Responsible tourism in Indonesia

Responsible tourism in Indonesia is as much to do with the sheer size of the country, as it is any immediate barriers to social and environmental sustainability that it might be facing. Keeping a country of over 200 million fed and watered is not easy, so while at the outset it’s easy to condemn Indonesia’s level of poverty, when you actually look at what the current government has outlined to provide in terms of social spending and healthcare, their progress is commendable. Likewise palm oil is horrendously damaging to the rainforest and the animals that dwell there, but its spells big bucks and each and every one of the world’s countries is probably guilty of begging, borrowing or stealing – even from themselves – at some point. The key to responsible tourism in Indonesia lies with tourists supporting local businesses across the country at every level possible, so that the locals learn how valuable their environment is and aren’t forced to turn to other, more damaging practices to earn their keep.

People & Culture

Is there a darker side to Indonesia’s boom?

You don’t have to look far in Indonesia to witness the widening presence of development – hotels, resorts, restaurants and bars are popping up at a steady rate across the islands – and the country’s rapid growth in recent years is undeniable with statistics speaking for themselves. Reported figures show gross national income per head doubling over the past decade and the proportion of the population living in poverty falling by half to under 15 percent.

The problem is that the county’s growth, or rather the figures that are collated to illustrate this, aren’t as accurate – and therefore positive – as they might first seem. Over three million migrants from Indonesia’s vast countryside arrive each year in Jakarta and other cities to find work as a result of the boom, but many end up in jobs in low-end services – offering goods by the roadside, or selling food from street stalls – and they are all part of the massive, informal and therefore unaccounted for economy that makes up about 70 percent of Indonesia’s GDP. They earn below the country’s official minimum wage (about £148 per month) and are exempt from state benefits.

Effectively, the rich of Indonesia are definitely getting richer, but they are getting richer a lot quicker than the poor ever will if government spending priorities don’t shift. Currently, a large percentage of the central government’s budget goes on energy subsidies – cheap petrol for one, which is used far more widely by the higher earners than the poor – and this in turn tightens spending on public services – infrastructure, health and social welfare – all of which the poorest in society would benefit from.
It’s a tricky balancing act juggling an enormous population, rapid growth and a fair bit of poverty and though on the outset it may seem like the poorest of Indonesia’s population aren’t benefitting from the country’s impressive growth, they are, but just at a relatively slower rate than the country’s richer, consuming classes.

Indonesia didn’t get where it is today by poor planning and it has already increased social spending with bold plans unveiled to introduce universal healthcare by 2019. Widening access to things like safe, secure homes, clean water and sanitation along with a greater focus on education and healthcare and a rethink about the decrepit infrastructure that’s preventing more jobs in manufacturing are not out of Indonesia’s reach, and would all slowly but surely start to result in the rewards of the country’s increasing development shared more evenly.

What can you do?
The best thing you can do is be mindful of where your money is being spent – you’re going to get a much more authentic Indonesian holiday staying at a lodge that employs local guides and staff than you are at a branded, soulless hotel. In turn those staff will benefit from your stay as will the surrounding wildlife and wilderness that they’re so knowledgeable about. Street food is an Indonesian highlight, so buy from the guy that looks like knows what he’s doing at his cart and not from overpriced resorts.

Wildlife & environment

The problem with palm oil

Palm oil is seen as a one-size-fits-all miracle oil. As the cheapest vegetable oil on the market, it is used widely in food as well as in toiletries - and ironically, it is now touted as a "biofuel". While it may pollute less than its petroleum and coal-based alternatives when burned, cutting down peat forests to make way for palm oil plantations releases carbon into the atmosphere: suddenly this "clean" fuel starts to look rather filthy.

Loggers have moved into the palm-oil business with aplomb, clearing peat-swamp forests to make way for plantations and presently, across Indonesia as a whole, it’s estimated that three quarters of the logging that takes place is illegal. Highly destructive logging and clearance techniques are employed by larger companies to reduce costs and maximise profit, while small-scale subsistence farmers use slash-and-burn techniques to make way for their crops, eventually exhausting the soil so that they have to move on and clear new land. The tragic irony here is twofold: not only are western countries touting their green credentials through the use of palm oil-derived biofuels which have been cultivated following the destruction of carbon sink forests, but the nation supplying this fuel is one that – despite struggling to feed its population – has ploughed up fertile farmland to plant oil palm for overseas buyers.
Since oil palms need a rainforest climate – consistently high humidity and temperatures – and a lot of land, plantations are often established at the expense of rainforests. About 90 percent of the world’s palm oil is currently being produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Indonesia’s oil palm plantations alone already cover nine million hectares, an area the size of Portugal, with 26 million hectares projected for 2025. As well as reducing habitat for orangutans and other endangered species, replacing forest with farmland has several other tragic impacts. For example, poaching is more prevalent around palm oil plantations, as wildlife becomes more accessible and innocent orangutans that stray onto farmland may be shot as pests.

It’s not ‘biofuel’ that’s the problem – far from it; other biofuels, particularly that derived from waste is a brilliant idea, it’s the fact that this particular ‘biofuel’ is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Fortunately, there is increased stress from well-motivated pressure groups such as The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme and Greenpeace being placed on the Indonesian government and, crucially, the huge companies that are buying the palm oil to try and rethink their long-term strategies and to stop the illegal activity and though there is a long way to go, the situation is improving. They are clamping down it and the country has made huge strides of progress over the past 10 years - it’s hugely transformational what the current government has done, but with 200 million people to feed, it was always going to be a tough job, so they are definitely moving in the right direction.

What can you do?
Visit forests and research stations, pay park fees and spend your money in local communities. This demonstrates that the intact rainforest has a value, which will last for centuries – rather than the short-term gain created by logging and farming.

Palm oil plantations cover up to 90,000km2 in Indonesia – much of this land was once rainforest. Check ingredients lists – and avoid purchasing anything made with palm oil. Alternatively, look out for products with a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) logo.

Buy Fair Trade, sustainable products from Indonesia’s forests that encourage the preservation of the forest, such as locally made handcrafts.

Find out how else to get involved and support Indonesia’s rainforests on WWF’s Indonesia palm oil pages.

Forest fires: Indonesia is burning before our eyes

Combine Indonesia’s palm oil problems with a government whose apparent policies don’t match up with their actions and a significant lack of global media coverage and you have one of the most shocking environmental disasters of the 21st century – Indonesia’s forest fires. Raging through the country for decades causing widespread respiratory problems among the country’s people – and in some cases, death - as well as destruction of precious archaeological remains and depletion of huge swathes of rainforest forcing orangutans, rhino and tigers from their natural habitat, the fires are showing no sign of waning and yet very little is being done to stop them.

The reason the forest fires are happening is ‘slash and burn’ – the quickest way to clear land for new plantations. The country’s forests have been divided and ‘conquered’ for years by various farming and timber companies with canals cut through the peat to drain and dry it. The easiest way to clear the land is to torch it, making way for plantation companies to plant monocultures of pulpwood, timber and palm oil.

2015’s prolonged dry season coupled with the global weather disruption caused by El Nino have resulted in a situation in Indonesia that is now very much more than out of hand – levels of the Pollutant Standard Index in Sumatra and Kalimantan are pushing 2,000 – anything above 300 is deemed dangerous, and the air above the cities has turned a toxic shade of sepia. It’s also estimated that daily emissions from the fires have overtaken the average daily emissions of the US in its entirety.

You can read more on Indonesia’s forest fires here, and here.

The plight of the orangutan

Eerily human, it is – ironically – the orangutan’s similarity to us that has endangered it so; the apes prefer the lowland forests, proximity to freshwater and fertile soils that are so appealing to farmers. The illegal wildlife trade, logging, forest fires and mining all threaten the future of the orangutan, but the greatest danger by far comes from palm oil plantations, which flatten and fragment ancient forest.

National parks, sanctuaries, rescue and rehabilitation centres are dotted across their habitats, and supporting these places is an important step in guarding their future, as well as raising awareness of their plight. Whether you come to volunteer, see them feeding in a rehabilitation centre, or support local communities who strive to protect their historical neighbours, make sure you do it in the right way.

What can you do?
The most important thing to remember is that, as cute as they are, orangutans are not there to be handled or bottle-fed. As people seek ‘meaningful’ holidays, and ‘giving back’ becomes a buzzword, volunteering with endangered wildlife seems to tick many boxes. But, thanks to the risk of transmitting diseases and habituation to humans, you should never touch an orangutan, and any organisation promoting this has their own interests at heart, not the wildlife. Stick to the excitement of possibly spotting one in the wild on a responsibly organised tour, and if you want to volunteer, construction and reforestation work is what’s needed to preserve their future.

Animal rights and wrongs

There’s no two ways about it, the Indonesians are quite harsh on animals; if you go to Lombok, there will be ponies in traps that you can take a ride in, but they will be there at 7am in the morning and still there at 11pm at night, so you’re never quite sure whether these ponies ever get out of their traps and it is pretty cruel how they are treated.

Similarly, in Sulawesi, there are markets where you’ll see monkey meat on sale and dogs and cats being sold to be cooked – the Indonesians think nothing of eating most animals, but certainly by our standards, it’s likely there is some cruelty in the way that they’re killed and handled.

Indonesia is certainly a country where this issue is only just becoming more understood. As a nation with plenty of its own human problems, the real issue here is that most of the locals are just trying to make a living and their minds are far more focused on survival than the welfare of ponies; 100 years ago, we thought nothing of taking ponies down the mines, and that’s where Indonesia is now. The current government has made significant headway sorting out huge social problems for Indonesia in places like Timor, Aceh and in the Malakas, where there have been horrible wars over the past decade, and ironing out those issues has to come first. With progress as it has been it’s likely the next decade will be dedicated to sorting out Indonesia’s issues with animal rights.

What you can do
If you see a situation involving animals that you don’t feel comfortable with, be it for entertainment, the production of souvenirs, or food, simply don’t get involved. The Indonesians mindset where animals is concerned is hugely outdated, and although they may seem like they need the money, find another way to let your contribution filter through to local life. If we don’t support demand, they won’t feel pressure to keep up the supply.
Philip Beale, from our supplier, Pioneer Expeditions, shares his opinion on the issue of animal rights in Indonesia: “To some extent, we have to accept that a lot of the Indonesians’ actions towards animals are ingrained into their tradition and culture and it’s important to consider that there’s lots of people starving in Indonesia – it’s a poor country and earning money and finding food isn’t always about choice, but necessity. Our role is to gradually make the locals aware that there are better ways to do things, while still making a living.”

Responsible tourism tips

The Indonesians are a calm and conservative people. You may find yourself in social situations that are completely out of your western comfort zone, but it is important to remember that the locals exercise discretion in expressing their feelings, anger and affection towards each other. If you don’t understand something, ask quietly and be patient – showing emotion will get you nowhere. Think before you take pictures. It’s easy to get snap-happy when presented with Indonesia’s incredible landscape and lifestyle, but it’s important to remember that while this may be your trip of a lifetime, but it’s the Indoensians’ reality, so introduce yourself to the locals and ask permission. Whenever possible, it is good idea to ask for a postal address and follow through by sending photographs back to local families. Never use flash photography with wildlife. Make sure you’re visiting a genuine wildlife rescue centre or sanctuary, and not a zoo. Harriet Whitmarsh, from our supplier The Great Traveller: “Zoos in Southeast Asia are just the most horrible places, especially in Indonesia, which is notorious for having some of the most despicable zoos in the world. They are just horrendous. So avoid zoos, and avoid any animal entertainment.” If you are served food or drink by a local in their home, it’s courteous not to tuck in until the host invites you to. Never pass or accept anything with your left hand; it is considered impolite. Public displays of affection between men and women are frowned upon in Indonesia, and kissing in public will attract unwanted attention. Conversely, touching a stranger of the same sex while in conversation is very common, so don’t be alarmed, they’re just being friendly! Pointing is impolite no matter what the situation and patting children on the head should be avoided as the head is thought of as a sacred part of the body. Smiling is a cultural tradition and Indonesians smile frequently, even in an uncomfortable or difficult situation – you might feel a bit awkward with this at first, but you’ll get used to it and actually come to find it really quite lovely. If invited to a home, a gift is appreciated (as long as it is given with the right hand), but Indonesia isn’t the UK and a bottle of plonk won’t cut it – ask your tour guide what’s appropriate.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jean-Marie Hullot] [Is there a darker side to Indonesia’s boom?: Dan O'Cker] [The problem with palm oil: H Dragon] [The plight of the orangutan: Kate Nevens]