Dutch biologist Erik Meijaard isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers.
Over the past 15 years, he has published some 120 opinion pieces in Indonesian newspapers, many of which were critical of the state of conservation in this biodiverse country.
But even Meijaard didn’t expect his latest piece, which challenged government claims that the Southeast Asian nation’s orangutans have “growing” populations, to generate such a violent comeback.
“I was surprised they reacted the way they did because the article was polished and well balanced, or so we thought,” Meijaard told Mongabay.
In a September 15 editorial in Jakarta PostMeijaard and four other foreign scientists have challenged claims by Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forests that the country’s critically endangered orangutans are rebounding from decades of steady decline in a nation that has lost huge tracts of rainforest due to industrial-scale land clearing.
A few days later, a letter from the ministry surfaced prohibiting the authors of the editorial from conducting research related to national parks and conservation agencies nationwide.
The letter accused the five scientists of writing with “negative intentions” likely to “discredit” the government and ordered regional conservation authorities not only to ban them from operating, but to report the activities of any foreign researchers and any Indonesian researcher receiving foreign funding. , at the headquarters of the ministry.
If they have data that shows to the best of their knowledge and analysis that orangutans are increasing, then why don’t they share it or make it public so other people can analyze it as well?
Serge Wich, primatologist, Liverpool John Moores University
The letter sparked an outcry from civil society in Indonesia, a young democracy where, despite broad press freedom, some say the space for dissent is shrinking – especially when it comes to criticism of environmental policy in a nation dominated by extractive and agribusiness concerns.
As well as spurring a perceived attack on science, the row has drawn attention to government claims that orangutan numbers are increasing – a dubious claim that is not supported by any known data, scientists say. foreign and local.
The Ministry of Forests has not always disagreed with scientists on the number of orangutans.
In 2016, a ministry population assessment carried out in partnership with Indonesian and foreign scientists established that approximately 14,290 Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) and 57,350 Bornean orangutans (Pygmy Pongo) remained in the wild. (Tapanuli orangutans, which would previously have been counted as Sumatran orangutans, were identified as a separate species in 2017, with a population of around 800.)
“Wild orangutan populations are in steady decline,” the assessment says.
Over the past half-decade, however, the ministry has repeatedly asserted that orangutans – which once ranged across Southeast Asia but are now confined almost entirely to the Indonesia – organize a return.
In 2018, the ministry claimed that the number of orangutans increased by “more than 10%” nationwide between 2015 and 2017.
Meijaard and other scientists quickly denounced the figure as inaccurate. In a written rebuttal, the scientists called it a “erroneous extrapolation” of data from a limited number of monitoring sites representing a tiny fraction of the overall orangutan population. Some of the sites had been used to release captive orangutans into the wild, further inflating the numbers, they added.
“We believe that the Indonesian government’s current methods provide an unrealistic and biased picture of orangutan population trends,” the scientists wrote.
Despite skepticism, the ministry has continued to claim that arboreal primates are “growing”, with the minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, making the claim via the ForestHints website, a semi-official ministry news portal, in the month of ‘august. of 2020, 2021 and 2022.
Last September, Meijaard and his colleagues wrote in the Job that “a wide range of scientific studies show that all three orangutan species have declined in recent decades and nowhere are populations increasing”.
After publishing the letter banning the scientists, the ministry wrote in its own editorial the Job that his statements had been “intended to instill optimism” and that his critics’ analysis was based on “outdated information”.
Ministry officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Mongabay.
“We have to find a way to sit around the table with everyone”
In correspondence with Mongabay, the scientists said the ministry had never shared valid data to support its claims that the plight of orangutans had undergone a dramatic turnaround in the years since the president took office. Joko Widodo in 2014.
“If the government says populations are increasing, I guess they have data that none of us have access to,” Meijaard, who has 30 years of work experience in Indonesia, wrote in an e-mail. mail.
“Our data and also the [ministry’s 2016 population assessment] show declining habitat and declining densities, hence overall declines for all species.
Primatologist Serge Wich, also named in the ministry’s letter, said all available data showed orangutans were declining.
“If they have data that shows to the best of their knowledge and analysis that [orangutans are] is increasing, so why don’t they share it or make it public so other people can analyze it too? he said in an interview.
“I would like to see data that actually supports that we are wrong,” he added. “It would be fantastic, if the orangutans were doing well.”
The increase in the number of reintroduction or translocation sites should not be taken as an indication of overall population growth, said Julie Sherman, who authored the September op-ed with Meijaard, Wich and her colleagues Marc Ancrenaz. and Hjalmar Kühl.
“Naturally, monitoring after these releases will look like an increase, but it is actually representative of the losses of wild orangutan populations within the species range,” wrote Sherman, who leads conservation programs for the wildlife and habitat since 1995, in an email.
“This has major implications if this is a site used to extrapolate changes in species populations.”
In 2019, the ministry published then revoked a 10-year plan for the conservation of orangutans, supposedly so that the government’s recent forest protection measures can be added. The plan, known as SRAK, has not been reissued.
According to an Indonesian activist who did not want to be named “due to the anti-critical attitude of our government which could jeopardize our urgent work on the ground”, the ministry revoked the SRAK because it was “considered to have cast votes negative”. as it contains the narrative of deforestation as the main threat and that orangutans are critically endangered.
Who said the ministry’s approach of banning those who disagreed with it was unproductive.
“What I think is important to highlight in general is the impact on science in Indonesia,” he said.
“We need to find a way to sit around the table with everyone, including the government, and work on a system to share the data and get our numbers and trend analysis, whatever the outcome.”
Herlambang Wiratman, a professor of constitutional law and head of Indonesia’s Academic Freedom Caucus, called the backlash against the five scientists “excessive”.
He said it was emblematic of a larger trend in which the suppression of academic freedom in Indonesia was becoming more common – particularly in the field of the environment.
In 2020, for example, the Ministry of Forests cut a 25-year partnership with WWF, accusing the global conservation group of overstepping its authority in the archipelago country.
Also in 2020, French landscape ecologist David Gaveau was deported after publishing a 2019 wildfire damage estimate that far exceeded the ministry’s own estimate.
Foreign and local critics of the Batang Toru dam, which is being built in the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, have also faced backfire.
The list goes on: Herlambang pointed to “confidentiality clauses” in the new climate agreement with Norway that academics have sentenced as “political censorship”. And he quoted a recent restructuring of the Indonesian scientific sector which led to the loss of 70% of its personnel in one of the best known research organizations in the country – a decision taken by the former director of the institute called “disastrous for a great democratic nation that has so much promise and hope for its future.”
Herlambang, who teaches law at Gadjah Madah University, said attacks on environmental dissent have increased over the past five years. He attributed this trend to the perception that science was “interfering with the oligarchs’ profits from mining, palm oil [and] deforestation,” and warned of “threats of future ecological crises when scientific efforts to determine them are no longer valued.”
He added, “No developed country has advanced by suppressing science.”
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.