May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Environmental child soldiers

Published: Feb 01, 2017


Kelsie Prabawa-Sear

Fandi was a small child when Surabaya was at its worst – dirty waterways, polluted air and stinking rubbish on every street. Now, Fandi is a young man, an inspiring example of Surabaya’s youth who are fighting to make Surabaya clean and green.

Surabaya is enlisting its children to turn things around. The Surabayan government, under the leadership of the popular mayor, has undertaken large-scale environmental and infrastructural improvements, resulting in big changes to the liveability of the city. While it is achieving great things, the burden of influencing change often falls to Surabaya’s children who are tasked with altering the environmental behaviour of adults.

Going clean and green

The Surabayan mayor, Tri Rismaharini – or Bu Risma as she is known – is leading the government on an environmental crusade. What was a dirty, polluted and largely uninspiring place ten years ago has been transformed into a (relatively) clean, green and pleasant city. The changes have been enthusiastically embraced by the people of Surabaya and are well supported by different government departments that work together for the cause.

The city has adopted various environmental projects including extensive street-scaping, the transformation of underutilised land into 60 public parks and green spaces, a city-wide waste management program with data on volumes of waste and points of waste generation, a methane gas-to-electricity system from its Genowo landfill, and 23 composting stations around the city. High-ranking officials reported social, health and environmental benefits as a result of these changes. The government’s effort is admirable. Yet the children are the real heroes of this story.

Indonesia has a national schools-based environmental education program, known as Adiwiyata, which is delivered through the environmental ministry at the district level. While the uptake of Adiwiyata is limited, and efforts are lacking in most regions of Indonesia, Surabaya is in a class of its own with Bu Risma having declared that all schools will have an environmental program. 

Primary school students demonstrating how biopore works - Credit: Kelsie Prabawa-Sear

While some schools focus on Adiwiyata, many work with an NGO to provide the program, training and motivation needed. Almost all of the volunteer hours occur outside of school time and there is little, if any, connection to classroom lessons. This large-scale participation occurs without a single policy document and no explicit curriculum links or definable outcomes. Instead, it offers reward and prestige as incentives for schools to take programs to a higher level.

A class of their own

The children of Surabaya’s 1500 schools have spent thousands of hours cleaning up their city and dealing with some big environmental issues. Waste and recycling, water conservation and mangrove regeneration are part of their battle to keep Surabaya clean and green. The bulk of the work is undertaken by school environment club members, student leaders or environmental cadets. On any given day, children can be found digging biopore holes for groundwater replenishment and flood mitigation, nurturing school gardens, campaigning on the streets to reduce traffic and air pollution, pulling rubbish out of local rivers and waterways, and collecting waste from traditional markets to turn into compost.

Some of the tasks are physically challenging. Removing rotting organic waste from smelly hot markets, shredding it and turning it into compost, and pulling slimy rubbish from rivers in the heat of the day can be very unpleasant. Even more challenging than the physical tasks is the expectation that students will spread the message and change the behaviour of market sellers, parents and others in the community. 


While all school children in Surabaya are expected to participate in environmental activities, some are going above and beyond. Fandi was in junior high school when he first started joining in. Over the next four years, Fandi spent hundreds of hours working on environmental projects. His hard work did not go unnoticed. In 2014 he was named Surabaya’s Eco-Student of the Year by a local environmental NGO, and was presented with the award by Bu Risma.

Fandi’s biggest reward was yet to come and proved to be a test of his willingness to make personal sacrifices. Early last year, Fandi was awarded a place on a cross-cultural exchange trip to Western Australia to join a Perth children’s environmental organisation for a week. The trip was scheduled in the same week as Fandi’s year 12 exams. With his parents’ support, Fandi chose to go to Perth, forgoing the opportunity to attend university in 2015/2016.

During this trip, Fandi made no mention of the sacrifice he had made. He said he had been given a unique opportunity. Although he understood that it might reduce his chances of going to university, he wanted to make the most of it. After returning to Surabaya, Fandi worked with the local environmental NGO while waiting to sit his exams the next year. He encouraged kids all over Surabaya to do their bit for the environment. 

Where are the adults?

Surabaya’s children are achieving some amazing feats with their efforts, but the question remains why children are doing the ‘dirty work’. Undoubtedly they should be encouraged to be good environmental citizens, but surely that would involve modelling the behaviours of the leaders of the community and the adults in their lives, not the other way around. The Surabaya example is a situation where children have become the foot soldiers, bearing the burden of responsibility for issues to which they themselves contribute very little.

Students sorting green waste for composting - Credit: Danau Tanu

It is a commonly held belief that children should be educated to bring about environmental change. This popular approach allows for a cycle that burdens children with problems that they do not have the capacity to solve, while alleviating adults of their responsibilities. It delays action on issues that require immediate attention and sets up an ongoing cycle of intergenerational responsibility shifting. More urgency is required than this approach allows. Fandi tells me that particularly in Javanese culture, a child is not in a position to direct the behaviour of adults: children should be obedient and the adults he has tried to influence have lots of excuses as to why they do not take action for the environment. He tells me that influencing change is not as easy as people say. It is indeed, very, very difficult.

Fandi sees himself as benefiting from the sacrifices he has made for the sake of the environment and maintains hope for improvements across Indonesia. Surabaya could act as an inspiration for other cities to tackle environmental issues, albeit with more active participation and responsibility from adults.

Kelsie Prabawa-Sear ( is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia and an environmental education consultant for Eco Change Consulting. She lives in Yogyakarta.

Inside Indonesia 127: Jan-Mar 2017{jcomments on}

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