Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (ECOTON): Rebels with a cause
Interview with Daru Rini, Prigi Arisandi, and Tonis Afianto by Sonia Astudillo
Have you ever met a group of people who talk about the problems of the world, show you solutions, and suddenly you feel like there is hope for this world? That is what it felt like talking to Daru Rini, Prigi Arisandi, and Tonis Afrianto, Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation’s Executive Director, Senior Researcher and Founder, and Communication Officer, respectively.
Once tagged as rebels by their university professors, Daru and Prigi who both studied Biology, found their calling when they set-up ECOTON as a research club in the university in 1996 and then as a non-government organization in 2000. Tonis joined the team in 2018 to bring in his communication expertise.
“I worry about daily pollution that is happening right in front of our eyes. Fish are dying in the river, people are cutting mangroves, there was rampant building of houses in conservation areas, there was high pollution of heavy metals in coastal areas, and the water is changing colors” said Prigi. “It was difficult to understand why we are polluting the water on one side of the river and then drinking from the other side. Why is it happening? Those were the questions I had as a young researcher and I knew we needed to do something about it: research, compile data, present it to the governor via demonstrations, and get people in the city involved.”
For Daru, it was about protecting biodiversity and the realization that the source of the problem is from the lands.
“Back in the university, we were the naughty students,” added Prigi. “We felt useless because we had a lot of equipment but we did nothing. We were angry with the lectures because it seemed useless. Our professors became our enemy.” Twenty years later though, Prigi was invited by the university and was given an Alumni Award for their outstanding work in ECOTON.
ECOTON, based in Gresik, East Java in Indonesia continues to promote environmental justice for present and future generations, especially in sustainable wetland resource management. The group uses the Himantopus bird as a logo to signal that just like the bird they will keep warning people if there is imminent danger. “We see our work as a warning system because we believe that we must provide good information to the community based on scientific research,” says Daru.
GAIA sat down with Daru, Prigi, and Tonis to know more about their work, their frustrations, and their achievements through the years.
What are ECOTON’s top priorities?
We believe: if you don’t know it, you don’t love it. We provide easy information. We transform difficult data into easy-to-understand information. Our job is to make scientific information easy to understand. (Watch documentaries by ECOTON.)
Our dream is a people’s movement. We want to see people conserving rivers by themselves. We want data to translate into active participation.
On top of that, we give early warning about environmental conditions like threats, pollution, and extinction. We share those information to stakeholders like the community, government, and media via social media and documentaries. We prioritize local community groups organizing so they can have the awareness, knowledge, and skill to participate. For the government, we push for policies that support environmental conservation while constantly reminding them through our scientific reports. Without reports and monitoring, the government will not act.
What are ECOTON’s main ongoing campaigns?
Our main campaign is for river protection to become a national priority of the government. Currently, there are policies on forest impact of mining but we don’t see river management programs.
We use the information on microplastics as a tool for people to care more about rivers. Currently, all of our rivers are polluted by microplastics and it comes from the waste that we throw. It impacts our health because this same river supplies 86% of our drinking water. We want people to realize that everything we dump will eventually end up in our bodies.
Research from ECOTON, from the UK, and Netherlands shows that microplastics are already in our bodies. We did a study that feces is contaminated with microplastics and we show how it comes from the waste thrown in the river. (Read the full report in Bahasa.)
We are also suing the governor in East Java because they are not prioritizing waste management in the river despite Policy 22-2021 stating that all rivers must be without waste.
At ECOTON, we write stories, we visit rivers, we make documentaries, and we talk to the media because we want the information that we have to become common knowledge.
What are your biggest accomplishments/achievements?
For one, we are still alive after 22 years. ECOTON has now become more publicly known by the people and the government. It makes it easier for us to make educational programs and reach the public. We have more networks now, so it is easier to find support. Joining a global network also helped us develop our campaigns and gave us access to more funding, knowledge, and even volunteers.
After we did the Stop Waste Export campaign, we got support from other NGOs in Europe and Australia and a response from developed countries that they will reduce waste trade. (Watch Take Back – a documentary on smuggling waste in Indonesia)
We have developed partnerships in communities in more than 68 rivers in Indonesia.
When we first released the dioxin report, the government said the report is not valid and said they will make their own report to counter ours. To this day, they have not released their report. But, it raised people’s awareness about plastics and its dangers.
The relationship with the government is still not good but some officers are already warm and welcoming. Some cities welcome us but that is not the case in the provinces, especially after the dioxin report.
What challenges are you facing? How is your work impacted by the COVID crisis?
Many people don’t think that the environment is an important issue to take care of. Indonesia is still a developing country. People still have low economic status. The priority for most is to earn money for living. That makes it difficult to educate them and stop them from dumping trash in the river.
We need law enforcement. However, environmental management is not a priority for the government. There is very low funding and lack of personnel to enforce the law and respond to public complaints.
We also need more information or evidence of pollution. We do not have local evidence and no proper laboratory to conduct more tests and studies. Even if we want to know about dioxin pollution in Indonesia, we are unable to do so because of a lack of facilities. We need scientific data to make people understand. People don’t have knowledge and information. Evidence must be local.
The university cannot speak even if they have the data. They are afraid to speak. Environmental activists are harassed and even criminalized. Even journalists are targeted especially when it comes to military members. That is why we need scientific evidence.
What are the main environmental issues that your country/region is facing?
Harassment of environmental journalists, lack of scientific evidence, and extinction of freshwater fish, are just a few.
The latter can be blamed on microplastics because of its effect on the reproductive hormone. We have research showing that male and female fish don’t have the same time of maturation so they cannot reproduce. Microplastics can also feminize fish. Plastic polymers can influence the fertility of both fish and humans. The composition of male and female in a non-polluted river is 50-50 but it is 20-80 in polluted rivers. Given all these, it is safe to say that plastics can cause extinction in both fish and humans. (Watch Plastik Pulau/Plastic Island.)
How do you see your organization’s work evolving in the next years?
We have new programs such as the Besuk Sungai or visit the sick. Our river is sick so we must visit them. People must visit the river and when you visit, you must do something.
We provide tools so people can monitor and measure the microplastic in the river. We collect water samples and use a microscope to see the presence of microplastic. We want to encourage people to learn by doing, to see and smell the river, and to grow empathy towards the river.
We will have our national elections in 2024 and we want to push the candidates to speak about plastics pollution. We also want to push our findings on microplastics to go viral. We want to give full information on the state of 68 rivers in Indonesia and we want people to feel that they are cool if they know about river pollution.
What are your thoughts on the waste crisis that many countries in your region (and in the world) are living in right now?
The Plastics crisis is everywhere. There are problems with mismanaged waste and leakage but developed countries don’t have the capacity to recycle and then developed countries continue to send us their waste.
The solution: we need to have a global agreement – the Global Plastics Treaty. It is good progress because we are starting to deal with plastics, not as a waste issue, but as a material that should be addressed from production so we can achieve circularity and once and for all, solve the problem.
Our grandmothers used to use refills and we need to go back to that so we can reduce production and consumption.
Community participation and global citizenship are important. We are one. We have the same responsibilities and the same rights. In developing countries, the right to speak and the freedom to get information is very limited. We want to fight that. As an NGO, we must produce information and strategize on how to get those information to the people.
We have produced 20 documentaries. We try to transfer this knowledge to our modern culture, make it popular, and easy to receive. We must replicate a strategy to produce more information and get it outside our circles. We must change as an NGO, engage grassroots communities, and build movements not programs.
Currently we have good relations with the communities where we work not just in Surabaya but also in river communities from 17 cities all over East Java.
How does your work on waste relate to social justice?
Through the sustainable use of wetland resources and ecotourism and fishery, we encourage the government to establish protected areas in Surabaya. We proposed a conservation area to the mayor because once it is properly managed, it becomes a source of income for the local community.
We also promote social justice in our biodiversity programs because local people need to develop their economy by using their biodiversity resources sustainably. We discourage the use of destructive fishing equipment and teach the community how to harvest in a sustainable way, both in rivers and forests.
We also use citizen science as a tool to monitor forest destruction. In every city and river we visit, we establish a community of mostly youth. We have tools to monitor water quality. We identify herbal plants and we promote fishers sanctuary. We believe that we can live in harmony with the river. In some rivers, we show connections between upstream and downstream – water flow from upstream to downstream so money will flow. If people upstream are cruel, then that will affect those downstream and vice versa. We build connections so they can harmonize.
Who do you admire most in the environmental work (in your country or in the world)?
Silent Spring writer Rachel Carlson because she used scientific reasons. Her evidence made people move and we were inspired. Another is Che Guevara because he went around Latin America in a motorbike to know the condition of the people and then engaged them.
ECOTON is currently raising funds for Besuk Sungai. Visit the Ekspedisi Sungai Suntara Fund Raising Page to know more.