Banned Dutch researcher warns of dwindling scientific freedom in Indonesia

This is the latest in a series of incidents of conflict between the ministry and members of the scientific community, sparking concerns of an anti-science attitude among the government.

Fikri Harish

Fikri Harish

The Jakarta Post


Family time: A Borneo orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) plays with her baby at Prigen Safari Park in the East Java regency of Pasuruan on Aug. 12, 2020.(Antara/Umarul Faruq)

September 23, 2022

JAKARTA – A Dutch scientist who is among a group of researchers reportedly banned from conducting research in Indonesia by the Environment and Forestry Ministry for their critical writings says he is concerned about the state of scientific freedom in the country.

In a letter dated Sept. 14, the ministry expresses its concerns about published articles on Indonesian wildlife by Erik Meijaard and four other scientists — Julie Sherman, Marc Ancrenaz, Hjalmar Kuhl and Serge Wich, which it said could “discredit the government and the Environment and Forestry Ministry”.

The letter thus orders national parks and natural resource conservation agencies (KSDA) to “withhold permission or approval from the five researchers in any conservation efforts done within the scope of the Environment and Forestry Ministry” and “refuse requests for cooperation with the ministry from the five researchers”.

Meijaard said that he was not notified about the ban by the ministry, though he was aware that the letter had been sent to various government bodies and NGOs.

“We contacted the [Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya] yesterday asking for clarification as to why we are banned from going to Indonesian protected areas, but we haven’t had a reply yet,” he told The Jakarta Post in an email interview.

As of Wednesday, the ministry had yet to respond to requests for comments on the letter in question. But the Komodo National Park confirmed to the Post that it had received it.

Eroding freedom

The ministry’s decision to ban Meijaard and other scientists is the latest in a series of incidents of conflict between the ministry and members of the scientific community, sparking concerns of an anti-science attitude among government officials.

The letter, however, appears to be a new low.

Aside from essentially blocking Erik and his four colleagues from conducting their research, the letter also outlines additional restrictions for subsequent foreign researchers looking to conduct their studies within the scope of the Environment and Forestry Ministry.

National park and KSDA heads are now required to report to the ministry regarding every request from foreign researchers, forward reports on any foreign research done from 2017 to 2022 to the ministry and supervise foreign researchers in their work and subsequent results “in order to maintain objectivity.”

Meijaard said he was not concerned about the possibility of being banned from doing research in Indonesia, but what worried him more is whether Indonesian scientists can do their job freely.

“If I cannot do research in Indonesia, I can still work in other countries, but Indonesian scientists may not have that luxury. So it is a concern for scientists, both international and Indonesian, who are working in protected areas that may now be scrutinized more closely,” he said.

“Science relies on objective data and analysis and results should be reported as they are found and not be scrutinized with regard to their potential impact on the government.”

‘Contentious op-ed’

While the letter does not specify which articles by Meijaard caused offense to the ministry, it is believed that the ban was triggered by an op-ed that Meijaard co-wrote and which was published on the Post’s website and in the newspaper on Sept. 15.

The op-ed, entitled “Orangutan conservation needs agreement on data and trends”, challenged a statement from Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya, which claimed that “Sumatran, Tapanuli and Bornean orangutans are far from extinction and instead will continue to have growing populations.”

“A wide range of scientific studies […] show that all three orangutan species have declined in the past few decades and that nowhere are populations growing”, it said.

In response, the ministry sent a letter dated Sept. 19 to the Post addressing Meijaard’s claims. “Data from the Natural Resource and Ecosystem Conservation [KSDAE] Directorate General’s 24 monitoring sites in Kalimantan and Sumatra show an increase in orangutan populations, from 1,441 in 2014 to 2,431 individuals in 2022,”it said.

The ministry claims that it has consistently worked to conserve orangutans in a “systematic and massive” way.

‘Cherry-picking’ facts

Berry Juliandi of the Indonesian Young Academy of Science (ALMI) criticized the ministry’s apparent overreach, saying that “the scientific community is the body capable of determining the objectivity of a study and not government officials”.

The ministry’s decision, he said, serves as the latest example of the government cherry-picking scientific results to fit its needs. “If there are studies that are in line with government policies, they’re all for them. But if they run counter to what the government wants, they turn a blind eye or like now, accuse the researchers of being against the government”, he said.

As ALMI chairman, Berry has lamented the fact that science had become increasingly politicized in recent years, pointing to the fact that Megawati Soekarnoputri, chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), now leads the National Research Agency (BRIN) steering committee.

The scientific community has cautioned that her appointment could potentially curb researchers’ independence in pursuing scientific innovation in the country.

He also cited the tightened restrictions on foreign researchers as stipulated under the 2019 National System of Science and Technology Law. The law, which imposes criminal charges on foreign researchers found guilty of violating visa regulations, is regarded by academics as a threat to academic freedom. (ahw)

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