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Indonesia softens stance on WWF termination as programs fall into limbo

By Conservation
Hans Nicholas Jong, Mongabay | February 7, 2020

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JAKARTA: Indonesia’s environment ministry says it’s willing to revive a partnership with WWF after abruptly terminating its long-running cooperation with the conservation NGO over a perceived social media slight.

But a top ministry official conditioned such a move on WWF’s local office addressing the ministry’s concerns about its work, improving communications, and not trying to score social media points.

“If [WWF Indonesia wants] new MOU, then go ahead,” Wiratno, the environment ministry’s director-general of conservation, told reporters in Jakarta. “[The opportunity] is still open. But I suggest WWF to do self-evaluation on what they’ve done that have raised the ministry’s concerns.”

Original photo as published by Mongabay.

Wiratno’s statement came after the ministry formally published its decision last month to end its partnership with WWF Indonesia on forest conservation, signed in 1998 and due to expire in 2023. It cited violations by WWF Indonesia of the terms of the agreement, including the NGO’s work on issues beyond those defined in the memorandum of understanding.

Wiratno cited the case of Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in western Sumatra, where WWF Indonesia had since 2015 been responsible for a forest restoration project. The project site was one of several areas burned by forest fires in 2015 and again in 2019. The ministry sealed off the concession after the latest burning last September, in what Wiratno called evidence that WWF Indonesia had failed to carry out its task of conserving the area.

“If [they] have an ecosystem restoration area to manage, then they shouldn’t have let it burn,” he said. “Working on the ground [to prevent fires] is very important.”

Wiratno also addressed the aftermath of the burning, which appeared to be the catalyst for the termination of the partnership. He criticized social media posts by two popular actresses who had served as ambassadors for WWF Indonesia and who had notably omitted mentioning the ministry when crediting WWF Indonesia and others for working hard to fight the fires. The ministry had condemned the posts for painting it in a bad light, and Wiratno said WWF Indonesia should focus more on educating the public rather than using celebrities to score points on social media.

“Some of our personnel died [fighting the fires],” he said. “There’s no need to use artists. We’ve gone all out on the ground [to extinguish the fires]. Us working in the field is cooler than just talking on social media.”

Narrow Scope of Work

Wiratno said WWF Indonesia also needed to improve its communication with the ministry, after failing to report its activities on a routine basis.

“There should be a yearly evaluation [of WWF Indonesia’s operations],” Wiratno said. “[Meetings] should be held together, including with partners. [The communication is] not intensive enough.”

Another reason cited for the termination of the partnership was that WWF Indonesia had been working on initiatives outside the scope of the original MOU, which focused on forest conservation. Wiratno acknowledged that this scope of work was too restricted, given the number and variety of conservation challenges that have arisen since that original agreement was signed more than 20 years ago.

A new MOU, drafted once WWF Indonesia can address the ministry’s concerns, should allow a wider scope that could potentially include climate change and waste management, Wiratno said.

WWF Indonesia’s acting CEO, Lukas Adhyakso, welcomed the opportunity to restore the partnership with the ministry under a broader brief. He also said it was regrettable that the original MOU was terminated instead of simply revised, given the impact on the various projects that WWF Indonesia administers throughout the country.

“We’re still calculating the impact, but what’s serious is the fact that we have expertise that we contribute [to forest conservation],” he said. “Now we have to stop our conservation [work] in areas that fall under the authority of the environment ministry.”

WWF Indonesia has five decades of experience in forest and wildlife conservation in the country, run through 24 field offices across the archipelago. It’s been involved in describing 400 new species of plants and animals in Borneo; one of its most prominent recent roles has been the capture, for the first time ever, of a wild Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) in Borneo for a planned captive-breeding program.

But that program, one of 30 that WWF Indonesia has been forced to withdraw from as a result of the partnership termination, is now in limbo: while WWF Indonesia is prohibited from being involved, the rhino sanctuary continues to depend on its veterinarians and keepers to care for the rhino.

“Some [outside conservationists] have expressed [their concerns] and lamented [the ministry’s decision],” Lukas said. “We have the expertise that they need and we actually also need them. So it goes both ways.”

Programs in Limbo

Another program that’s at risk is a peatland restoration initiative in Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan province, home to critically endangered Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). Prior to being designated a national park in 2004, the area was a logging concession. The companies that operated it dug a network of canals to drain the peat soil, drying out the thick ground layer of semi-decomposed vegetation and rendering it highly prone to burning.

WWF Indonesia was tasked with blocking the canals and rewetting the land. Now, however, without the group’s involvement, that project could be compromised “in the blink of an eye,” Lukas said.

“Maybe the [canal blockers] will get stolen, and if the water table is lowered there’ll be great fire risks,” he said. “We’re not saying we’re the only ones [protecting the peat forest], but what we’re contributing is huge.”

WWF Indonesia’s partners on the ground have also raised concerns about how to pay to continue these projects, given the significant amount of funding that the organization has historically contributed. WWF Indonesia spends about 350 billion rupiah ($25.6 million) each year on its conservation activities.

Some of that money goes toward monitoring and protecting critically endangered Javan rhinos (Rhinoceros sondaicus) at Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, where the NGO began its conservation work in Indonesia in 1962.

Anggodo, the head of the national park agency, said the park might face financial constraints without funding from WWF Indonesia, which last year paid for 10 months’ worth of ranger patrols in the area.

“There’s a likelihood that [our] operational budget will only be enough for the next two months,” he said as quoted by Tempo magazine. “We’ll have to cover the rest with other partners because WWF [Indonesia] is not here anymore.”

At Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra, WWF Indonesia has had to lay off 20 rangers tasked with protecting critically endangered Sumatran elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus) from being killed in conflicts with humans.

“I’m sad that I can’t enter the national park anymore because there’s a ban,” said Rusmani, a member of the team.

The termination of the partnership puts greater onus on the Indonesian government to fund and administer the various conservation programs that WWF Indonesia has had to withdraw from.

“Maybe it’s already time for a transition, [for these programs] to be returned to the government,” said Alexander Rusli, chair of the WWF Indonesia board. “Maybe our role is not much needed anymore like at the beginning.”


Indonesian environment ministry ends WWF partnership amid public spat

By Conservation
Hans Nicholas Jong, Mongabay | January 29, 2020

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JAKARTA: The Indonesian office of international conservation NGO WWF has expressed shock at the termination of its forest conservation partnership with the country’s environment ministry, three years before it was due to expire.

“As written in the agreement letter, the end [of the partnership] is in 2023,” Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the head of WWF Indonesia’s steering committee, said at a press conference in Jakarta on Jan. 28. “Why [at the end of] 2019 was it suddenly cancelled? We’re wondering, but until now, there’s no answer.

“The termination of the working agreement letter from the Indonesian government is a serious matter,” Kuntoro added. “We’re shattered because we are a reputable organization.”

Original photo as published by Mongabay.

Djati Witjaksono Hadi, a spokesman for the environment ministry, told Mongabay that the memorandum of understanding with WWF Indonesia, in effect since March 1998, was “no longer appropriate and has to be revised.”

He said the decision to terminate, published on the ministry’s website on Jan. 10, followed an evaluation carried out since December 2018 and that WWF Indonesia had been notified about the impending move in March 2019.

Under Indonesian law, all NGOs with a permanent presence in the country need an MOU to carry out field work with the ministry. In WWF Indonesia’s case, that partnership was due to expire in 2023, but the ministry decided to terminate it at the end of 2019, three years ahead of schedule.

The move effectively ends much of WWF’s forest conservation work in Indonesia, which entails field conservation work such as patrolling national parks to detect threats to protected areas.

Kuntoro, a former energy minister, said he was shocked at the environment ministry’s decision but would respect it. He said WWF Indonesia would speed up the handover of affected projects to the authorities, and would remain committed to supporting the government’s push for sustainable development.

WWF Indonesia has 24 field offices in the country and employs 500 people working on various programs. It has ongoing cooperation agreements with other government institutions, including the fisheries ministry, the rural development ministry, the home affairs ministry, the land ministry, the peatland restoration agency, and various local governments. All of these are unaffected by the termination of the agreement with the environment ministry.

‘Violation of Scope of Work’

The ministry’s official reason for ending the partnership is that WWF Indonesia violated the terms of the agreement, including by working on issues beyond those defined in the MOU.

“In the MOU, the scope of work [for WWF Indonesia] is only about conservation and biodiversity, but WWF Indonesia’s work includes all aspects [of the environment], including landscape, climate change, waste, etc.,” Djati said.

He added the ministry also found WWF Indonesia was working in some locations without permission and without reporting to the ministry.

WWF Indonesia acting CEO Lukas Adhiyakso acknowledged that the NGO’s activities had “developed in accordance with the current situation” to include work on environmental issues outside of forest conservation.

He said the MOU was signed in 1998, with what was then the forestry ministry, long before its 2014 merger with the environment ministry. As such, he said, the MOU’s strict focus on forest conservation should have been revised, rather than scrapped altogether, to reflect the changing environmental priorities since then.

“That’s actually what we’d hoped for,” Lukas said. “[And] because we are a national entity, we also have the rights to participate in environmental issues. So if we want do do that [work on environmental issues], it doesn’t have to be managed by an MOU.”

Losing Face

Djati said WWF Indonesia had also claimed some achievements by other parties as its own, which he called disrespectful.

“Cooperation should be based on Indonesian law and regulation as well as mutual respect,” he said.

That latter reason for the termination appears to allude to public criticism of the environment ministry last year after it was perceived not to be doing as much as WWF Indonesia and other parties in tackling forest fires in an important national park.

The fires, the worst in four years, razed nearly 16,000 square kilometers (6,200 square miles) of land nationwide — an area half the size of Belgium. One of the affected areas was Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in western Sumatra. The park contains one of the last large intact swaths of dry lowland forest in Sumatra, a landscape that has almost disappeared across the island, and is one of the last refuges for three of the four flagship Sumatran megafauna species — orangutans, elephants and tigers — along with at least 250 other recorded mammal and bird species.

Last August, popular Indonesian actresses Luna Maya and Wulan Guritno posted about the fires at the park on their social media accounts. They said the fires had worsened but that some groups, including WWF Indonesia, local residents, disaster response workers and the police and military, were working to put them out. They also called the attention of President Joko Widodo and his environment minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar.

Wulan was appointed one of WWF Indonesia’s celebrity ambassadors last year, while Luna was an ambassador in 2008.

The ministry condemned the actresses’ statements as painting it in a bad light, saying it had done its best to extinguish fires and that some of its personnel on the ground had died during those efforts. It also pointed out that the burned area inside Bukit Tigapuluh had been managed by WWF Indonesia under a forest conservation permit since 2015.

Therefore, the ministry said, WWF Indonesia was the party that had failed to protect the national park, which was also affected by fires in 2015. Following the latest burning, the ministry sealed off WWF Indonesia’s concession in the park last September.

“WWF Indonesia has a concession and it was burned and they couldn’t manage it,” Djati said. “And yet they conducted a social media campaign continuously and negated the government’s efforts and discredited us.”

An executive for the company partnering with WWF Indonesia to manage the concession said the fires there were likely caused by people illegally encroaching into the area and clearing it by burning. Kuntoro said WWF Indonesia had done its best to extinguish the fires, adding, “If we’re not perfect, then we apologize.”

One-Sided Termination

The NGO has also questioned the manner in which the termination was carried out. It said it was unaware of the ministry’s intention until October 2019, despite the ministry saying it had notified WWF Indonesia in March of that year.

But the formal letter from the ministry announcing a review of the MOU, dated March 28, only reached WWF Indonesia on Oct. 7, according to Elis Nurhayati, the organization’s communications director. That same day, WWF Indonesia received another letter from the ministry, this one dated Oct. 4 and saying that the MOU was being terminated at the end of the year.

Lukas said it wasn’t clear from either of the letters what violations the organization was accused of having committed. He added they also never received the result of any review carried out by the ministry.

Following receipt of the letters, WWF Indonesia officials tried to arrange a meeting with Siti, the environment minister, but were rejected multiple times, Kuntoro said.

“We said we’re sorry but please explain to us what we violated, but there’s no response [from the ministry],” he said.

He said it was the unilateral nature of the decision, without any opportunity for WWF Indonesia to have a say, that surprised him the most.

“Can’t we discuss this first?” he said, adding that the organization was willing to listen and learn. “I think discussion is a good thing because we can improve ourselves.”