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Video: Abraham Khouw, the professor who joined the Save Aru movement

Abraham Khouw at Pattimura University in Ambon, Indonesia. Image by Leo Plunkett.

  • Professor Abraham Khouw is one of dozens of academics in the Indonesian city of Ambon who lent his expertise to the Save Aru movement in the mid-2010s.
  • The movement formed after a company called the Menara Group got permits to clear nearly two-thirds of the Aru Islands’ rainforest for a giant sugar plantation.
  • The academics lent extra firepower to the fight against the plantation, which was mainly driven by local indigenous communities.

This article was co-published with The Gecko Project. Additional support was provided by Earthsight.

In late 2013, during a hearing convened by the local legislature of Indonesia’s Maluku province, a marine biologist named Abraham Khouw issued an ultimatum.

He told the room he’d resign his seat on a public commission tasked with reviewing development projects if the politicians insisted on pushing through a plan to create a vast sugar plantation in the Aru Islands, a heavily forested archipelago on the nation’s eastern margins.

“Some of the legislative members wanted to ignore the scientific reality,” the bespectacled Pattimura University professor said later. “When I tried to explain it they wouldn’t listen. They were more concerned with politics.”

In the end, the people of Aru defeated the project through an impressive grassroots campaign. They made deft use of social media despite having very little internet access, exposed secret meetings between politicians and businessmen, and mobilized thousands of people for street protests.

Another key ingredient: the support of scientists like Abraham Khouw.

When Abraham and his Pattimura colleagues got behind the movement, they gave it scientific and legal support of a kind often missing from locally driven campaigns against state-backed development projects in Indonesia.

Abraham Khouw at Pattimura University. Image by Leo Plunkett.

In the case of Aru, the academics helped counter the claims of the developer that the plantation would bring prosperity to the Aruese while having only a minimal impact on the environment.

The company behind the project, the Menara Group, intended to tear down nearly two-thirds of Aru’s rainforest to make room for possibly the world’s largest sugar plantation — an environmental and social disaster, in the eyes of Abraham and his colleagues.

They also highlighted irregularities in the licensing process. A local politician had signed permits before the company had completed an environmental impact assessment, or EIA, in a brazen violation of the law. “It was very, very illegal,” Abraham said. “All across Indonesia, EIAs are rife with problems.”

Watch our short film about Abraham, below, to find out more. And then read the full story of how the Aruese forced government officials to cancel the sugar project.

Banner: Abraham Khouw at Pattimura University in Ambon, Indonesia. Image by Leo Plunkett.