impact that will fall primarily on the shoulders of the poorest population. The government has also announced that it will move the capital, Jakarta, because of rising sea levels, while the residents of the city have just denounced the government for the unhealthy air they have to breathe.
Environmentalism in Indonesia – the good and the bad
From Aceh, the most conservative province in Indonesia, Wahyudin spent years watching the spread of the palm oil plantations as they ate up the forests that used to surround his house in the Leuser ecosystem, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. “Now the weather has become unpredictable. It is warmer and sometimes there are rains in December [during the dry season],” he says. Wahyudin decided he wanted to do more then spend his time complaining online and so he joined the brigades that patrol the forests to protect them from illegal logging and poachers.
When he did so, Jokowi had just become president of the country, thanks to his image of being close to the people. Many Indonesians were hopeful that their lives would begin to change for the better. In the middle of the controversy over increasing deforestation and wild fires, Jokowi put environmental issues on the table, which led to “several positive policies”, according to Kusumohartono, of Greenpeace, such as the protection of peat zones and a moratorium on concessions for new palm oil plantations that is still in force today. Thus, according to the World Resources Institute, Indonesia is one of the few tropical countries that reduced its rate of deforestation in 2017, up to 60 per cent over the previous year. However, only part of that reduction can be attributed to government policies; other factors, such as better weather conditions, which put a stop to fires, or the fall in palm oil prices, were also decisive factors.
Activists fear however that Jokowi will forget his promises in this second term. The president focused his electoral campaign on the promotion of infrastructure programmes as a strategy to modernise and develop the country.
One of the most worrisome projects for the environmental movement is the dam in the Batang Toru region, on the island of Sumatra, which will endanger the survival of the Tapanuli orangutan, recently catalogued and of which there are only about 800 specimens. “This project is part of Jokowi’s national strategy and has the backing of the central and local government,” says Dwi. One of Jokowi’s ministers also suggested that Indonesia could withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, as the United States and Brazil have done.
Meanwhile, Indonesia’s future lies in the hands of the country’s youth. “We have to change the mindset that says that economic development means that we have to sacrifice the environment,” says Kusumohartono. With this in mind, Wahyudin combines his patrols with talks in schools. “At first, the children did not understand what conservation meant, but now they have learned,” he says.