The Currency of Conservation: Money, Man and Motive

This article is part of the Tembusu College Expedition Sharing Week series. Organised and facilitated by Tembusu College, STEER Indonesia was a 12-day expedition that exposed students to nature conservation efforts in Indonesia. Students visited Jakarta, Lombok, Bali, and the Komodo National Park, interacting with government agencies, non-governmental organisations, social entrepreneurs and local societies.

In our trip to Indonesia to gain a better understanding of conservation efforts there, we had the opportunity to engage with both physical and human environments, integrating insights through the lens of privileged tourists and also the viewpoint of locals via our interaction with them. The multifaceted troubles of environmental conservation soon became apparent, but the acutely human side to them made it impossible to divorce the actors from their circumstances, as I was constantly reminded that behind every number is a story. Common across the various areas of conservation that we encountered – wildlife, forest, ocean – one key aspect runs recurrent: the spectre of economic worries. The reasonable economic imperative driving the individuals’ responses to monetary incentives made me deeply reflect on my views of conservation.

Indonesia is ranked 115th in the World Bank’s 2015 list of 183 countries’ nominal GDP per capita. With a value of about USD$3350, it is classified as a lower-middle income country as of July 2016. Many Indonesians struggle to improve their standard of living, particularly for those engaged in laborious low-paying jobs; these difficulties potentially manifest themselves in illegal economic activities that adversely impact the environment as they are more profitable.

One such example is in the fishing industry. Fishermen haul up their catch indiscriminately, even though manta rays and certain species of sharks are protected and deemed illegal catch. While the fishermen may know about and be concerned for the sustainability of our oceans, they have more pressing and immediate concerns, such as prioritizing for their daily expenditure. Unless there are viable options that can be reasonable substitutes to their livelihoods, they will be left with little choice but to continue and do the best they can for themselves. Social enterprises such as The Dorsal Effect have experimented with innovative solutions such as converting shark fishermen to ecotourism with jobs as boat operators and snorkelling guides, but the viability of such strategies on a scale large enough to significantly affect the realities of overfishing is debatable.

Sometimes, economic concerns are not the only obstacle faced; culture is an important determinant affecting the willingness to change a person’s way of life. The significance of shark fishing in the culture of fishing villages complicates matters as there is a sense of prestige attached to coming back home with a big catch after long periods out at sea.

In forest conservation, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry has laws in place to restrict the extent of forest clearance by pulp and paper companies who need the land to expand the scale of their operations. However, the companies have found a way around such legislation by making use of farmers, who are legally allowed to clear a small amount of land for their farming purposes. The large companies pay off the farmers to clear land for them, taking advantage of the huge wealth disparity between them and the farmers to make hard bargains. The problem is exacerbated when fires started to clear an intended legal amount of land go out of control and blaze into a widespread inferno that firefighters have difficulty coping with.

Wildlife conservation is another issue observed, most acutely in our time at Bali. Illegal poaching of exotic birds from the nature reserves of Bali is rampant, and authorities are limited in their ability to deploy sufficient park rangers to enforce the rules. Park rangers do not enjoy good pay, and are expected to cover expansive areas of forest. In contrast, exotic birds such as the endemic Bali mynah fetch good prices at bird markets and many households around the island boast caged birds of one sort or another. Again, culture has a big part to play in the high demand for songbirds; an old proverb says a successful Javanese man must have a horse, a house, a wife, a Kris, and a singing dove. Thus, there exists a black market to be exploited by enterprising locals, and more bird species beyond the traditional songbirds are being threatened.

Bearing witness to the difficulties of ordinary citizens in less economically-developed countries, I am reminded of my privileged position and the comfort of being an armchair critic. Sometimes we may be led to demonize the people perpetrating acts against the goal of environmental conservation, to condemn their selfishness and irresponsibility, but perhaps they are being selfish only in their responsibility towards their loved ones. Immediate change in their behaviour is impossible to effect. Instead, only a long-term approach of integrating them into a growing economy with better opportunities, and educational campaigns for cultural shift, may have some hope for success.

Thumbnail by Ashlie Chin, header by Isaac Neo