Environmental Issues in Indonesia

I was thrilled to spend a chunk of an afternoon in a virtual meeting with a group of writers, scientists, analysts and academics from Indonesia who work with communities on environmental issues.

My role was to offer some notes on my experience with environmental writing, teaching and research in mass media, but—to be honest—I learned more from the Indonesian experts than they learned from me.

The conversation took part courtesy of World Oregon, which brings together people from across the globe to “broaden and deepen public awareness and understanding of international affairs.”

A range of workshops, travel programs, zoom talks and meetings is offered throughout the year to local residents in Oregon and to visitors willing to zoom into meetings.

(Its mission is much like the Fulbright Program—funded by the State Department—that enabled me to spend a recent semester working on Indigenous issues in British Columbia as a visiting scholar.)

Perhaps the most striking element I saw during the meeting is the passion each person brought to the discussion.    

One of the participants, whose expertise is research, said she wanted to speak to me in her own language so I could hear the lilt of her cadence.

She said her efforts make her appreciate her country more and more: from the coastal ranges to the nation’s diversity.

[I’m not sharing names and identities because some of the participants receive threats because of the work they do.]

Palm Oil Culprit

Indonesia is a vast archipelago with 17,000 islands spread across an area of 734,400 square miles: about the size of Mexico.

And it boasts the world’s fourth largest population, behind China, India and the United States.

Another presenter remarked that change comes slowly, in part because the islands are widely spread.

Yet industrialization is chugging along.

Several speakers talked about their frustration over destruction of the country’s hardwood timberlands—including the famous mangroves—tropical rain forests, wetlands, wildlife and sea life for the sake of an economic boost. 

Wikipedia notes that Indonesia is now “the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases” (a result of vehicles and industries) and that poor communities with high poverty rates are trading the country’s lush resources for short-term financial gain.

One flourishing industry is the planting and growth of palm tree plantations that produce a lucrative oil used in an array of products, including shampoo, lotion, soap, ice cream, chocolate bars, cookies, animal feed and biofuel.

Problem is, the plantations replace old-growth forests, which, according to Human Rights Watch, have been “decimated.”

“Indonesia lost 24 hectares of forest cover, an area almost the size of the United Kingdom” in exchange for the plantations, the organization notes.

Today, Indonesia is the world’s leader in crude palm oil production, even though the plant is native to Africa.

Another participant added that the destruction of the tropical forests has hit Indigenous peoples hard.

Such activities are documented in a Human Rights Watch report by researcher Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, who says that Indonesia’s Indigenous peoples “have suffered significant harm since losing their ancestral forests to oil palm plantations.”

When residents refused to leave their communities, their homes were burned to the ground.

Forests have been irrevocably changed, the report says.

Indigenous Folks in the Cross Hairs

Many Orang Rimba (an Indigenous community in Sumatra) “are now homeless, living in plastic tents, without livelihood support” which disappeared when plantations appeared.

Once self-sufficient, the Orang Rimba “now live in abject poverty.”

Working with the Indigenous communities left one expert feeling “beaten and defeated.”

Government players appear to ignore environmental clashes, and Human Rights Watch reports “they have turned a blind eye to widespread forest clearance” resulting in a “human rights tragedy.”

Indonesia suffers from a “patchwork of weak laws…poor government oversight, and the failure of oil palm plantation companies to fulfill their human rights responsibilities,” which makes the task of pursuing environmental justice Sisyphean, according to the report.

Still, the small band of professionals I met is keen to make an impact on attitudes and drum up support among publics.

In a word, they have…guts.

Sharing Tips

World Oregon asked me to share tips I’ve learned that could help the group’s efforts in environmental integrity.

Here is the transcript of my notes:

I am honored to be invited talk with you today about some of the work I’ve done in environmental communication. And if you have questions after today, please feel free to email me; I would very much like to learn more about Indonesia: and I am confident I will be able to explore your beautiful country one day.

Today I’d like to give you a glimpse at three environmental issues we face in Oregon, which I hope will let us talk about ways that we can communicate about environmental issues more skillfully.

I will offer you a few hints—or—bullet points to help guide you with your communication efforts.

So, to begin, I’d like you to imagine three important features that affect all of us—and that we cannot live without:

•            Fire

•            Air

•            Water

Let’s begin with fire.

This week, Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, wrote an editorial for The New York Times that is titled:

The West is on Fire.

It’s Past Time to Act on Climate Change.

Kate Brown wrote about how more than 600,000 acres have burned in Southern Oregon, and that 22 out of the state’s 36 counties were declared drought emergencies.

She notes that half of Oregon—30 million acres—is forest land.

What was her point in writing the editorial?

To put pressure on the the Federal government to act more quickly on climate change, and to improve infrastructure.

What we need now, she said:

“Is bold action from Congress.”

I’m bringing this to your attention to illustrate one way that you can get your stories out to mass media.

The Governor is smart: she’s taking advantage of an issue that has already captured the news, and adds another element to keep the issue in the public eye—an opinion-piece in the country’s leading newspaper.

This is something that you can do as an environmental advocate:

#1 Cultivate your networks

You can cultivate experts to write opinion pieces and letters to the editor to help present your side of the story, and this can be a way to reach important publics. For example, The New York Times is read by policy-makers and elected officials, as well as other news editors and reporters around the world.

Now let’s move from fire to air.  

Last year—just about this same time—Portland had the worst air pollution than any other city in the world—worse than Delhi or Beijing.

And while the air pollution story has been a big one in Portland, the deeper issue is that Portland has sustained poor air quality for decades.

The reason?

Like Indonesia, Oregon has industries that release—not hundreds—but millions of pounds of toxic chemicals that affect the air quality.

Despite Portland’s poor air—especially in neighborhoods with African-American, Native Americans and Hispanic populations—most Portland residents are not aware of the pollution.

How do I know?

One of my graduate students at the university where I teach wrote her master’s thesis on the disconnect between the quality of the air and the opinions of Portlanders—who consider the air…



Her research raises a really questions:

Do we want publics to know about air pollution, and…

How do you communicate with publics about air pollution?

This leads us to another query:

How do you communicate effectively about environmental issues?

One piece of advice comes from efforts to acquaint publics with climate change:

#2 Make it personal

Here’s an example from the Guardian newspaper:

Ella suffered from severe asthma. She grew up and went to school close to the busy South Circular Road in Lewisham, and had cough syncopea condition usually associated with long-distance lorry drivers who’d been driving for decades. She died at age 9.

You present a story that’s hard to ignore.

As an advocate, you can cultivate news stories for reporters that feature individuals. Reporters are always looking for human interest stories.

OK: we’ve covered fire and air.

What about water?

Oregon—like much of  the western United States—is short on water. Severely.

We are seeing some of the driest weather ever in our state, which has become critical in the Klamath River basin—an area that borders on two states: Oregon and California.

The problem is decades old, and it gets covered in the news media as a conflict with no solution.

The problem is that the resource—water—is scarce.

Water is currently being reserved rather than flushed through the dam where it can be accessed by stakeholders.

The local Native American tribes—in Oregon and in California—depend on the salmon and other fish whose numbers are dwindling rapidly.

For Native Americans, the fish are an essential part of life.

Fish have kept the Klamath and Yurok peoples alive “for all time.”

Fish represent life: We are “Salmon People,” one tribal member reports.

Salmon is more than food: salmon is life.

But the water that has dwindled in the Klamath River is also used for irrigating farm and ranch lands.

It’s a complex issue, and water rights continue to be challenged in the courts. For example, Native Americans are guaranteed first access to fish, but the farmers need access to water for peppermint, potatoes, onions and horseradish.

And ranchers want water for cattle.

Local government agencies blame National agencies; farmers blame American Indians, and Liberals blame Conservatives.

To make matters messier, a group of armed “anti-government” protestors has threatened violence.

One activist told a reporter, “We’re going to turn on the water and have a standoff.”

Is there a way to clean up some of the messiness of the discourse?

One expert suggests: 

#3 Reframe the story

This piece of advice—to shift or reshape the story—comes straight out of advertising. Clever cigarette advertisers found ways to reframe the story to shift attention away from health to one of freedom:

The freedom to choose to smoke.

So, one way to re-consider the water issue in Oregon is to try to see it through a new lens—a new perspective.

Now I am asking our friends from Indonesia a favor:

How would you reframe the water crisis at the Klamath River Basin to ensure that audiences understand the environmental impacts?

To wrap up: today we talked about fire, air and water, and I have shared three bullet points:

#1 Cultivate your networks

#2 Make it personal

#3 Reframe the story

Thank you for listening, and I look forward to seeing you again. ###

National Native American Heritage Month

Image (above) vintage mangrove







About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in nativescience. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Environmental Issues in Indonesia

  1. Maria Depriest says:

    Bravo Cynthia! I will finish reading your post tonight. It is all so important ~ so happy you are part of these discussions.

    Meanwhile, fyi: In case you read this before 8 PM, Louise Erdrich is supposed to be on at the end of the OPB news hour tonight. Probably at about 7:50?

    Hope we can chat soon. Best, ~~Maria

    On Fri, Nov 5, 2021 at 2:24 PM Cynthia (Ištá Tȟó Tȟó) Coleman Emery’s Blog wrote:

    > Cynthia Coleman Emery posted: ” I was thrilled to spend a chunk of an > afternoon in a virtual meeting with a group of writers, scientists, > analysts and academics from Indonesia who work with communities on > environmental issues. My role was to offer some notes on my experience with > en” >


  2. Thanks, Maria: you are so supportive of my work. And I adore Erdrich.Sounds like her new book is spooky


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