In DepthSCIENCE AND POLITICS

Scientists in Indonesia fear political interference

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Science  14 Feb 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6479, pp. 722-723
DOI: 10.1126/science.367.6479.722

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Estimates of how much Indonesian forest and peatland burned in 2019 are politically sensitive.

PHOTO: ULET IFANSASTI/STRINGER/GETTY IMAGES

After living and working in Indonesia for about 15 years, French landscape ecologist David Gaveau suddenly left the country on 28 January. Indonesian immigration authorities had ordered Gaveau, a research associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, on Java, to leave because of a visa violation.

Gaveau, who also directed a small consulting company on Bali, would not comment on the reason for his departure. But some colleagues suspect it's no coincidence that he was expelled the month after CIFOR published an estimate of the damage from Indonesia's 2019 wildfires that far exceeded the government's own numbers. Some see his deportation as another sign of the growing tension between the Indonesian government and the scientific community. In recent years, several researchers studying environmental damage from development and fires have faced government pressure and some have lost their jobs and their right to stay in the country. Indonesian scientists have felt pressure as well. “I am afraid these signs mean the Indonesian government is starting to leave science behind,” says Herlambang Wiratraman, director of human rights law studies at Airlangga University.

Gaveau is an expert on deforestation and forest fires who runs the Borneo Atlas and the Papua Atlas, online platforms that track changes in land use in industry concessions. In his analysis of the 2019 fires, based on images captured by the European Space Agency's Sentinel-2 satellite and published in early December 2019, he concluded that about 1.6 million hectares of forest and degraded peatlands had burned between January and October in seven Indonesian provinces.

The numbers upset officials at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), whose research division had concluded that less than 1.2 million hectares burned in the same provinces between January and November. They used data from different satellites, verified with observations on the ground, says Raffles Panjaitan, director of the land and forest fires division at KLHK. Panjaitan told Science in December 2019 that Gaveau “clearly made a mistake” by failing to groundtruth his numbers.

In a meeting with KLHK officials on 4 December 2019, Gaveau admitted his findings were preliminary and had to be verified, Panjaitan says. CIFOR has pulled the analysis from its website. “CIFOR's practice is to submit our research to the scrutiny of the peer-review process,” says CIFOR Director Robert Nasi. “In this case, that practice was not fully adhered to.” In a tweet about the fires, environment minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar later said “unobjective and invalid data must be countered.”

Since then, KLHK has published revised estimates closer to Gaveau's analysis, however. And it's not unusual for scientists to come up with different fire estimates, says Arief Wijaya, a researcher at the World Resources Institute. “Each methodology has its own strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “It is very wrong for KLHK to shun an alternative viewpoint,” adds biologist Rosichon Ubaidillah of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). “They can't suppress the science they don't like.”

Indonesian immigration authorities did not respond to requests for information about Gaveau's deportation, but Agus Justianto, head of KLHK's research division, says it was unrelated to the December incident. A science law adopted last year in Indonesia tightly regulates international research collaborations (Science, 26 July 2019, p. 304), and Gaveau “didn't have the right permit to do research in Indonesia,” Justianto says.

But Gaveau says it's not clear the new law covers his work. “I no longer conduct on-the-ground research in Indonesia,” he says. “I am a consultant who provides scientific advice to a range of international and national institutions based on free satellite data and other public data sets.” Other foreigners working as consultants in Indonesia could be targeted using the same law, he says. (Erik Meijaard, a Dutch primatologist based in Brunei, says he no longer works in Indonesia because it's unclear what counts as research under the law.)

Gaveau is not the first foreign researcher to leave the country. Last year, PanEco, a Swiss conservation group working on Sumatra, fired two scientists who had published a paper about a hydroelectric dam that threatens the tiny habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, the rarest of the great ape species. PanEco long opposed the dam but made a sudden about-face after a meeting with Indonesian politicians last year, announcing it would help mitigate the project's impact (Science, 13 September 2019, p. 1064).

Conservation biologist Jatna Supriatna, a senior member of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences, says, “Miscommunication between scientists and government” is at the root of most disputes. Supriatna doesn't believe Gaveau's departure had anything to do with his research: “I have published research on deforestation, but none of it was criticized by the government,” he says.

KLHK has also ignored work by Indonesian scientists, however. In 2018, it removed five species of songbirds and 10 species of wood plants—including a dipterocarp tree once believed to be extinct that produces high-quality timber—from a list of protected plants and animals without consulting LIPI scientists. The ministry ignored LIPI's recommendation to add the Papuan blue monitor lizard, which is threatened by illegal trade and deforestation, to the list. KLHK “made the decision by themselves,” says Evy Arida, a herpetologist at LIPI. (In an interview with environmental news website Mongabay, a KLHK spokesperson said the decisions were based on field research into the species' abundance.)

Herlambang, who founded the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom, agrees the climate is worsening for local researchers. He cites the case of Basuki Wasis, an environmental scientist at IPB University who served as an expert witness in the trial of Nur Alam, a former governor of South East Sulawesi convicted of graft in 2016. Wasis testified that Alam's governance had caused almost $200 million in environmental losses; in response, Alam sued Wasis for about $220 million. (Wasis won the suit, with Herlambang's help.)

“We are witnessing an ecological crisis and human rights violations,” Herlambang says. “We will never overcome these problems if we don't have a chance to develop our academic freedom.”

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