- Advertisement -Newspaper WordPress Theme
Climate ChangeSilencing Science: How Indonesia Is Censoring Wildlife Research

Silencing Science: How Indonesia Is Censoring Wildlife Research

Are Indonesia’s orangutans and other iconic endangered species on target for extinction, or having fun with a recovery under the country’s current green-minded government? It relies on who you ask. But amid a welter of conflicting data, the scientific debate that would untangle the mystery is being thwarted by a government clampdown on research findings. Coupled with bans on “negative” foreign researchers, the policies are leaving conservationists confused and a few Indonesian scientists in fear for his or her careers.

As one great rainforest nation, Brazil, looks set to open up environmental cooperation and accountability under its latest president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Indonesia appears to be sliding in the opposite direction. Because of this, despite a decade of reduced rates of deforestation under its current president, Joko Widodo, the fate of the country’s orangutan, elephant, rhino, and tiger populations stays shrouded in uncertainty.

In response to the censorship, a bunch of Indonesian and international environment and human rights NGOs, including local branches of Greenpeace and Amnesty International, next month plan to launch a court motion against the country’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the president’s office. They are saying their suit will seek to overturn a growing pattern of undermining the science needed for conservation and to unlock vital evaluation of the state of the country’s rare and charismatic wildlife.

The clampdown on researchers is an element of a long-running attack on foreign conservationists and scientists.

The newest clampdown began in September in response to an article within the Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s leading English-language newspaper. In it, Dutch ecologist Erik Meijaard, director of Borneo Futures, a consultancy based in neighboring Brunei, and Julie Sherman, president and director of the U.S.-based NGO Wildlife Impact, in collaboration with three other foreign researchers, criticized the country’s environment minister Siti Nurbaya. A month earlier, on World Orangutan Day, Nurbaya had claimed that the three species of the country’s most iconic mammal were increasing in numbers and “will proceed to have growing populations.”

The article’s authors, with a collective hundred-year record of researching Indonesia’s forest mammals, said this was the alternative of the reality. They argued that, despite a decline in the speed of the country’s forest loss, the habitat for orangutans continues to shrink and population densities inside that habitat are also faltering. “The declines are real they usually are well supported,” including by data commissioned by the ministry, they said. “This implies a high likelihood of extinction.”

The pushback from the federal government was immediate. The environment ministry wrote to its national parks and conservation agencies, slamming this “foreign interference,” and accusing the authors of “negative” intentions that “discredit the federal government.”

The letter, subsequently leaked, told the parks and agencies to finish cooperation with the article’s authors and contributors, including banning the sharing of knowledge and withdrawing permission for field research. It also asked park managers to report on all ongoing research of their territories conducted by, or funded by, foreigners.

Left: Dutch ecologist Erik Meijaard. Right: Indonesian environment minister Siti Nurbaya.

Left: Dutch ecologist Erik Meijaard. Right: Indonesian environment minister Siti Nurbaya.
Erik Meijaard; Ricky Martin / CIFOR via Flickr

The clampdown on researchers is an element of a long-running attack on foreign conservationists and scientists, says Herlambang Wiratraman, a lawyer on the Gadjah Mada University and founding father of the Indonesian Caucus of Academic Freedom, one in every of the initiators of the planned legal motion against the federal government. The Widodo administration “has excessively controlled all research agencies within the country,” he says.

At the tip of 2019, Indonesia’s environment ministry abruptly ended a 25-year collaboration with the international conservation group WWF for monitoring wildlife, effectively banning the organization from the country’s national parks and putting tons of of staff out of labor, after WWF had criticized the federal government’s handling of a spate of forest fires earlier that 12 months.

Soon after, French ecologist David Gaveau was deported, allegedly for a visa violation, after 15 years working within the country, most recently for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), a world research organization based in Bogor, Indonesia. There, he had published data from satellite images suggesting that damage from the 2019 fires had significantly exceeded government estimates. CIFOR deleted the findings from its website, saying they’d not been submitted for peer review.

Meanwhile, data produced in collaboration with government agencies is falling afoul of regulations requiring ministerial sign-off before publication.

The Indonesian government has published numerous claims of population growth amongst charismatic species.

In 2018, Wulan Pusparini, an ecologist currently at Oxford University, conducted an evaluation of DNA samples from elephants in national parks in Sumatra for the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society. It suggested a 75 percent decline in a single vital population since 2001. The crude finding was included in a government report in 2020, but then retracted by the ministry, though it stays online. The evaluation behind the finding continues to be unpublished, nonetheless, says Pusparini.

The Indonesian government has lately published numerous claims about population growth amongst other charismatic endangered species, akin to Sumatran rhinos, that Sherman says are “impossible, given known breeding rates and threat levels.” As well as, says Serge Wich, a primate biologist at Liverpool John Moores University in England, “the federal government is asking NGOs to seek the advice of with them before publishing research findings, so it will probably confirm them. NGOs tell me the federal government is monitoring their social media too, and asking for changes.”

The effect of those controls on research, publication, and advocacy is chilling for science, says Wich. “For many years now we have shared data. But now the ban [on foreign scientists] means collaborators throughout the country will not be keen to share their data, because it might have repercussions with the federal government.”

Soon after the brand new restrictions on foreign researchers were imposed last September, the environment ministry’s spokesperson, Nunu Anugrah, defended his minister’s claim of accelerating orangutan numbers in a letter to the Jakarta Post. He argued that data collected at 24 forest monitoring sites had revealed a 69 percent increase in orangutan numbers between 2014 and 2022. He said that this sampling data was superior to the “misleading and inaccurate information” utilized by the ministry’s critics.

A Sumatran rhino in Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia.

A Sumatran rhino in Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia.
Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

However the researchers, in turn, say they don’t trust the evaluation behind the ministry’s claims. “Neither data nor any methodology were provided to support this assertion [of rising numbers],” says Sherman.

Wich, one in every of Sherman’s collaborators on the article, who has spent almost three many years monitoring the country’s orangutans, told Yale Environment 360 that the federal government statistic didn’t make sense. “In the event you take a look at their data and take a look at to model the trends, you discover such growth isn’t possible, since the animals don’t reproduce that fast,” he says.

“We predict that probably the surveys are being done in areas where orangutans are being released [as a result of translocations or after rescue from wildlife traffickers]. But we don’t know, because they don’t tell us exactly where they’re doing the sampling,” he says. “In the event that they are confident about their numbers, why don’t they publish the main points?”

Wich also notes that the federal government sampling sites might not be representative. They seem like all inside protected areas, whereas research on the country’s Primate Research Center in Bogor, Java, shows that greater than 70 percent of orangutans live outside protected areas.

The banning letter claimed that foreign researchers had contravened regulations requiring them to acquire permits to gather field data. But Sherman says “we will not be aware of getting contravened any regulations, nor has any specific evidence of this been provided.”

If the federal government says species are doing well, but the information shows the alternative, then “policy shall be based on things that will not be happening.”

The ministry, which didn’t reply to requests for comment, insisted in a December letter to complainants that the order against foreign researchers was not intended to hinder their work, but “as a type of controlling research activities geared toward optimizing the advantages of research results … in supporting long-term, conservation efforts.”

Meijaard and Jayden Engert of James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland, each told Yale Environment 360 that Indonesian collaborators on papers they were preparing on orangutan conservation and the environmental impact of mining roads in Sumatra have in recent weeks asked for his or her names to be removed as authors. Several Indonesian researchers also declined requests to reply questions for this text.

In a paper published last June, before the newest bans, Engert suggested getting around the continuing problem by establishing a scientific journal dedicated to publishing research anonymously.

Wich says that the censorship of science matters for conservation policy too: “If the federal government keeps saying species are doing well when all the information shows the alternative, then policy shall be based on things that will not be happening.”

Orangutans might be early victims. Sherman, Wich, and others imagine that a very important reason for the decline they report in orangutan populations is unlawful killing and capture — for bushmeat, to guard crops, or for the lucrative trade in pet baby orangutans. “It is going on on a big scale, even in protected areas,” says Wich. “But the federal government, believing numbers are increasing, doesn’t act.”

A veterinarian cares for a baby Sumatran orangutan that had been illegally trafficked.

A veterinarian cares for a baby Sumatran orangutan that had been illegally trafficked.
Sutanta Aditya / Abaca / Sipa USA via AP Images

Sherman notes that “prosecution is incredibly rare” and says that “if orangutan killing and capture continues at current rates, forest protection alone is not going to be enough to avoid wasting these species.” In a paper published in November, she, Wich, Meijaard, and others called for anti-poaching patrols to be “dramatically expanded across protected and unprotected areas.”

Indonesia is a big nation of tropical islands between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, including Sumatra, most of Borneo, and western Recent Guinea. Half of the country stays forested. It continues to be home to greater than 200 million acres of tropical rainforest, a figure exceeded only by Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Deforestation has been greater than halved since Widodo became president in 2014 and imposed a ban on latest licences for clearing primary forest. His conservation policies have been widely applauded and have brought offers of international help to hurry the method, including a $1 billion deal signed with the Norwegian government in September.

Nonetheless, deforestation continues, at about 500,000 acres per 12 months. Wildlife is being squeezed. A study headed by Maria Voigt of the University of Kent, published last 12 months, projected a probable loss by the mid-2030s of habitat for 1 / 4 of the estimated 100,000 remaining Bornean orangutans, many in forests already earmarked for timber and oil palm plantations.

Primary forest loss in Indonesia from 2002 to 2021. Forest loss has been reduced under President Joko Widodo, who took office in 2014.

Primary forest loss in Indonesia from 2002 to 2021. Forest loss has been reduced under President Joko Widodo, who took office in 2014.
Global Forest Watch / WRI

Some researchers argue that, despite government efforts, the underlying economic forces behind deforestation are largely unchanged, especially since many licenses issued prior to now for clearing forests haven’t yet been acted on. They are saying a very important reason for the slowdown in deforestation is falling palm oil prices, which have reduced the economic pressure for conversion — a trend that would easily be reversed.

“Indonesia is an actual jungle — socially, economically and particularly politically,” says Bill Laurance of James Cook University, a long-standing observer of the country. Roads, specifically, are opening up previously isolated forest regions. “Repeatedly with latest roads, we see increases in poaching, fires, forest fragmentation, exotic species invasion, illegal logging, and mining following of their wake,” he says. “The threats are growing fast.”

Major roads are planned through hundreds of kilometers of forests in Indonesian parts of Borneo, home to Bornean orangutans and elephants. The environment ministry angered environmentalists recently when it gave approval for an 88-kilometer road to a coal mine through the Harapan Forest, a rare surviving fragment of lowland rainforest in Sumatra.

And a large hydroelectric scheme under construction in northern Sumatra will destroy habitat of the last 800 Tapanuli orangutans, in Batang Toru forest. Laurance says NGOs and scientists have been pressured to condone the project or face sanctions.

Critics allege “mal-governance” by the ministry for not making research the premise for conservation policymaking.

The upcoming court motion against the environment ministry and the president’s office follows a correspondence between the federal government and its critics. Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir, a political scientist with posts at the colleges of each Jakarta and Melbourne, who’s coordinating the motion, says the lawsuit will center on the federal government’s failure to deal with charges made in a proper “objection letter” letter sent last 12 months following the ban on the foreign scientists.

The critics allege “mal-governance” by the environment ministry for not making research the premise for conservation policymaking and call on the courts to halt the federal government’s suppression of science.

Not all researchers agree that the legal motion is a great idea, particularly with a presidential election due early next 12 months by which Widodo, who has served two terms, is not going to be allowed to run. “I don’t think there may be much merit in criticizing or suing the ministry in the meanwhile,” says Pusparini. “The main target must be on who the subsequent president will herald as the brand new minister and their commitment to biodiversity and environmental conservation.”

But meanwhile, the continuing row threatens to tarnish Widodo’s popularity as a pioneer of enlightened conservation policies — and the science that ought to underpin effective conservation of among the world’s most valued species continues to be sacrificed.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here




We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.




Get unlimited access to our EXCLUSIVE Content and our archive of subscriber stories.


- Advertisement -Newspaper WordPress Theme

Latest articles

More articles

- Advertisement -Newspaper WordPress Theme