Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

Spread the word

Published: Sep 30, 2007

MELODY KEMP discovers some quiet achievers in environmental education -- who accept no foreign aid.

Kermit's mournful lament - 'It's not easy being green' - could well reflect the embattled state of the environmental movement in Indonesia. Yet quietly getting on with things are a small but expanding group of environmental visionaries in East Java. Their centre stands on the slopes of the sacred Penanggungan volcano, about a hour from Surabaya and from Malang. It is a successful alternative to activist-based environmental politics. I met the man and the ideas behind the Seloliman Environmental Education Centre (Pusat Pendidikan Lingkungan Hidup or PPLH) serendipitously on a flight to Bali.

Paying guests

In this age of aid dependency, the centre is fully self-financing. It raises money by a variety of means, the most advantageous for Inside Indonesia readers being that the Seloliman centre accepts paying guests. It has a rooms for every taste and pocket, ranging from dormitory accommodation for school and university groups, to more comfortable guest houses for those whose 'roughing it' days are over. In addition they run a small but increasingly busy consultancy service.

While the centre is primarily aimed at Indonesians, the odd foreigner (well, not too odd) is welcome. Guests can opt to participate in the centre's activities, or simply sit and meditate on the surroundings. Structured activities for those more eager to learn include walks and an introduction to environmentally friendly farming technologies. The centre emphasises the interaction of organic systems with traditional Javanese beliefs. The medicinal herb and spice gardens grow both traditional and introduced species. Permaculture is part of the centre's 'religion', as are the principles of renewable energy.

Ulli and Surya

The centre's organisers are German architect Ulli Fuhrke and his partner Surya Prawiroatmodjo, a non-practicing veterinarian. They hope to introduce Indonesians to a working and productive alternative model to the monocultures that have been the medium for Indonesia's intensive agriculture. They hope to change the perception of nature from that of something to be conquered, to that of a rich source responsive to care, upon which Indonesians can build their futures.

'We are lucky being where we are. The location is very good as we have a lot going on around us. We show our visitors that what we talk about can be done by ordinary farmers. If it is done by foreigners or by using large amounts of money, people are not convinced', Ulli told me.

'We teach using models of adult education. Not didactic stuff, but a hands-on approach - taking people into the fields.'

The centre was completed in 1990, and is still playing with its concepts, weighing commercial against educative activities. Ulli said frankly the publishing has been unsuccessful to date.

He wants the program to be organic and dynamic, not routinised. The centre encourages visitors to add their particular spice of experience and knowledge. Staff participate in exchanges and attend conferences.


But management challenges seem not to overly trouble this man, whose background in town planning and architecture implanted a vision of the potentially destructive nature of human activity and the alien nature of urban ecosystems.

'As architects, we change the face of nature. We can improve it or destroy it. It's a huge responsibility. There is so much pressure on cities now and governments can't handle the pressure or the number of problems. Only they do not admit it.'

The centre employs around 60 staff, most of them young women. Apparently women are more likely to be motivated purely by the task and less by careerism - although Ulli is saddened that Indonesians do not seem to view NGO work as being a career in itself. Perhaps this contributes to a less than professional approach to management.

While salaries are low, staff are chosen for their openness and capacity to learn. They prefer to take inexperienced graduates, who do not have to unlearn much. Skilled personnel, Ulli explained, are often too rigid and cannot get used to giving knowledge away.

'Our staff are so good. It would be good to be able to pay them well so they stay on. But they go back out into the world taking their ideas and skills with them. That's the trade-off between having lots of money and being independent.'


The next step was to expand. Bali is to be the next centre of operation. Why Bali? I asked: Bali is, after all, the favourite child, and already has a welter of environmental NGO activists. The anwer of course is money. Bali is more likely to attract foreign and fee-paying guests who can contribute to the operational costs of other centres.

PPLH has taken over the Hotel Santai in Sanur, an ideal location for a residential centre. The old and ornate hotel is slowly being refurbished to accommodate a shop, reading room and cafe, in addition to guest rooms. New centres are soon to open in Ujung Pandang and, more ambitiously, in West Papua.

We look for things that attract people to issues. Things that effect them and their families. For instance, most people don't care that the products they use may poison families downstream, but if we consider this as a system that may effect all people and their children then it looks a little different. Quality of life issues are of great interest and personal relevance.'


'In the West people are into organic foods, hanging out in health food stores. But this is too expensive - goods attract premium prices because they are "organic". This is not appropriate here. However rural people think that whatever comes from cities is desirable and sophisticated. It's part of the marketing of modernisation. Rural folk really believe that high rise and cement are good. We have to help them value what they have and in some small way reverse the trend.'

Each area of Indonesia has its pressing issues. Eco-farming in Java and Bali, reef and marine resource preservation in Maluku, Bali and the eastern islands, environmental health and urban environmental destruction in Bali, Java and Sulawesi. Forest maintenance and resource management in Sumatra, and, of course Kalimantan where a million hectare rice development project and mining in national parks have raised questions about the government's commitment to conservation.

Recently disputes over land use in Kalimantan precipitated riots between Dayaks and migrants, claiming hundreds of lives. Surely, I asked, these topics are sensitive. There are lots of powerful political interests who may feel threatened. Do you feel safe?

'Frankly we are always in conflict and we are always in the line of danger. If we take on the major problems such as Bob (Hasan) or the army, we lose. We are out of the country. If we don't take them on we lose credibility with the people and the activist community. The environmental organisation Walhi has already accused us of being too passive.'

'But think about it. We are very vulnerable - we are in a remote location, we are small and we have a few foreigners around at times. We have to be careful. So I guess, we try to have a constructive dialogue with the government without blaming people. We try to put forward ideas that work with living examples of what can be done. We need to show that many solutions are possible.'

'We have to also realise that the government is not homogeneous. Environment Minister Sarwono is himself a good man and open to ideas and new approaches. But his department has some very destructive people who are difficult to deal with.'


'We try to have a constructive relationship with the community, with those around us. For instance we generate our own electricity by a mini hydro plant. We give the excess power to the nearby villages, as we do our compost and mulch. We have been working on getting together some effective solar collectors to boost the power supply.'

'By giving to the village we earn their interest and assistance, but we also demonstrate that these things are possible. We sell a wide variety of food plants and pesticide-free food, so they can see what can be done. That is more effective than blaming. After all blaming is what the government does all the time. We don't need to copy them!'

The old Dutch house that is part of the centre in East Java houses a library and coffee shop where Indonesians can gather for brain food. Later, Internet linkages and a more comprehensive journal library are planned. The major problem is that little is written in Indonesian, since English is the international language of science.


While some of the more ideologically pure may frown on its mercantile bent, there is no avoiding the fact that PPLH can relax in the security of having its own funding sources and consequent freedom from the behest of economic masters. More importantly, it shows that it is possible to break free from the continual grant-seeking struggle and to offer viable alternatives.

In March PPLH hosted a Southeast Asian workshop on sustainable agriculture. Such luminaries as Vandana Shiva and Martin Khor spoke. At the moment Indonesia is lagging badly behind the rest of the region in not having a node of alternative agricultural activities from which to light the fires of change. While NGOs are vocal on environmental issues, the needs of farmers and alternative paths to food security have been largely neglected. PPLH hopes to fill this void.

Judging by the success of the East Java centre and the speed with which they are realising expansion into to Bali and Sulawesi, Ulli and Surya seem to have the right recipe and the right stuff!

Melody Kemp is a freelance labour consultant who lives in Bali. For more information on Pusat Pendidikan Lingkungan Hidup contact: PO Box 03 Trawas, Mojokerto 61357, Jawa Timur, Indonesia, fax +62-343-80884, tel +62-343-82415, or call at the Hotel Santai, Jalan Batu Jimbar, Sanur, Bali, tel +62-361-281684.

Inside Indonesia 51: Jul-Sep 1997

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