Global Environmental Change in Indonesia: A Roundtable

In Indonesia, environment and development are in constant conflict. The fourth most populous nation on the globe, a rising economic superpower, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, and the site of vast and varied natural resources, for many years Indonesia has struck an uneasy balance between conservation and social justice for those who live in the surrounding landscapes.

It is an uneasy balance, in part, because Indonesia sits at the center of two important narratives about place in the era of climate change. On the one hand, Indonesia is constantly touted as place of immense biodiversity and pristine wilderness. On the other, it is viewed as a place of environmental degradation facilitated through colonial and post-colonial social tragedies and neoliberal development.

The tension between these two narratives resonates within the stories we tell about global environmental change. For the authors of this article, however, it is a generative tension rather than a road-block. This tension allows scholars studying both the United States and non-U.S. subjects to create new understandings of the relationship between nature and society in the global context. Building on American environmental historian Paul Sutter’s 2003 claim that Americanists can learn from engaging with historiographies of non-U.S. environmental histories, we believe that Indonesia offers a ripe subject for reconsidering the relationships between landscapes, animals, science, and society in this critical historical moment.

Here, five scholars of Indonesia’s past and present reflect on the insights that the study of the country’s environment can offer. Together, this group of scholars represents the disciplines of history of science, botany, history, anthropology, geography and religious studies. Their new, non-western perspectives broaden current thinking about historical, cultural and scientific ideas concerned with the environment. For example, this cohort is thinking about biodiversity in Borneo, the changing valuation of biodiversity conservation in places that have previously supported communities, local lands rights in an area with high transmigration, the hidden costs to Indonesia’s resource trade that have led to Japan’s environmental posturing, and local people’s conflicted experiences with eco-tourism.

Together, these authors help us see that if Indonesia wishes to complete its transformation from a tale of environmental degradation to an ecotourism destination, saving its verdant forests in the process, then there is much work to be done.

Timber Trade Reveals the Roots of the Current Deforestation

Bailey Albrecht
An example of the devastation of Indonesia’s rainforest that occurs when trees are harvested for export, July 2009. Image by Rainforest Action Network via <a href="" target="_blank">Flickr</a>.

An example of the devastation of Indonesia’s rainforest that occurs when trees are harvested for export, July 2009. Image by Rainforest Action Network via Flickr.

Indonesia is one of the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources. During World War II, Japan invaded Indonesia, in order to lay claim to its rubber, tin, and other resources deemed essential to the war effort. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, representatives of the country returned to Indonesia, this time as a trade partners. The rainforest devastation Indonesia faces today is, in part, a legacy of this trade relationship. I came to Indonesia as a scholar of modern Japanese history interested in the effect that Japan’s preservation efforts at home had on its neighbors. Any Japanese history textbook will tell you that the island nation boasts nearly 70% forest cover. Despite this, from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, Japan bought more of Indonesia’s timber than did any other country. Indonesia and Japan’s interactions provide the perfect site in which to study the ways in which economically rich countries, like Japan, develop preservation programs at home while consuming massive amounts of resources abroad. Environmental historians who work on Japan tend to focus on the archipelago’s internal environment. An understanding of transnational environmental relationships, like the one between Japan and Indonesia, can point us toward the root causes of environmental issues we face as a global community.

The Changing Ideologies of Biodiversity and Conservation

Emily Hutcheson
A family of orangutan, April 2008. Image by Robert Young via <a href="" target="_blank">Flickr</a>.

A family of orangutan, April 2008. Image by Robert Young via Flickr.

From a scientific perspective, Indonesia has long been essential to our knowledge concerning the globalization of science. In the field of biology, Indonesia’s diverse flora and fauna inspired many important ideas in theoretical biology since Alfred Russel Wallace embarked on a natural history expedition there in 1858. Other greats in the history of evolutionary biology, including Ernst Mayr and E. O. Wilson, also completed fieldwork in the highly biodiverse archipelago. More recently, Indonesia’s unique animal residents, like the orangutan, the bird of paradise and the coelacanth, draw attention and conservation efforts but conflicts between biodiversity conservation and social justice issues about land use rights and the scientific merit of Western discoveries of “new” species complicate understandings of the intrinsic value of biodiversity conservation. Previously assumed to be apolitical, conservation efforts to protect biodiversity faced and created conflicts among Indonesians and between local and transnational organizations and have evolved their methods throughout the twentieth century. As a historian of science and the environment, I see Indonesia as an ideal place to consider the changing histories of biodiversity conservation and valuation because of its uniqueness and intimate connections to the global environment.

How Local Voices Shape the Conservation Narrative

Shannyn Kitchen
Sekonyer River in Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Borneo, June 2015. Image from <a href="" target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

Sekonyer River in Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Borneo, June 2015. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesian Borneo, ecotourism, conservation, and wildlife management meet in complex ways. Within Tanjung Puting lies the ingredients for both the narratives of paradise and stories of ecological crisis. Here, orangutans build their nightly nests as wildfires rage a few miles away. The framing of the park, the people, and the wildlife is important for conservationists, the national government, and the people living in surrounding areas that shape and are shaped by relationships with the environment. Voices from around the planet influence what it means to be wild, pristine, authentic, and damaged in this site, even as Tanjung Puting and its inhabitants challenge these categories. In Indonesia, the interplay among local attitudes, national policies, and international business and conservation interests is under-researched. Climate change narratives have injected conservation narratives with a tone of urgency and its conversations and practices will only become more internationally important. As a cultural anthropologist, I hope to study how various groups are shaped by these conversations and, in turn, reshape them.

Land Reform in an Era of Climate Change and Resource Scarcity

Zhe Yu Lee

The contemporary politics surrounding land tenure and land redistribution in the northern region of Sumatra island are often in tension with national and global sustainable development goals. Following the fall of Suharto in 1998, increasing emphasis was placed on decentralization of government, democratization, and increased political participation. Because of this, many civil society stakeholders, including peasant unions and land rights and indigenous NGOs, been have strengthened in recent years.  This has contributed to increased pressure on the central government to adopt policies that have more explicit social and environmental objectives. These new policies include social forestry and village investment goals that have a strong land tenure and land redistribution components. In order to achieve these goals in the future, Indonesia’s government will need to aid in improving land information and administration systems, harmonize conflicting legal regimes, and implement international “land governance” best practices, such as sustainable farming and inclusive decision making.

A view of Sumatra’s rice fields at the foot of Mt. Singgalang, 1989-1990. Photo by <a href="" target="_blank">Evelyn Blackwood</a>.

A view of Sumatra’s rice fields at the foot of Mt. Singgalang, 1989-1990. Photo by Evelyn Blackwood.

The current framing of land reform issues within Indonesia is important. Under the leadership of President Joko Widodo, who campaigned in part on a platform of land reform, the country has attempted to position itself as a leader on the issue, in part by putting in a bid to host the International Land Coalition Global Land Forum in 2018; the government’s bid for the forum was a response in part to pressure from civil society. Despite this, the government has been recently criticized for failing to meet its promises of land reform, and land use disputes within Indonesia are on the rise. Both Indonesia’s desire to become a global leader on issues of land reform and its current domestic land disputes point to the importance many nations are placing on land use, especially as it becomes increasingly scarce. While land grabbing goes back to the 1950s, recent fears concerning food and water security and natural resources have made land governance a topic of global importance. Whether Indonesia will rise as a model for the future or if the choices its government makes will exacerbate poverty and resource scarcity remains to be seen.

Beyond Flora and Fauna: Why Mushrooms Matter in Ecosystem Conservation

Anne Pringle

Fungi are an often-overlooked, yet integral parts of functioning ecosystems. Fungi represent a group of organisms closely related to animals but with entirely different ecological and evolutionary strategies.  Roughly 100,000 species of fungi have been named, but the true diversity of fungi is estimated at between 1 and 10 million species.  Yet, despite their ubiquity, fungi are poorly studied compared to other organisms. Fungal biology is rarely taught in American high schools, for instance, and mycology classes are similarly rare at universities.  A large part of my mission is to teach people about fungi: helping students learn to really see and understand fungi for the first time. A walk in the forest becomes about much more than the obvious, the flowers and the birds. Suddenly, the fungi that are underfoot and growing around us become important parts of the ecosystem.

A mushroom on the floor of a forest in Bogor, Indonesia, is compared to a coin, January 2016. Photo from <a href="" target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

A mushroom on the floor of a forest in Bogor, Indonesia, is compared to a coin, January 2016. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at fungi is important for at least two reasons. First, because we know so little about fungi, we have a poor understanding of how patterns of biodiversity are changing as a result of human intervention in their environments. Without a baseline knowledge of fungal biodiversity, it becomes impossible to tell how issues like climate change and ecosystem disruption are affecting species richness and function.  Second, the study of fungi in Indonesia is important because it allows me not only to train students in the science of mycology, but also to foster relationships between American and Indonesian students. I was born in Malaysia, grew up in Southeast Asia, and have used Borneo as an outdoor classroom to teach both American and Southeast Asian students about tropical forests and fungi. Our knowledge of fungi, and botany in general, cannot be something that is passed from developed nations to developing nations. Instead, it must be co-created. Studying fungi in Indonesia offers this opportunity.


For botanist Anne Pringle, Indonesia’s tropical forests represents an important field lab within which students from across the world can be introduced to a stunning number of fungi. Her work also calls into question whether or not conservation is possible if we overlook key aspects of ecosystems, like fungi. For anthropologist Shannyn Kitchen, issues of conservation also provide new understandings of the various groups, both local and international, at work in Indonesia. She sees Indonesia’s national park Tanjung Puting as a place that lies at the center of important conversations between local, national, and international groups about what the shape of conservation should be.

While Kitchen points out the importance of these conversations both now and in the future, historian of science Emily Hutcheson reminds us that the meaning of conservation, particularly when it comes to conservation, has changed drastically throughout Indonesia’s history. Originally deemed apolitical, questions of biodiversity management require us to ask who has a stake in such projects, and what the costs of conservation are both in regards to animals and human populations within Indonesia. As Hutcheson observes, there has long been an uneasy balance between conservation and social justice for those who live in the surrounding landscapes.

Zhe Yu Lee points out that for much of the twentieth century, Suharto’s regime claimed ownership of Indonesia’s land and resources, pushing local communities and minority groups off of fertile land, and into new territories. Today, some of the many NGO’s operating within Indonesia work at cross-purposes as they attempt to protect both peoples and ecosystems. At the same time, the government faces tough decisions concerning how land should be used and where it should be preserved. In doing so, it will have to rectify its past means of economic development, which, as Bailey Albrecht points out, were based on the selling of natural resources to countries like Japan and the United States, with its visions of the future.

Especially over the last two decades, Indonesia has received much global attention for its high rates of tropical deforestation and biodiversity loss given decades of expansion of plantations and relentless mining and exploitation of forest resources. As a result, it has become a testing ground for assessing the effectiveness of technocratic environmental governance frameworks that are based on the latest scientific ecological research and mainstream economic development policies. In this vein, the country desires to demonstrate its ability to work towards the recently agreed to United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals that call for economic inclusion, environmental sustainability and social justice. At the same time, it is impossible to fully appreciate the complexity of contemporary Indonesian environmentalism without acknowledging not only its fraught political history, but also the prominent role it played in Global South politics over the past half century after it gained independence. Each of these attributes make Indonesia a fertile place for thinking with the environment.

Featured Image: Map of Indonesia from Wikimedia Commons.

Bailey Albrecht is a PhD student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison History Department interested in how people have shaped environments. In her current research, she explores how developed nations like Japan are able to green themselves in part because they rely on the natural resources of less developed nations, such as Indonesia. Contact

Emily Hutcheson is a PhD student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison History of Science Department. Her work examines the overlap between global environment and health, and human-animal interactions. Website. Contact.   

Shannyn Kitchen is a graduate student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Anthropology Department whose research deals with rainforest conservation in Bornean national parks. She is interested in political ecology, resource management, community and indigenous rights, forest conservation, and (eco)-tourism. Contact

 Anne Pringle is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist focused on fungi, organisms whose body plans and life histories seem very different from animals and plants. Anne was trained at the University of Chicago, Duke University, and University of California-Berkeley, and joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015. She is currently an Associate Professor of Botany and Bacteriology and her research explores the evolution of symbiosis, dispersal, and invasive species. Contact.

Zhe Yu Lee is a first year MS student in the Department of Geography at the Univeristy of Wisconsin, Madison. He received his BA with double majors in geography and environmental studies from Macalester College in December 2014. His research interests are oriented around interrogating how the scientization of environmental and economic knowledges during the Cold War/postcolonial geopolitical context resulted in the contemporary dominance of “expert-driven” modes of land, environmental and sustainable development governance particularly in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. He uses perspectives mainly from the sub-fields of political ecology, science and technology studies, environmental history and critical development studies. Contact.


5 Responses

  1. It’s not always easy for government to reduce illegal logging practice. Just hope someday in the future, there will be a system that can be implemented to tackle this illegal logging practice so many small furniture industry can survive in this un-fair wood exploitation.

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