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Domestic conservation: Indonesia’s rich should step up to save nation’s dwindling natural resources

Borneo rainforest canopy.
Island off West Java. Photo by Rhett Butler

Indonesia’s middle and upper classes are becoming increasingly interested and supportive of environmental conservation. Still, they have some way to go to become real leaders and trendsetters on this important issue.

Economic development in many countries goes hand in hand with increased concern for the environment and animal welfare. A recent study in the Proceedings of the Academic Society of the USA found that people in upper-middle income countries are more supportive of environmental protection than lower income countries. They also make larger donations to domestic conservation. Because of its rapid economic growth, Indonesia is now close to joining this group.

Sumatran rainforest

Often the middle and upper classes are the main trend setters in changing how society views itself in relation to the natural world. These classes don’t need to worry all day about how they will feed themselves. They have the financial means and time to think a bit more about the impact of development on the environment. They can even afford to travel to areas where nature is protected, a luxury few poor have. Often they have enjoyed high quality education that includes at least some basic information about environmental issues. And they spend time abroad in Australia, the USA, and Europe where care for the environment and species welfare is a lot better than in Indonesia. Overall, plenty of opportunities to learn.

The expectation would thus be that Indonesia’s middle and upper classes are setting the trend for new thinking about the nation’s future environment. Some anecdotal observations in Jakarta suggest that there is indeed progress but that this group has some way to go before becoming environmental leaders.

My favorite up-market groceries shop, which sells many imported goods, looks like a suitable test case. Judging by the cars parked out in front, this is one place where the well-off in South Jakarta buy their groceries.

One interesting measure is the use of plastic bags. The shop has had a re-usable bags program for years. It’s simple. Rather than further clogging up rivers and canals with plastic, or getting them burned on the capital’s smoldering rubbish dumps, you bring your own shopping bags from home and keep re-using them.

From my own utterly unscientific observations I would estimate that about 20% of the shoppers use them, unfortunately most of them foreigners like myself. The majority still prefers the free plastic bags, so that’s not so good.

The same shop recently gave me a more positive example. For years, they had a regular supply of Australian and New Zealand venison. It’s excellent meat, which I like to buy, and turn into tremendously tasty stews. Some time ago, the supply dried up, and when I asked the shop’s manager what happened he explained that Indonesian customers had complained that these poor deer were protected and did not belong on the shop’ shelves.

This is partly true, and I think it is a positive sign that legal protection was raised as an issue. Indonesian deer, such as the Sambar in Kalimantan and Sumatra, the Javan Deer, and the Bawean Deer are indeed endangered and protected by national law (but irrespectively turned into sate daging rusa). But in Australia and New Zealand, deer are non-native and a significant pest in many places. So eat as much venison as you like and do the Ozzies and Kiwis a favor.

Of course, these are just indications, but it seems to suggest that some further awareness-raising about species and the environment is warranted.

Talking about awareness, how is this issue addressed in the schools that Indonesia’s upper and middle class children attend? Are they teaching this new generation of leaders about environmental issues and install some new sense of responsibility?

Deforestation for palm oil production in Riau

My daughter’s school in Jakarta is attended by a lot of well-off Indonesian children. Quite a few kids appear to be fervent collectors of endangered and protected species. They own Fennec Foxes, which belong in the Sahara, look incredibly cute, but cannot be legally traded, or Slow Loris, a fully protected and highly endangered primate species in Indonesia. Others collect ivory, while one child bragged that his uncle’s tiger had died, but it was not a problem because he had the connections to get a new one.

These are just snap shots of upper society. It is a bit of a mixed bag I guess. Some people are concerned and knowledgeable about environmental issues, and others do not care all that much. It will be interesting to see how is going to change. Once countries reach the upper-middle income level, the number of people that favor protecting the environment over economic growth increases significantly.

Interestingly, what is lacking in these countries is a concomitant increase in government spending on the environment. So the government doesn’t give what the people demand. This is often because these countries are not particularly democratic and the government doesn’t really care what people think or want. But this is where Indonesia, as one of SE Asia’s strongest democracies could stand out.

Indonesia’s growing middle and upper classes have an important role to play in demanding new standards for environmental and species management in this country, and pushing for the required political support.

Let’s hope that indeed these people have the moral and intellectual sophistication to increasingly become real agents of change for better species conservation and environmental management.

Java rainforest

Erik Meijaard is a Jakarta-based scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures initiative.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Jakarta Globe and has been reprinted here with the permission of the author.