February 4, 2023

Filipino Guardian

Sentinels of Filipino Free Press

NGOs target Indonesia for orangutans, academic freedom

More than a dozen NGOs have issued a letter accusing Indonesia of impeding scientific research after Jakarta banned a group of foreign academics who have defied an official claim that orangutan numbers are increasing.

Indonesia is home to the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, where the endangered great apes are losing parts of their habitat to deforestation, palm oil plantations and mining.

The legal objection letter, filed Thursday by the Environment Ministry by 18 groups including Greenpeace and Amnesty International, called on authorities to lift a September ban on the five western scientists and allow the researchers to work freely.

The NGOs could decide to file a lawsuit if their demands are not met.

The five academics – all based outside of Indonesia – had written an op-ed in a local newspaper citing studies showing that the orangutan population is declining, countering official claims that their numbers were increasing.

They were expelled from the country on the day the article was published.

The NGOs called the ban anti-scientific and said it curtailed academic freedom. They demanded a public apology from the government for what they described as abuse of power by silencing dissent.

“It is a manifestation of power control over knowledge production that has violated the principle of academic freedom,” they said in a statement Thursday.

Arie Rompas, head of Greenpeace Indonesia’s forest campaign team, said the ministry’s move was “authoritarian” and stressed that credible data is essential for sound environmental policies.

“If the data isn’t credible, policies won’t solve problems like deforestation, wildfires or the orangutan population,” Rompas told AFP on Friday.

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

“We’re still waiting for the ministry’s response to see what the next steps are,” Rompas said.

Poaching and habitat loss had already decimated the orangutan population in the Southeast Asian nation before the coronavirus became another threat to the mammals, which share 97 percent of their DNA with humans.

It was estimated that fewer than 120,000 orangutans lived in the wild before the latest dispute erupted, but the exact number was unknown.

The population of orangutans in Borneo alone has plummeted from around 288,000 in 1973 to around 100,000 in 2017, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The NGOs’ letter urges the government to work with scientists to arrive at an agreed estimate of the current numbers.