The revocation of Eric Meijaard’s permit to do research in Kalimantan forests shows that the Indonesia government is silencing research whose results and data negate its own claims out of arrogance, or in a mere attempt to save face and maintain its international image.
Meijaard and other researchers have presented data showing the decreasing number of orangutan populations in Kalimantan, rather than increasing as claimed by the government.
As oppose to the government, Meijaard’s arguments are not just a claim. In his essay published on The Jakarta Post, he uses data from credible scientific journals. He bases his arguments first on an article titled “First integrative trend analysis for great ape species in Borneo” (Nature, 17 July 2017), and second on “Global demand for natural resources eliminating over 100,000 Bornean orangutans” (Current Biology, 5 March 2018), and the last is an article titled “Effectiveness of conservation investments for 20 years in protecting orangutans” (Current Biology, 25 April 2022). All these three articles conclude that the number of orangutan populations has decreased over the past decade.
The irony is that the government has even denied data from its own institution just because it supports Meijaard’s finding as the decline in the orangutan population is also supported by a survey from the Central Kalimantan Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), a local government office. The survey shows that the estimated minimum population of orangutan in Central Kalimantan has decreased from around 27,387 in 2016 to 23,000 in 2022. The orangutan population in Central Kalimantan is the largest of all orangutan habitats in the world.
On the other hands although it doesn’t provide data Indonesian government keeps on pushing for the opposite situation. They merely stated that the number of orangutans would continue to increase. It is not clear how the Indonesian government comes to this claim because Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the minister of forestry and environment, only said that the claim was based on “real evidence in the field” and “proof from time to time”.
In the end, the government announced the ban against Meijaard in a press release issued by the ministry, and issued a letter, accusing him of violating law and a number of regulations. He is said to have violated Law No. 11/2019 on the National System of Science and Technology, and Government Regulation No. 46/2006 on licensing to conduct research and development activities for foreign universities, foreign research and development institutions, foreign business entities and foreign individuals.
Meijaard was also accused of not being transparent, and not reporting the results of his research. These accusations, however, have changed over time, with the government’s initial statement accusing Meijaard to have discredited the government. This is only an excuse, and very far-fetched because according to Meijaard, orangutan researchers and conservation groups have been working together for decades and the results of their research have always been shared in Indonesian and international databases which can be accessed by the Indonesian government at any time.
The reactionary attitude towards scientists who dedicate their knowledge to conserving nature is in stark contrast to the Indonesian government’s favorable treatments towards investors who claimed to do conservation under guise but launched activities that have the potentials to damage the environment. The so-called Indonesian Jurassic Park on Rinca Island in Nusa Tenggara Timur should come to mind. It is the habitat of the Komodo dragon. In this 2020 project, the Indonesian government seemed to easily give the green light to the development in a conservation area without any analysis of its environmental impact that is truly supported by scientific research.
Even though it was full of controversies, receiving criticism from the public, the government still gave permit for the Jurassic Park project to continue even during the COVID-19 pandemic wave which was still high in the second half of 2020. The arrival of trucks, excavators, helicopters, and all the accompanying project noise clearly showed that this project is not friendly to the environment and threaten the survival of the Komodo dragon. The Jurassic Park project was finally stopped after the UNESCO world heritage committee asked the Indonesian government to temporary stop this ambitious project in mid-2021, pending revisal of the analysis of environmental impact for another review by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
From this we can see a very stark contrast in the attitude of the Indonesian government which pays little attention to credible scientific data and underestimates the presence of scientists in helping preserving the nature. The Indonesian government is very passionate about infrastructure development and mere economic growth but otherwise doesn’t really consider its impacts on the environment.
Meijaard’s ban is a concrete proof of the government’s arrogance, indicating that it merely wants to maintain its image in international community at the expense of Indonesia’s orangutan. This reinforces public perception that the Indonesian government is increasingly anti-criticism.
It is impossible to save the orangutan population without scientific-based strategies and calculations. It is time for the Indonesian government to lower its ego and admit its weaknesses for the sake of preserving the nation’s orangutan in the future.