Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Coming of age

Indonesia’s environment network faces dilemmas as it turns 25.

Frieda Sinanu

Whenever people in Indonesia discuss the environment movement, they are likely to mention the Indonesian Environmental Forum (WALHI). The organisation is the oldest, largest and the most prominent environmental forum in Indonesia. Many well-known environment activists, such as Erna Witoelar, George Aditjondro, Nursyahbani Kartjasungkana and Emmy Hafilds, have been associated with the forum at some time.

In the twenty-five years since WALHI was formed, environmentalism in Indonesia has become increasingly mass-based and an important force for social change. However, it now faces new challenges as it tries to transform itself from a loose collection of issue-based groups into an effective social movement.

Early years

WALHI was formed on 15 October 1980, a product of the first national environment congress. Then, environment NGOs including nature groups, the scouts, academics, professional associations such as architects and faith-based organisations, used the congress to pool their resources through networking.

The Indonesian government, through its newly formed Ministry of Development Supervision and the Environment (PPLH), encouraged this effort. The minister at the time, Emil Salim, provided some impetus to form an NGO forum. The Indonesian government had started to take environment issues more seriously, in part due to growing pressure from international aid agencies to include environmental assessments as a prerequisite for funding. In addition to this, rumour had it that Suharto was upset when he could no longer fish at his usual spot in the Jakarta bay as the water there had become so heavily polluted!

The Indonesian government at the time also saw other benefits of close collaboration with NGOs. Such collaboration had the potential to help keep activists under government control. The NGO activists, on the other hand, saw co-operating with the government as a way to gain some protection for their activities. But they were wary of being seen as too close. WALHI founders went through lengthy discussions to ensure this new organisation had an independent name, structure and constitution. They chose the name Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (WALHI) as it derived from Indonesian language and avoided any government association.

During its early years, WALHI focused on raising public awareness about environmental issues and about WALHI. Their activities ranged from providing training on nature conservation through to publishing a bulletin (Buletin Tanah Air) on environmental issues.

A change of focus

In the mid 1980s WALHI started to focus on advocacy and to distance itself from the government. WALHI activists had come to recognise that the government, through many of its policies and practices, was a major part of environmental problems in Indonesia. Simultaneously, the government began to tighten its policies toward NGOs. The security-oriented Ministry of Internal Affairs, for example, took over responsibility for ‘guiding’ NGOs from the Ministry of Environment and Population (formerly PPLH).

WALHI’s actions became famous at this time, particularly when WALHI became the first NGO to sue the Indonesian government. In 1988 WALHI filed a lawsuit for pollution and environmental destruction against six government bodies, including the Minister of the Environment and Population, as well as the Indorayon Utama pulp and rayon mill in North Sumatra. WALHI became the first NGO to be granted ‘legal standing’ allowing it to litigate in a case of this nature in an Indonesian court. This established an important precedent that overcame a major obstacle to NGO advocacy generally.

Despite this important procedural success, WALHI lost all cases it took to court during the New Order period. Nevertheless, the organisation’s efforts undoubtedly raised both its profile and public awareness of environmental issues across Indonesia. In less than ten years WALHI’s membership had increased to around 350 organisations. In 1989, WALHI expanded its network and activities further, becoming the national member of Friends of the Earth International – an organisation claiming to be the world’s largest grassroots environmental network for environmental and social issues.

Increased critique and the end of the New Order

Relations between NGO actors and the Indonesian government deteriorated over the period of the New Order. WALHI became increasingly critical of the government, peaking in 1998 during the movement against the Suharto government, when WALHI joined other Indonesian NGOs demanding far-reaching political reform.

Since 1998 WALHI has continued to advocate on environmental issues as well to provide assistance to communities affected by environmental destruction and development policies. The organisation tried increasingly to use the climate of reformasi to influence the government on important law reform. In 2001, for example, WALHI advocated for agrarian reform and new natural resource management laws. However, these efforts were unsuccessful. Even after the New Order, addressing environmental problems in Indonesia remains difficult.

Becoming a public organization

By 2000, however, WALHI members realised that they needed to increase the level of public pressure on the government if they were to bring about the changes in environmental policy and practice they believed necessary. To achieve this, they needed to transform WALHI from an NGO forum into a public, mass-based organisation. In other words, WALHI needed to open up its membership and encourage individuals and organisations from all parts of society to participate. It needed to become better connected with the community. And it needed to become more self-sustaining.

WALHI now welcomes individuals to join the organisation, either as members or as volunteers, through friends of WALHI (SAWA). WALHI insiders believe that this approach will rejuvenate the environmental movement, turning it into a much wider social movement, engaging with the community across the country. In addition to 26 regional offices across Indonesia, with 436 member organisations, there are now more than 400 active individual SAWA in Jakarta alone. While this is indeed progress, WALHI clearly still has a long way to go to really engage the community on this level.

Environmentalism today

The history of WALHI reflects the changing nature of environmentalism in Indonesia. Environmental issues are no longer alien to most in the community, largely due to the work of WALHI. Furthermore, building on past achievements, it is easier today for WALHI to have its voice heard in public debates and in the process of drafting new laws.

Reflecting also changes in the international environmental movement, WALHI is increasingly ‘globalising’ its focus, and has become involved in issues such as foreign debt and the impact of globalisation.

WALHI remains an important – perhaps the most important – landmark on the map of environmentalism in Indonesia. From its humble beginnings it grew powerfully in the 1980s and 1990s, putting environmental issues onto the agenda and breaking new ground along the way. More recently, however, growth has been much less substantial, and despite its efforts to restructure to gain more influence on law and government policy, the results have been uncertain. A number of reasons can be identified for this.

To begin with, WALHI’s prominence and rate of growth has decreased since Suharto’s fall. It seems that NGOs generally have lost their ‘common enemy’. The sense of cohesiveness that bound NGOs during the Suharto period seems to have diminished. Furthermore, the opportunities for NGOs to play independent, active roles, rather than needing the force of numbers through collective forums such as WALHI, are much greater now than any time previously. For many NGOs, joining WALHI no longer seems as important as it once was. The new involvement of individual members and volunteers has helped, but as yet the take-up has been underwhelming.

After 25 years WALHI can be pleased with its achievements. But it must transform itself into a mass-based organisation with broad community support if it is to achieve the real political ‘clout’ its members crave.

Frieda Sinanu (frieda.sinanu@anu.edu.au) is a PhD student at the Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 87: Jul-Sep 2006

Latest Articles

Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

The Jokowi-Luhut alliance


A business alliance forged in 2008 between Joko Widodo and Luhut Pandjaitan formed the basis for a major axis in his presidency

An EV-fix for mining


Nickel’s ‘green development’ boost to resource nationalism

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.