Earlier this year I spent six weeks in Jakarta, Indonesia interning at the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation (also known as KEHATI). Initially, I felt very pessimistic about working for an NGO. I also did not speak the language and therefore had minimal expectations about my time there. Even though I was extremely passionate about what I was studying in my Environmental Management & Sustainability degree, the nature of current Australian and US politics , as well as regulations, conflicting stakeholder interests, and general ignorance amongst the public left me feeling dubious about environmental conservation.
Moving to Jakarta would also come with a new set of challenges.. I was well aware of the amount of waste and pollution that plague the city. Jakarta, located on the island of Java in central Indonesia, has a population of 10 million people, with almost 4 million people traveling in and out of the city on a daily basis. It is notorious for heavy traffic jams, pollution, not to mention unsafe tap water. As a country in the throes of economic development, I was extremely interested in how this would affect biodiversity conservation.
It only took a week in Jakarta for my skepticism to rapidly vanish. Yes, pollution and traffic were just as bad as I had expected, the air was humid and sticky, and I was confronted with a different reality. However the food was cheap and delicious, the people at my organisation were dedicated, strong willed, and passionate, and the challenge that lay ahead excited me.
A little bit about my organisation…
Following the Rio Earth Summit and the Convention of Biological Diversity, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the the US and Indonesian governments in order to increase efforts of biodiversity conservation in Indonesia. As a result, the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation (most commonly known by its Indonesian acronym, KEHATI) was established in January 1994 as an independent, not-for-profit, self-sustaining institution dedicated to funding biodiversity conservation activities. Through an endowment fund invested in stocks and bonds, the return on investment was able to be distributed across Indonesia to implement conservation activities.
A little bit about my role…
The internship itself was very self-directed, which could be quite frustrating at times. However I was also able to research what I wanted. One of the programs administered by KEHATI was an organisation called Tropical Forest Conservation Action in Sumatra. Established in 2009, this program was set up under a debt-for-nature swap agreement between the governments of Indonesia, the US, and Conservation International. A debt-for-nature swap involves restructuring the outstanding debt of a developing country with a creditor organisation or government, in exchange for conservation activities within the debtor country. The Tropical Forest Conservation Act 1998 (USA) was passed specifically for agreements with the United States in nations with tropical forests. Nowadays, Indonesia has two such agreements in the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan.
My curiosity regarding debt-for-nature swaps peaked. This sounded almost too good to be true! If a developing nation could have its debt restructured, the economic burden of the debt would not only allow for increased funding towards conservation, but also for economic development within local communities. Deforestation and forest degradation has historically been of national concern for Indonesia, as well as around the world. In the last 30 years, Sumatra has lost a considerable size of it’s primary forest cover through land conversion into rubber and oil palm plantations, infrastructure developments, agriculture, as well as the timber industry. Poverty has exacerbated existing rifts between local communities and forests: natural resource exploitation, illegal hunting and illegal logging are not uncommon.
My main objective was to investigate the correlation between foreign aid, conservation activities and economic development under the context of a debt-for-nature swap in Sumatra. In hindsight, this task was probably too ambitious for the time-frame that I had allocated myself. However, between reading project proposals and researching debt-for-nature swaps, I was able to glean information on the conservation activities being implemented. Some of these activities included empowering local communities through microfinance by managing the surrounding forests sustainably, building and protecting forest corridors for the inhabiting wildlife, and setting up jungle cameras to monitor the tiger population.
A little bit about my future…
Although I was not able to obtain the feedback I specifically wanted for my project, the six weeks in Jakarta gave me an invaluable perspective on my future. For the first time, I am considering pursuing further education in the form of a PhD. I also hold ambitions to end up working for an organisation like KEHATI. Most importantly, I feel infinitely more optimistic about the world state of affairs, particularly seeing first hand the dedication for biodiversity conservation in a developing country; while Indonesia still has a long way to go, the drive and energy dedicated towards sustainability is positive and unyielding.