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Democracy and a better environment: Indonesia takes up the challenge

Friday 10 October 2003

Countryside writer John Sheard, on his way to Australia for the world rugby cup, calls in on Java to see what efforts the now democratic Indonesia is making to overcome its appalling past in environmental matters

AS THE plane dipped in over Jakarta’s bustling harbour, once Shangri-la for Portuguese, Dutch and British traders in search of spices, I struck up a brief conservation with a 30-odd year-old woman in the next seat.

She was dressed in silk trousers with a mock-leopard skin motif and heavy boots and could have been at home at any anti-development protest. It turned out she was German, based in Washington, and worked for the World Wildlife Fund (as I will still call it).

She was coming to Indonesia to check out to check-out on various environmental protection schemes – in particular the campaign to save the Sumatran tiger from extinction – and keep a watch on efforts to stop illegal logging which in the past has stripped bare millions of acres of tropical rain forest.

John's indonesian adventure

And she was totally pessimistic: "There are only 600 pairs of tigers left and they will never enforce the logging laws."

What this young politically correct lady did not know was that, many years ago, I knew the founder of the WWF, a jolly old English earl who gave me a story which made world-wide headlines.

The Arabs, he said, were machine gunning rare Oryx antelopes from open cars because Oryx fur was much-prized as a covering for cushions in their harems (why, the mind boggles). He told me the tale with a laugh and I sold it around the world.

The result: Oryx hunting was banned and the species survived.

When the old earl died, the cudgels were taken up by the Duke of Edinburgh and the WWF became, not merely a quixotic caper for British eccentrics, but an international lobbying group with immense influence.

Trouble is that, for all its good work, it forgot its sense of humour and lost sight of the fact that, in poor nations, starving people put the provision of food for their children before that of various threatened species of animals and habitats.

This is why elephants are still being shot in Africa for trampling maize crops and, in certain very wild parts of Borneo, orang utans are still be killed – for food!

He would not take any training at all. Simple instructions like "sit" or "heal" sent him into what appeared to be some nervous breakdown. He would simply stand and shiver to the point of palpitation, emitting the most pitiful whines.

Today, the WWF simply berates Third World countries like a stern Scottish school marm, thinking that condemnatory articles in various learned left wing journals will shame the countries involved into better behaviour.

However, in my experience of South East Asia, where I travel frequently, it has just the opposite effect: when your children are starving, pompous sermons are an invitation to stop going to church at all and say to hell with the do-gooders.

The fact is that Indonesia, newly democratic after years of bloodshed and blatant corruption, this week signed a new treaty with nine other Pacific Rim nations which will bind them all, amongst many other things, to improved environmental targets.

Indonesia and Malaya have signed a joint-agreement to stop the smuggling of endangered hard-wood timber. There are still more than a thousand Sumatran tigers and efforts are now being made to conserve them.

They should be encouraged in this work by the rich West, not pilloried by well-fed PC university graduates to whom the whole business in a political campaign in which the rights of human beings often come last.

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