Indonesia suppresses data on critically endangered Orangutan habitat threats

Oct 7, 2022
Baby Orang Utan
Image: iStock

Outsiders doing business in Indonesia are urged to be polite and follow cultural norms. That also goes for academics, and the ones in this story have been exemplars of courtesy. But that hasn’t stopped their findings from getting rubbished and motives trashed.

Hollywood horrors give apes a bad name. Mistaken identity – the shaggy red-furred orangutan (man of the forest) aren’t gorillas, though in the same family, and don’t scramble up skyscrapers.

They’re the real tree-huggers. Their two-metre arms aren’t for swatting fighter planes like mozzies but to reach forest fruit. With 96 per cent of our genes, we could call them rellies. They’re no danger but they do challenge our greed.

Where they live threatens plans for their habitat. Orangutans could enjoy free meals and medical care in zoos but prefer the wild to welfare.

They’re on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list as ‘critically endangered’. An Indonesian trekking tour company asserts habitat loss and poaching have left the Bornean orangutans ‘struggling to reproduce fast enough to make up for the fallen numbers’.

A decade ago there were an estimated 230,000. There could be fewer than 50,000 by 2025, according to independent researchers.

Five from Brunei, the US, Malaysia, Germany and the UK who have been raising alarms boast ‘a combined 105 years of experience in orangutan and great ape conservation science’. That suggests their concerns deserve serious examination.

Though not for the Indonesian government which reckons the doomsayers don’t know what they’re talking about.

Conservationists everywhere would hope the authorities’ no-worries version is right, and likewise investors in palm oil and forestry. If the great apes are flourishing and have swinging space to spare, then more land can be cleared.

On International Orangutan Day (19 August) Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya announced that populations weren’t under threat: ‘Ground-based evidence confirms that Sumatran, Tapanuli and Bornean orangutans are far from extinction and instead will continue to have growing populations.’

Foresthints, a website of opaque provenance, headlined Nurbaya’s address as Indonesia ‘leading the way in orangutan protection’.

It reported the Minister suggesting some conservationists were publishing ‘not to collaborate but rather to generate benefits for themselves’ by running ‘unproductive and unconstructive campaigns’.

Two of the five researchers, Dutchman Erik Meijaard and American Julie Sherman then wrote in The Jakarta Post suggesting the long-term bureaucrat-turned-politician might not be reading the right data. The criticism was respectful but blunt:

‘A wide range of scientific studies … show that all three orangutan species have declined in the past few decades and that nowhere are populations growing.’

Statistics should be contested and research methods picked apart. That’s how academic inquiry gets to the truth, though only if there’s open discussion. Instead, the Ministry rejected offers to scrutinise the foreigners’ figures and told them to get lost, banning them from entering National Parks and conservation areas.

Not because they’re trampling rare plants, tossing trash and frightening the beasties with camera flashes, but for ‘discrediting the government’.

Further work must now be supervised to ‘safeguard the objectivity of their results’. Functionaries watching keystrokes looks more like Pyongyang than Jakarta. Meijaard who works out of Brunei (located on Borneo) didn’t reply to this writer’s request for comment on the ban.

The edicts have led some to argue the government is ‘anti-science’ – a follow-on from early Health Ministry dismissals of reports that Covid was dangerous. Some leaders do appear over-sensitive particularly when counter-views come from aliens.

A 2019 law imposes strict requirements on visiting researchers. Violators can be jailed. Indonesian biologist Berry Juliandi feared damage to international collaborations. In 2020 the Environment Ministry scrapped its forest conservation partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature alleging agreement violations.

In 2020 the Environment Ministry scrapped its forest conservation partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature alleging agreement violations. Meijaard and mates let the slurs go through to the keeper: ‘The minister’s comment about engaging the palm oil and forestry sectors in a multi-stakeholder approach to managing remaining orangutan metapopulations in production landscapes is also spot on.

‘Indonesia’s recent successes in reducing deforestation rates are commendable and both the government and the private sector have played important roles.’ That wasn’t sufficiently soothing.

Foresthints defended the minister with reasoning which tested the English-language outfit’s ability to argue at their contestants’ level.

The ‘press company’ is run out of a Jakarta high-rise with Western editors and has been online since 2016. It doesn’t carry adverts or appeal for subscriptions so appears to be government-backed greenwashing. Requests for info on funding sources went unanswered.

Indonesian academic Herlambang Wiratraman asserted ‘the anti-science narrative in Indonesia is getting stronger as the Indonesian government continues to suppress the academic freedom of researchers in disseminating their research’.

He reminded readers that two years ago French landscape ecologist Dr David Gaveau, a deforestation expert who’d been working in the country for 15 years, was allegedly booted for a ‘visa violation’.

Gaveau wrote: ‘The Indonesian government deported me for publishing a preliminary estimate of the damage from Indonesia’s 2019 fires for seven provinces that exceeded the government’s own numbers (1.2 million).’

He said 1.6 million hectares had been burned, Further research made this 3.11 million. Chief Investment Minister Luhut Binsar Panjaitan called for audits of NGOs spreading ‘fake news’ about deforestation.

During the 32-year rule of President Soeharto, whatever their expertise few within the Republic dared express opinions in public which undermined the government’s position. When democracy came this century it was assumed freedom of expression was trotting close behind.

Maybe Gaveau and the orangutan researchers have got their data wrong. Years of study doesn’t equal infallibility. But resorting to argumentum ad hominem is worrying many, including networks Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom, and Scholars at Risk.

In a joint submission this year to the UN Universal Periodic Review of Indonesia the lobbyists declared the state and some unis were trying to ‘punish and silence dissent, inquiry, and academic expression’.

Notes to their document added that ‘scholars and students play an important role in Indonesia’s vibrant civil society, from promoting social justice and human rights to publicly discussing government corruption and environmental concerns.

‘Without fertile ground, Indonesian scholars and students are hindered in their ability to drive the country’s scientific, social, economic, and cultural progress.’

In Indonesia experts sounding alarms about local issues usually get noticed, though not always respected if they’re from abroad. Targeting authors is easier than critiquing their work.

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