- Bustar Maitar’s storied career in environmental activism began in the Indonesian region of Papua, the land of his birth and today the coveted target of extractives and industrial agriculture companies.
- In his time at Greenpeace International, Maitar led a forest conservation campaign that pressured major corporations like Nestlé and Unilever to commit to zero deforestation in their supply chains.
- Maitar’s new venture, the EcoNusa Foundation, brings him back to Papua, where it all began, to push for protecting the forests, waters and other ecosystems of this last pristine frontier in Indonesia.
- In an interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler, Maitar talks about bridging international NGOs with local communities, ecotourism as a development model for eastern Indonesia, and the revival of the kewang system of traditional environmental stewardship in the Maluku Islands.
With much of the accessible lowland primary forests in Sumatra and Borneo cleared and converted for agriculture and industrial plantations, the Indonesian half of New Guinea is the last stand for the rainforests that once blanketed Indonesia. The diversity of New Guinea’s forests are mirrored in its seas: the ecosystems around West Papua and the Maluku Islands are arguably the richest in the world. The region is also the most ethnically diverse part of Indonesia, and a place where local people depend on nature’s bounty to a greater extent than in many other parts of the archipelago.
Accordingly, the push to colonize, mine and industrialize the forests and seas of eastern Indonesia is seen as a great threat to the region’s ecology, ecosystem services, and cultural and biological wealth. Actors from local communities to activists to scientists have raised alarms over the large-scale plantations and logging operations that have been expanding across Papua and West Papua, the two administrative provinces that make up the Indonesian part of New Guinea, in recent years.
In the mid-2000s, the “Paradise Forests” campaign by Greenpeace helped catalyze global popular awareness of the situation in the region. The leader of that campaign was Bustar Maitar, who was born and raised in Papua. Within four years of joining Greenpeace in Indonesia, Bustar rose to a leadership role at Greenpeace International, where he became a key architect for the organization’s highly impactful campaigns of the late 2000s and early 2010s that pressed major companies in the palm oil and pulp and paper sectors to adopt zero-deforestation policies.
Those campaigns included a range of tactics, from producing extensively documented investigations to colorful street demonstrations in Indonesian cities to headline-grabbing stunts like sending bands of activists dressed as orangutans into shareholder meetings at Nestlé and Unilever. The campaigns also sparked backlash from business-as-usual interests, which targeted Greenpeace activists with lawsuits, arrests and smear campaigns. But ultimately, hundreds of companies pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains and the Indonesian government established a moratorium on new palm and timber concessions in peatlands and primary forests. Today many of the world’s largest financial institutions and companies, as well as some governments, have modeled their commodity procurement policies on the demands made by Greenpeace campaigners.
After more than a decade of campaign work at Greenpeace, Bustar stepped away from the organization in 2016 and returned to where it all began: Papua. Just over a year later, he started his own NGO, the EcoNusa Foundation, which focuses on helping local communities in eastern Indonesia secure rights to their traditional territories, improve local livelihoods, and increase awareness of the role Papuan people play in combating climate change and biodiversity loss by stewarding forests and marinescapes.
One of EcoNusa approaches has been reviving and adapting the traditional practice of kewang, under which members of a community or clan in the Maluku Islands are specially assigned with the role of protecting nature and managing natural resources to support sustainable livelihoods. The influence of kewang had been diminishing in Malukan communities, but EcoNusa is working to restore it to prominence, partly by engaging young people by combining traditional culture, appreciation for nature, and technology.
Maitar spoke about his journey as an activist, EcoNusa’s work, and the challenges facing communities in eastern Indonesia during a recent interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler. The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
AN INTERVIEW WITH BUSTAR MAITAR
Mongabay: What prompted your interest in nature and environmental issues?
Bustar Maitar: I was born, grew up, and spent most of my life in Papua.
Papua is home to almost half of Indonesia’s forests, is a center of marine diversity, and serves as the homeland for Indigenous communities whose cultures and livelihoods are tied to nature.
Most of my childhood was spent in the forests and the lake that is close to my parents’ house in Jayapura. I grew up surrounded by this natural ecosystem that was still pristine.
I studied forestry at the University of Papua in Manokwari, which gave me an opportunity to learn about the environment as well as how nature has been destroyed on behalf of economic “development.” I saw this destruction with my own eyes: How Indigenous communities in Papua were manipulated so their lands, resources and livelihoods were stolen and destroyed in the name of “progress.”
Mongabay: What was your journey to becoming a prominent Indonesian activist, then a leading figure in Greenpeace, and then starting your own organization?
Bustar Maitar: In 1997-1998 I was just like many other university students in Indonesia. These years were an important and crucial time for us. I joined the student movement to fight the authoritarian regime to push [dictator] Suharto from the [presidential] palace. It was not easy, some of my friends are still missing from that time, but ultimately we did bring down the Suharto regime.
After that I decided to work more closely with Indigenous communities in Papua. I was working on my graduate study in 1999 in Manokwari when I started PERDU, a NGO, to work with communities to defend their land and forests from destruction in Bintuni Bay and the Arfak Mountains.
In 2005, the people from Greenpeace International came to Manokwari and asked me to join them in order to start the Paradise Forest campaign and launch a new operation for Greenpeace in Indonesia. I could not speak English properly.
In April 2005 I started working at Greenpeace, leading the Papua project. This involved working with communities to find solutions for forest protection, doing research and investigation, and serving as a spokesperson for the Paradise Forest Campaign, which was fighting for forest protection in Indonesian Papua and Papua New Guinea.
My first experience as an international campaigner began in 2007 when I joined the Rainbow Warrior to lead to the UNFCCC meeting in Bali. That is my first involvement in blocking a tanker carrying palm oil at Dumai Port [in Sumatra]. That action got serious attention from the business sector and the government, which provided momentum for Greenpeace in Indonesia’s zero-deforestation campaign. That campaign was not an anti-palm oil campaign; it was a forest protection campaign.
I started to lead the international team in 2009. It was not easy to lead the international team: I was sometimes accused by our “enemies” of being just a “puppet.” But in the end they knew that I’m the one who made the decision on every single move by our campaign and team.
During my time we had the support of at least 30,000 individual supporters in Indonesia who donated every month. I led every single high-level “negotiation” with the government and industry, not only in Indonesia but also with international companies such as Unilever, Nestlé, Wilmar, Sinar Mas, Musim Mas and many others. I led directly almost every single action in the field, blocking bulldozers and tankers, shutting down forest-destroyer offices, and many others.
When we started the zero-deforestation campaign and began to challenge multinational and national companies, not many people believed that we would be successful. Some of the skeptics included people from international organizations. But it seems like the “contract cancellation” campaign targeting customers worked. It started with an orangutan action at the Unilever office in London, then the Nestlé orangutan campaign in Switzerland, followed with many persistent actions almost every month. At one event, targeting Mattel over its pulp and paper suppliers in Indonesia, we brought a bulldozer to “Barbie’s House” in the U.S. Finally, in 2010, the Indonesian government made a forest moratorium commitment, which was then followed by Sinar Mas-Golden Agri’s commitment to stop deforestation in 2011. Sinar Mas-APP followed in 2013, then Wilmar and many others. Then our team and corporate players developed the instrumental HCS (High Carbon Stock Approach) standard to simplify the process of determining what is forest and what is not forest.
Some observers said Greenpeace’s campaign managed to get at least 70% of globally traded palm oil and 80% of Indonesian pulp and paper under zero-deforestation commitments. The influence of this work was such that in 2013, the Indonesian president visited the new Rainbow Warrior in Jakarta and delivered a speech on his appreciation of our campaign. This was a very rare moment where a head of state was visiting a Greenpeace ship. What’s happening now in Indonesia is another matter, but at least I can say I have made my contributions and I’m now doing something at the grassroots level.
It was not an easy campaign. As we predicted, there was a lot of pushback and many battles. Many of our activist were deported, put in jail, received death threats and “character assassination.” It was part of my journey as a campaigner. My last role in Greenpeace was leading the international campaign for Indonesian forests under Greenpeace International. In 2016 I decided to “take a break” from Greenpeace and return to where I started: Papua and eastern Indonesia, which is where Indonesia’s last intact forests still stand.
After more than a year’s break, I started my own NGO called the EcoNusa Foundation. It is very focused on eastern Indonesia, in particular the island of New Guinea and the Maluku archipelago. We are working on forest, climate, ocean and Indigenous community issues.
I felt I needed to spend more time working deeply with communities on the ground and closer to the actual problems, while also pushing for better policy at national and international levels. All that needs to happen at the same time because we don’t have much spare time for our planet.
Mongabay: Greenpeace is a big international NGO that works with large corporations, while EcoNusa takes a more grassroots approach by focusing on local community development in Papua and Maluku. How do these two different models compare and contrast with each other?
Bustar Maitar: Before joining Greenpeace I was working with my grassroots NGO in Papua and then spent 11 years with the international campaign at Greenpeace. When I did the international campaign, we assumed that local communities were prepared to accept any changes that “national or international people” talked about. But it’s not that simple. With my experience both at local and international levels, I can navigate through my network to understand what needs to happen at global and national levels and link that with grassroots level. There is a need for people who can navigate and link the movement between the community level and wider society.
Working at the grassroots level, you cannot just simply work from home because of the pandemic. In early 2020 when the pandemic was declared, we had to stop our field operation and switch to a more “online mode.” But after several months, we decided that we cannot just work like this while our community is suffering and environmental destruction continues. Several months of the pandemic taught us how to adjust our new normal. There is always risk, but we developed strong protocols and in August 2020 we restarted the operation, going back to the field to help communities deal with COVID. Had we not done that, we would not have stayed true to our mission and in society as social and environmental activists.
EcoNusa is one of very few NGO in Indonesia that was providing front-line COVID support, especially in eastern Indonesia. We have supported livelihoods and brought doctors and supplies to remote areas in eastern Indonesia. Some of our team got infected by COVID-19 during this time, but we handled it properly.
Mongabay: Can you tell me about this initiative EcoNusa is undertaking to train young kewang, or traditional forest guardians, to manage the forest and fishery resources of Indigenous communities? What is a kewang?
Bustar Maitar: Traditionally, the kewang is a person chosen from a certain clan or tribe in Maluku who is dedicated to protecting nature — both ocean and forests — for sustainable livelihoods. The role of the kewang is crucial to maintaining the balance of nature.
Unfortunately not many villages in Maluku still have active kewang because the government system and politics have reduced the role of kewang in communities.
We would like to resurrect the “spirit of kewang” among the young. We believe everybody should have the “kewang spirit.” Even in today’s fast-changing society with ubiquitous technology, young people can play an important role by having the spirit of kewang, combining traditional lessons with current trends and modern knowledge.
Recently we had a gathering for 25 youths from all over Maluku on Banda Besar Island for a week to discuss current trends and threats to nature, and to talk about how they can collaborate to fight for environmental and social justice.
We would like to expand this work further to advance youth leadership for nature protection. This program is called the School of EcoDiplomacy and it’s for young people in Papua and Maluku.
Mongabay: EcoNusa also has an ecotourism venture. Could you tell me about that?
Bustar Maitar: The Ecotourism venture is a separate entity from EcoNusa. This is something I started doing just after my Greenpeace time. But I put it all under one effort as part of my theory of change: I believe that to drive change, you need the right tools, and in this case, the tool is a boat, given the importance the ocean plays in the daily life of many people in Papua and Maluku. More broadly, if we look at the lessons from recent centuries, ships have played a crucial role in the world economic system and social connection.
Having a boat provides more access to more regions and communities, including transporting community products. But at the same time, the boat can also generate revenue to fund the mission through ecotourism, which has great potential in eastern Indonesia. Being financially viable is in line with the mission of the EcoNusa Foundation.
EcoNusa is also building community ecotourism capacity in Papua and Maluku, including helping local communities manage their own businesses that go beyond community members serving as local guides. In Raja Ampat and Kaimana, we’ve been developing examples of best practices that other local communities in the region can learn from and replicate.
Mongabay: Ecotourism is often touted as an alternative development model that’s less damaging than extractive industries like mining, industrial fishing, and plantations. Do you see potential for ecotourism to scale sustainably and provide a significant source of local livelihoods in the region?
Bustar Maitar: Ecotourism in eastern Indonesia should be built for a niche market, not for mass-market tourism. Papua and Maluku have strong potential for this higher-end tourism, which by definition is lower volume and can be sustained by the region.
Ecotourism offers opportunities for local communities to advance themselves economically as well as learning opportunities. Ecotourism, not extractive and industrial industries, should be the economic development pathway for eastern Indonesia.
Mongabay: What are other promising alternatives to sustainable development in Papua? In both forests and the oceans?
Bustar Maitar: Papua and Maluku are home to half of the remaining forests in Indonesia and the center of marine biodiversity. Our legacy is to protect and maintain these ecosystems properly. I believe protection and Indigenous prosperity can go hand in hand. Development plans need to be adjusted to focus on local Indigenous peoples.
Local commodities both from forest and the ocean have strong potential, but they need to be managed properly at the appropriate scale.
At the small scale, we would like to showcase how it can be done. EcoNusa has a plan to build a cargo boat that can go around the island to collect whatever is available from village bases as a way to increase the value of the product and find the specific market for it, with more of the proceeds returning to the communities and local people. We need to start with what the community has and not depend on introducing something new for communities. Your support is welcome!
Mongabay: How are local communities faring in terms of their efforts to manage fisheries resources in the face of pressure from commercial fleets?
Bustar Maitar: At the moment, there is nothing that the community can do to deal with commercial fleets.
Government regulations should protect small fisheries and the government must give room for local communities to grow and manage their marine resources. Local fisherman face a challenge because they cannot go far from shore, but the big industrial fishing vessels go wherever they want, including encroaching on near-shore community fishing areas. And the big fishing vessels are not managing fisheries in a sustainable or responsible way.
What do you see as the biggest challenges in community efforts to protect their resources?
The government needs to recognize Indigenous land and Indigenous forests to give more space to local communities to manage their natural resources. This recognition has not happened in Papua.
Access to markets for community products is still very challenging in places like Papua and Maluku, but the Trans-Papua Highway is not a solution. We need to find more creative and sustainable options.
Expansion of large plantations is clearly threatening Indigenous livelihoods. Recently the governor of West Papua completed the permit review process for oil palm with the support of the KPK (Indonesian anti-corruption commission). Around 380,000 hectares (939,000 acres) of forest can be saved here. We would like to see the Indonesian president turn this concession area back over to the Indigenous community and build village-level food security rather than large-scale food estates.
Mongabay: The central government recently passed an economic recovery law and is pushing a biofuels mandate and a food estate policy, all of which potentially put native forests at greater risk. What’s your take on these measures in the Papuan context?
Bustar Maitar: Biofuels will only increase the threat to the forests. The only available land in Indonesia at the moment is in Papua and Maluku. That means there is a race in the private sector to occupy forests and land in Papua and Maluku.
It is the same with the food estate program. The original food in Papua and Maluku is sago, which should be a priority to maintain, instead of the commercial projects the government is encouraging. We have experience with these failed food estates: in the past, the private sector has only used food estate programs as a way to take timber. We shouldn’t repeat those mistakes: it just increases food insecurity and climate risk, while hurting local livelihoods and resilience.
Mongabay: Recently there have been press reports about an emerging COVID-19 crisis in PNG, the extent of which is not well understood. What is the situation like for communities where you work in Indonesian Papua? And how has the pandemic affected EcoNusa’s work?
Bustar Maitar: The pandemic is affecting all people in Indonesia, including people in Papua. The situation is even worse here since the health facilities are very limited. We have been doing COVID response in many remote areas in Papua and Maluku. We’ve found in some areas that medical personnel don’t have protection, don’t know how to use a test kit, and lack basic understanding of the disease.
In parts of Papua and Maluku, local people may not understand the pandemic: information is limited and rumors can be wild. In many places, the local economy is dying. Places dependent on tourism like Raja Ampat are currently like a graveyard. Community homestays are not functioning and there is little, if any, support from the government.
How can people in the West become allies or supporters of your work?
Mongabay: We have built our communication strategy to engage with young people in the West. We invite young people from the West to visit Papua and Maluku and then spread the word of the good work being done here. We are trying to build a positive story that eastern Indonesia is important for climate and if it’s not protected properly, it will impact other islands in Indonesia like Java and Bali.
What advice would you give to a young person wanting to pursue a career in activism in Indonesia?
Bustar Maitar: Just start doing it. Activism with strong professionalism can be a future career. Integrity is critical — if you have that, then you can learn things by doing. EcoNusa is open for anyone who would like to learn about activism.