1990 Laureate, Environment
Environmentalism is "more than just planting trees", insists Suryo Prawiroatmodjo, an Indonesian pioneer in environmental education. For him, conservation means convincing people "to love their land and never take their feet off the soil".
"Environmentalism is insisting on keeping the air and water pure, the plants and animals alive and thriving, because we understand the importance all these have for our life as human beings."
Suryo’s commitment to environmental education won him a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1990. The prize brought international recognition after several years during which Suryo had experienced the loneliness of his calling.
Drawn to Nature
As a child on the island of Java, in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago, Suryo fell in love with the outdoors during yearly trips with an aunt who introduced him to the rugged beauty of the island’s eastern reaches. Young Suryo dreamed of being an archaeologist because it would allow him to work outdoors, but his parents told him he was too small for that career. So they compromised on his studying veterinary science when he enrolled in Airlangga University in Surabaya, east Java.
But Suryo had little interest in vaccinating dogs and cats, and was soon learning all he could about wildlife conservation at the Surabaya zoo. His groundbreaking doctoral thesis on the endangered Maleo bird, native to Indonesia’s Sulawesi islands, helped keep from extinction this primitive bird which, like turtles, lays its eggs in the ground rather than hatching them with the heat of its body.
In 1982, Suryo went to west Java to work for the Green Indonesia Foundation. It was a pivotal time for Indonesia’s environmental movement. "We came to realise that species conservation wouldn’t work unless we could preserve the habitat and the whole ecosystem," Suryo says. "And when we looked at threats to the ecosystem, we realised that nature wasn’t the problem. We needed to focus more on human beings and change their attitude towards nature."
Close to Home
Yet with most environmental work centred in Jakarta and western Java, Suryo wanted to take his vision back home to east Java, where he knew the people and culture. So he moved to Surabaya, set up a small office in his father’s house, and started knocking on doors in a quest to get environmental education included in school curricula. Most schools were not interested, and Suryo remembers he felt "alone, very small and powerless". Yet he persisted, and soon a small group of teachers, catching Suryo’s infectious enthusiasm for nature, joined his pioneering effort.
Effortlessly gregarious, Suryo has always been a networker. While plotting educational reform with schoolteachers, he was also conversing with international environmental organisations. He convinced the World Wildlife Fund to support the purchase of land on the slopes of the sacred Penanggungan volcano, in east Java, where he founded the country’s first centre for environmental education. With the Rolex Award, he was able to finish construction and open the centre. It offered artfully designed bungalows and study spaces tucked into the rainforest.
"After receiving the Rolex Award, I became better known and was invited to join Caretakers of the Environment International. I knew then that I was not alone. Their network of environmental educators around the world became a moral support for me, feeding me new knowledge and new methodologies," Suryo recalls.
According to Birgitta Norden of Sweden, Caretaker’s vice-president, Suryo offered an original model for colleagues. "He was doing impressive work, implementing environmental education in a most innovative way, bringing people of different cultures and religions together in a beautiful and peaceful place that made real what environmental education was all about." Through his involvement with Caretakers, Suryo took Indonesian teachers to environmental education conferences in other countries, and his mountainside centre started receiving visitors from abroad. "Suryo’s centre became a Mecca of the environmental education movement," says Eka Budianta, the environmental quality director for Aqua, Indonesia’s largest bottled water company. "I took colleagues from Europe there, and they were surprised to find in Indonesia this kind of long-term, sustainable, culturally sensitive vision."
Politics and Perseverance
President Suharto, Indonesia’s leader from 1966 to 1998, was suspicious of any ideological innovation, and as a result, in the 1980s and 90s Suryo was regularly called in by the military and grilled about his activities. Yet Suryo’s growing international renown helped guarantee him space to manoeuvre in the tense political atmosphere of the period.
Despite the challenging times, Suryo persevered, and the success of his centre produced requests to open similar learning centres elsewhere. A government environment minister even suggested that Suryo open "franchises, just like McDonald’s", in other provinces. Suryo resisted, claiming that different regions of the sprawling archipelago hosted distinct cultures and demanded attention to dissimilar environmental issues. He also insisted that local people own and manage any new centres.
And then one day a woman from Bali travelled to the Penanggungan centre to enquire how her shoemaking business could lessen its environmental pollution. Suryo said he didn’t know, "but we talked and talked and talked, and then she invited some friends, and the discussion became bigger, and soon we were planning an environmental education centre for Bali." Opened in 1997 in Sanur, it was run by Balinese residents with Suryo as an advisor.
Suryo helped establish a similar centre, focusing on coastal environmental issues, in south Sulawesi. In Irian Jaya, Indonesia’s eastern-most province, he helped a school director start an environmental education centre. Following Suryo’s example, a group of women foresters began planning a centre in Bogor, west Java, "much bigger than anything I had ever dreamed", Suryo says. Even government officials from west Sumatra travelled to Penanggungan to enquire how they could create a residential centre for environmental education. This growing web led Suryo to establish the Environmental Educators Network of Indonesia, which has grown from 40 members in 1996 to more than 110 today. And the Caretakers movement also spread, with teachers and educators throughout the country implementing the environmental education programmes of which Suryo had long dreamed.
As his dreams became reality, Suryo remained clear about his role. "I’m not a teacher. I’m just an advisor, a sort of broker. I push and give ideas, and I help connect people to others. You could also call me an agitator. Or perhaps ‘provocateur’ is the correct term," he says, laughing.
Delving Into Medicine
In 1999, Suryo was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic auto-immune disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract. The illness left him frequently hospitalized and unable to manage the centre he had built. It was frustrating for Suryo, who had to concoct new ways to be an activist from his bed. "I’d invite teachers to visit me. I’d help them with strategies and troubleshooting, and we’d scheme about ideas and programmes and activities," he recalls. Medical restrictions led Suryo to begin writing books. "I’m not a writer, but I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, what nature wanted from me. Maybe I would be gone the next day. So as soon as I could, I started putting my ideas down on paper." He penned a book, Enjoy and Play with Nature, a guide explaining how teachers can use the environment in teaching subjects from mathematics to sociology. He authored a treatise on managing environmental education in Indonesia, and gathered 125 recipes into a cookbook for solar cookers.
Although still weakened by his illness, Suryo has slowly recovered energy. He works with local farmers on recovering traditional organic farming methods. At the same time, he is reviving a variety of traditional healing practices from acupuncture to Jamu — Javanese medicines concocted from local herbs and plants.
Suryo’s efforts have brought together researchers from Widya Mandala Catholic University in Surabaya and residents of the villages nestled around Penanggungan. University scientists analyse local medicinal compounds, while village leaders popularise the wisdom of their ancestors. Last December, Suryo laid the first stone of what will be a centre for traditional farming methods. "I want to give confidence to the villagers, tell them that what they’ve been doing is a treasure from our ancestors."
Inroads in Education
Determined to make environmental awareness an integral part of education at all levels in Indonesia, in 2001 Suryo persuaded authorities at Surabaya State University to launch a two-year postgraduate programme in environmental education, the only one of its kind in South-East Asia. While the university provided staff for the programme, Suryo "agitated" from the sidelines. The first 15 students finished the programme in November 2002, and another two-year programme began in the middle of this year.
Besides professional educators, programme participants included staff from non-governmental organisations and corporate employees. Suryo says the growing demand for eco-friendly products by European and North American consumers has encouraged Indonesian factories to pay more attention to their environmental practices.
This new awareness in academia and the business world comes amidst a nationwide environmental crisis. Illegal logging, fomented by government corruption, destroys nearly two million hectares of Indonesian forest annually, an area half the size of Switzerland, according to a report last year by the World Resources Institute and Global Forest Watch. The disastrous results include a landslide last December that killed 26 people not far from Suryo’s village, and another one that killed 21 people in west Java last January.
Suryo says recent political changes in Indonesia have meant little for the environment. "During Suharto’s time it was people from Jakarta who destroyed everything across Indonesia," Suryo says. "Yet since Suharto the local people are saying: ‘Now it’s our turn.’ It’s nature that loses."
The recent disasters are, he says, "signs that we urgently need more environmental education. The disasters prove the lack of understanding, of heart, of loving and really respecting nature, the soil, the air. People become so materialistic and so attached to political power that they don’t care about anything else. The only way out of this mess is doing more environmental education with all sectors of society."
Despite the crisis, Suryo remains hopeful. "I get very frustrated at times, but then I think about all my colleagues, all the teachers who are out there helping people understand the environment. Because of those people, my flame has not been extinguished. Without them, I would have given up. As long as they continue introducing their students to nature, to the forest and rivers, I won’t give up hope."
Published in 2003