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Indonesia is suppressing environmental research it doesn’t like. That poses real risks

In September last year, several leading scientists were effectively banned from further research in Indonesia’s vast tropical forests, where most had been working for decades.

Their sin? In large part, producing research suggesting the Bornean orangutan was in trouble – and following it up with an opinion piece which countered the government’s assertion the species was rebounding.

These researchers clearly angered someone powerful. Soon, the influential environment and forestry ministry circulated a letter accusing the scientists of writing with “negative intentions” that could “discredit” the government. They were to be barred from the forests.

My colleagues and I have published new research exploring the risks of this response from Indonesia’s government.

Worrying — and surprising

Indonesia’s reaction is a worrying sign. The island nation has a fast-growing population and economy, as well as spectacular biodiversity and one of the world’s largest areas of tropical forests. But its growing population and economy have been putting pressure on the natural world for decades.

Indonesia’s combativeness is also surprising. In recent years, forest destruction has declined by two-thirds, following government clamp-downs on illegal logging, forest burning and felling for plantations. This is a remarkable achievement.

So why the recent crackdown on the researchers? It’s likely to be precisely because Indonesia has been doing better environmentally. Its leaders want their progress to be recognised, not criticised.

But while it’s important scientists are fair – and do recognise welcome progress when it happens – it’s even more important governments let scientists do their work, even if the results we report are not what they want to hear.

This isn’t the first time Indonesia has tried to silence environmental scientists. Three years ago, researcher David Gaveau was deported from Indonesia after publishing estimates of wildfire extent much larger than those reported by the government.

For local and overseas researchers in Indonesia, the pressure is clear. Many privately say to us and other colleagues that they feel coerced to publish good news, or at least avoid bad news.

Governments must be open to warranted criticism


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