Twenty years of DTE

Down to Earth No.80-81, June 2009

In January 2009 DTE marked its 20th birthday by inviting friends to a gathering in Bogor. On the same occasion we launched an Indonesian language compilation of climate change articles taken from recent DTE newsletters. The following review of our activities was published as the introduction to that book.

DTE's 20th birthday, in December 2008, comes at a critical time: the world's governments have woken up to the dangers of climate change but have not yet agreed a just and sustainable way to tackle it; the credit crisis, originating in the US, is causing economic havoc internationally, with knock-on effects on jobs, health, education and poverty levels.

It is a critical time for Indonesia, which has become a major contributor to climate change, as well as highly vulnerable to its impacts.

While businessmen and investors profit from the destruction, the poorest Indonesians face multiple impacts. Not only do forest-dependent communities lose their livelihoods, but many will also be disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change itself, such as more flooding, landslides, drought, loss of coastal land and increased levels of malaria and dengue fever.


Then and now

On the surface, today's focus on climate change shows how priorities for DTE have moved on since we started 20 years ago. But closer examination shows that we are looking at what are basically the same problems - just through a different lens.

When DTE was set up as a monitoring service for environment and development news in Indonesia, the burning issues included rampant forest destruction and violation of indigenous rights, conflict over land, the damaging social, environmental and human rights impacts of private and public sector investments, and the use of brute force to suppress opposition to government projects.

The political context has changed since then of course - Indonesia now has a democratically elected government and has made moves toward decentralised power. Back in 1988 the country had an entrenched dictatorship whose highly centralised regime allowed exploitation of the country's natural wealth for the personal enrichment of the Suharto family and their cronies and for the profit of international investors.

But ecological justice - social justice which places environmental sustainability at its heart - has remained a constant underlying theme. All the issues listed above are as central to the climate change debate as they were to debates about sustainable development then.

Forest destruction and land use change are key issues in the climate change discussion because together they are, at 20%, the second biggest source of carbon emissions after energy. The renewed international push to prevent or reduce forest destruction in future raises many of the same questions about forestry policy, indigenous rights, community-based forest management and conservation that were being discussed twenty years ago.


So, has anything changed?

If the same basic problems remain the same, does this mean that no progress has been made in twenty years? No: important gains have been made over the past two decades.

Civil society plays a stronger and more critical role in Indonesia now; there is far greater freedom to speak out. A strong, national-level indigenous movement has emerged to keep up the pressure on government to recognise indigenous rights. The world is more connected and this brings tools for accountability within the reach of many more Indonesians than twenty years ago.

In the ten years since the fall of the Suharto regime especially, there were gains at policy level too - though there has been disappointment over the failure to follow these up. Indonesia's constitution was amended to provide recognition of indigenous peoples' traditional rights; a decree by Indonesia's highest legislative body, the MPR, offered scope for progress on indigenous rights and land reform; and decentralisation has, in some areas, made it possible deliver community decision-making over natural resources management.

At regional level, a moratorium on logging is in place in Aceh (though the region's 'green' development plan has received a mixed reception), and a similar move has been proposed in peat-rich Riau.

International developments should also start to make their impact: the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, (Indonesia voted in favour), can be used by civil society Indonesia to push for positive change within the country.

Yet huge challenges remain: Indonesia's politicians are still following a Suharto-style model of export-led growth based on plundering Indonesia's natural wealth. Many communities are facing land and livelihood loss as massive expansion of oil palm plantations gets underway.

Regrettably, positive changes have been far less evident in Papua, where human rights atrocities and impunity for perpetrators remain widespread. Papuans are still among the poorest in the archipelago, while their natural resources are among the richest. Even some of the new forest protection measures aimed at tackling climate change (as developments in Poznan, Poland, have shown) could well mean further loss of resources for forest-dependent communities, while government agencies, and the carbon credit industry capture the financial benefits.


DTE's role

DTE was set up by the two UK-based NGOs, Tapol and Survival International, as a monitoring service for environment and development in Indonesia. The aim was to provide information on and raise awareness of the problems faced by rural communities confronted by the Indonesian government's centrally-planned development programme. Issues covered included the transmigration programme, forests and forest peoples, land disputes, dams, mining, the proposed nuclear power programme and marine and coastal fisheries and mangroves. The target audience included key figures in the development community, government policy-makers, conservation organisations, research institutions, journalists as well as other NGOs and activists in Indonesia and elsewhere. As well as publishing a bi-monthly newsletter, the project participated in campaigns with other organisations.

This work helped expose international responsibility for social and environmental problems in Indonesia. Cases included the World Bank's role in Indonesia's disastrous transmigration programme, and its funding for the Kedung Ombo dam in Central Java - a project which led to forced or coercive evictions from their homes of thousands of local families. They also included a successful joint campaign to stop a US-based multinational Scott Paper from investing in an environmentally and socially damaging pulp mill project in Papua.

In 1991 DTE adopted a more assertive campaigning stance and started producing special reports on campaign issues. These included a book on mining, and special reports on pulp, forests, certification and transmigration. DTE's new strapline - International Campaign for Ecological Justice in Indonesia - reflected the campaigns orientation.

Since then DTE has expanded in terms of staff and scope of work. We have supported local Indonesian campaigns against destructive projects, helped to spread local-level information to international NGOs and media, organised lobbying events and capacity-building workshops and have helped build campaigning networks.

Our information role has continued: in 1999 we launched our dual language website, which now scores over 1 million hits for pages each year. From 2000 to 2004 we produced monthly dual language factsheets and updates on IFIs to raise awareness both within Indonesia and internationally of increased IFI influence in Indonesia following the 1997 economic crisis. Our newsletter has appeared regularly since 1989 and is now in its 79th edition.

In 2003, DTE began a formal joint programme of work with AMAN, the indigenous peoples alliance, funded by DFID. This included a capacity-building element in addition to information and advocacy work. Two indigenous representatives selected by AMAN visited the UK on mini-internships during the first year of the programme. Work with AMAN, also included translating and rewriting the UN toolkit on indigenous peoples for AMAN members, assisting AMAN develop a website, translating AMAN's materials into English, day to day assistance by at AMAN's secretariat in Jakarta, involvement in work on developing a legality definition for timber and fundraising for AMAN programmes. DTE and AMAN agreed to end the formal joint programme in 2005, although some elements of the work are still continuing, including finalising a book on indigenous community based forest management.* 

Looking forward

In 2007, DTE agreed a new 3-year strategy: 'climate justice and sustainable livelihoods' as a way of unifying and building on work to raise awareness of linkages between natural resources use, community resource rights and poverty, with a focus on forest protection, oil palm plantations and biofuel policy, and the extractive industries (mining, oil and gas).

By climate justice we mean equitable solutions to climate change which are based on the rights, needs, participation, and agreement of the communities who are feeling the greatest impact of climate change or who will be affected by initiatives to mitigate climate change.

For Down to Earth climate justice also means recognising that responses to climate change must focus on far-reaching change in the North, which involves just and equitable management of reductions in energy consumption and a shift to clean, renewable energy. It means working to ensure that mitigation attempts in the North do not have negative knock-on effect in other countries - this is happening with the promotion of palm oil as a 'green fuel' in Europe, while rural communities feel the impacts of oil palm expansion in Indonesia.

Climate justice and sustainable livelihoods are closely linked, since community management of resources that support livelihoods, offers a better chance of long term sustainability than do top-down development schemes which serve the interests of national and international business elites, and reinforce global inequality.

The objectives of the three-year (2008-2010) programme are:

  • improved flow of information from international sources to Indonesian partners in order to build capacity for participation in international debates and advocacy.
  • greater awareness internationally of, and more effective international advocacy on, the destruction of Indonesia's natural resources and sustainable livelihoods, and climate change-related impacts
  • greater capacity among local CSOs for making sure that affected communities' have access to international climate change debates and that their voices are heard;
  • greater awareness of sustainable, community-based alternatives which can contribute to tackling climate change, among national and international development policy-makers and decision-makers.

Down to Earth aims to act as a two-way information bridge between Indonesia and Europe for research and analysis, advocacy and capacity-building which connects to climate change, sustainable livelihoods and ecological justice in Indonesia.

DTE's work is currently funded by CAFOD, Cordaid, Ford Foundation, Caritas Australia and Trocaire.

On the occasion of our 20th birthday we would like to thank all people who have supported DTE, including all past staff; directors and management committee members past and present as well as all the funding organisations who have made generous contributions over the past two decades.

And, of course, a heartfelt THANK YOU to the many groups and individuals we have worked with over the years, from communities, to regional and national CSOs in Indonesia, to our colleagues in international organisations in Europe and beyond. We look forward to working with you in future!

*This book, Forests for the Future, has now been published.