Indonesian NGOs launch legal action as dispute over orang-utan numbers escalates

Eighteen Indonesian non-governmental organisations have launched legal action against the government as a disagreement over endangered orang-utan numbers escalates into a broader rebellion against curbs on academic freedom.

Amnesty International Indonesia, Greenpeace Indonesia and the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom are part of the group that submitted a legal objection letter to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry on Thursday over undermining independent scientific research in south-east Asia’s biggest economy.

The catalyst was the ban of five academics in September who challenged the government’s claims that orang-utan populations in the country were growing.

The ban exposed a worsening problem in the country as NGOs, academics and scientists report tightening government control of the environmental narrative and increasingly onerous requirements on conducting research that might be critical.

Indonesia, home to one of the world’s largest tropical rainforests, is a crucial environmental battleground. The clampdown comes as President Joko Widodo, who won plaudits for his successful hosting of the summit of G20 leading economies last month, courts more foreign investment to grow the economy.

Wealthy developed nations pledged $20bn towards Indonesia’s green transition on the sidelines of the summit.

“This is much larger than the five of us being banned by the ministry. It is indicative of a broader issue where independent science is being constrained by the government,” said Serge Wich, professor in primate biology at Liverpool John Moores University and one of the banned academics. “It is getting worse.”

The letter is the first step in a process in which the ministry has 10 days to respond to the signatories’ demands. These include withdrawing the ban, publicly apologising, ending interference in science and holding meetings to reach a consensus on endangered ape populations.

If the demands are not addressed adequately, the matter will go to the presidential office and potentially after that to court.

The environment ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

“What makes this especially interesting is that the letter is from Indonesian groups. This has generated strong feelings by Indonesians and our case was seen as a breaking point,” said Erik Meijaard, a Dutch conservation scientist and director of environmental consultancy Borneo Futures, who is another of the banned researchers.

“This is an important issue for a country that is growing globally in importance and recognition. I don’t have a problem with the fact that we differ but we should be able to discuss it,” he said.

One international NGO told the Financial Times there was now enormous government “pressure” not to stir controversy. One director described the increasingly onerous task of obtaining a memorandum of understanding with the government, a requirement for NGOs to conduct research and write papers.

“It now takes months and you can have a 20-person evaluation team from the ministries of intelligence, finance and foreign affairs,” the person said, asking for anonymity because of the sensitivities involved. “This is how science works in an autocracy, not a democracy.”

Others said the mood was puzzling given Widodo is largely seen as open to debate while Indonesia frequently speaks about preserving its endangered wildlife. “Indonesia is doing a lot of things right on the environment, there has been huge progress in stopping deforestation,” said another academic, asking to remain anonymous because they are based in the country.

The ban comes in the wake of other criticism. After living and working in Indonesia for 15 years, French landscape ecologist David Gaveau said he was deported in 2020 for publishing an estimate of the damage from Indonesia’s 2019 forest fires that exceeded the government’s own numbers.

While the five scientists banned in September are not based in Indonesia, they are now barred from going anywhere under the management of the environment ministry, which includes most national parks and forest areas.

Another NGO said it was incumbent on developed countries such as the US and western European nations to put pressure on Indonesia. “Wealthy nations also could punish Indonesia but have not done so,” they added.