COVID-19 has slashed incomes in Indonesia, spurring illegal logging, poaching and mining. The environment and wildlife habitats are taking a hit.

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Activists protest against a government bill they say would harm the environment, Jakarta, Indonesia, 14 July 2020. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

WEST JAVA, Indonesia — The unexpected visit by a troop of monkeys ought to have been a clear enough signal. Macaques, querulous and clever, had left their normal jungle home by the Indian Ocean in Indonesia’s West Java to make an unusual raid on a neighbouring private garden and its papayas.

They’ve since gone, but the distant, gnawing sound of the chainsaws has not. A nearby mountain where the monkeys did roam now has a lot fewer trees.

“It’s all disturbing their place,” said Nanang, a local villager, by way of explaining why the monkeys’ habitat — also home to the rarer langur monkey — is increasingly cleared for crops.  A stumbling economy in the face of the impact of COVID-19 only gives more incentive.

 COVID-19 is harming the environment in Indonesia.

In the global struggle with the pandemic, Indonesia has not fared well. It has been reporting record high infection rates almost daily during September. The government of President Joko Widodo faces the dilemma of keeping millions of Indonesians from tumbling back into dire poverty or locking down tighter to battle the disease.

At about $1 trillion, Indonesia’s total economy is half the size of the first U.S. COVID-19 aid package back in March. That gives little cushion to protect the world’s fourth largest population as it readies for an inevitable economic recession this year, the Southeast Asian country’s first since a traumatic financial crisis ravaged the region 20 years ago.

Environmentalists have already been sounding the alarm. They say that one of the world’s most biodiverse countries is at risk because the coronavirus has slashed incomes, encouraging illegal loggers and poachers. And there has been growing worry that encroachment into wildlife habitats will raise the chance of more zoonotic diseases.

Compounding the environmental risks for Indonesia, parliament is now debating a major new law that critics say will include measures making it much easier to bypass protection of the country’s tropical forests, the world’s third largest.

Factories and offices in the major towns and cities are already having to close their shutters or reduce staff, either because of infection or simply because of a lack of orders as global buyers spend less. Jobless, workers head back to the villages, where their families now have one extra mouth to feed and one less salary.

 Toxic metals used in mining

Aware of the forced flow out of cities, President Widodo in late September told his officials to put more effort and money into helping rural communities.

Lia, a worker in one small West Javanese village, has recently had to take care of her jobless daughter and young family. The additional burden has pushed her deeper into debt.

Nur, a builder who lives in a mountainous area near the coast, said he’d noticed an increasing number of small-scale gold miners. Most of them use mercury to help separate gold from ground rocks. The toxic metal is readily available in local cities, even though there are national restrictions on its use. Asked about the issue, the local government head said he was unaware there even was a problem.

“Unfortunately illegal gold mining practices is picking up again,” a leading campaigner against the use of mercury said. She complained of  a lack of serious commitment at senior government levels.

A Javanese lutung, or langur, peers into a garden in West Java, Indonesia. Encroachment into its habitat has put the monkey on the list of endangered species. (Photo by Jonathan Thatcher)

Questions to consider:

1. You are a journalist focusing on environmental issues. For this story, you will be writing about the pesticide Roundup, which is at the centre of hundreds of lawsuits in the United States because its use has been seen as a cause of cancer. You need a local village/farming angle. How would you choose where to go, and what sort of people would you expect to talk to? Plan your trip.

2. You are a local  journalist. The government is worried about panicking your local community if it reveals the real extent of the pandemic. You have very reliable information that several people who have returned to the villages are infected. An official admitted privately that it’s true but begged you not to publish the information, and you know that infected people face being ostracised if it’s found out they are ill. What would you do with the information? Would you publish the story? If so, on what grounds would you justify publication?

3. You come across small-scale gold miners, most of them barely making a living, using mercury to extract gold even though it is illegal. There are individuals, including police and the military, who are involved in the supply of mercury and the sale of the gold, and who provide protection. This is an important issue, and you want to go in with a photographer and TV cameraman to do a story. However, you know there’s a real risk of violence if your arrival there is considered a threat. Consider the sort of approaches you would take to cover a story like this, understanding that your safety and that of your colleagues is paramount.

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Jonathan Thatcher is former Reuters bureau chief for Indonesia and East Timor. He was also bureau chief in Korea, the Philippines and Russia. During more than 37 years in journalism, he was also based in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and Britain, and reported from Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

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World Asia Monkeys in Indonesia reveal COVID-19’s risks to environment