Ir Budiono

Ashoka Fellow
Roberval Tavares
Fellow since 2022
This description of Ir Budiono's work was prepared when Ir Budiono was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.


Budiono is building a new ecosystem through participatory scientific based policy development where communities own and implement conservation measures themselves, ensuring human beings and endangered species can co-exist together.

The New Idea

Budiono is restoring and reviving species in the Mahakam River by using participatory scientific monitoring to get communities to own, reform, and implement conservation plans and policies. Communities are supported with scientific data and taught innovative ways to use technology in the formulation and implementation of different regulations to ensure the habitat protection for an endangered species of river dolphins called Pesut Mahakam and other endangered species. Local fishers, for example, are taught to use cyber-tracker software to monitor the Pesut Mahakam and the practices of other fisherfolks to ensure that the community is holding each other accountable. This community-driven conservation area establishment, with different layers of protection, policy development, and enforcement covers a total area of over 200,000 hectares across 32 villages. His policy work has led to new regulations like the Kutai Kartanegara District Decree on the Reserved Area of Aquatic Conservation for Pesut Mahakam Habitat, which has been brought to become a draft Ministry of Marine and Fishery Regulation and is currently being finalized.

Budiono has also introduced sustainable fishing, farming, and forestry; aquaculture and fish products; and traditional crafts so that human beings can live in a mutually reciprocal manner with Pesut Mahakam. Budiono and his team have innovated sustainable aqua-culture practices and promoted them to the local fisherfolk as an alternative livelihood income to reduce dependency on fish resources. He has also modelled community-based sustainable ecotourism activities in the river dolphin’s core habitat, which is managed by the community both as campaign activity and alternative income. In addition, ecotourism is preserving local cultural heritage traditions including handicrafts, cultural performances, and traditional festivals.

Budiono builds on the power of scientific research, traditional law, and legends to grow the number of environmentally aware and educated youth and community members. They organize school curriculum education, campaigns, processing and recycling of waste, and traditional annual festivals to create a national commitment to the Pesut and the Mahakam River. With all of this as foundation, Budiono plans to widen the Essential Ecosystem Area (EEA) throughout the 300 km upstream of the Mahakam River.

The Problem

People have been living together with the river dolphin, Pesut Mahakam, in the Mahakam River for centuries. However, formal protective measures around how people live in mutual reciprocity with Pesut Mahakam are lacking. The implementation of conservation policies such as the regulations for Management of Conservation Areas is a top-down policy, making it harder for local communities to understand, let alone to buy-in or participate in the implementation. This lack of law enforcement has degraded the Mahakam River watershed and its threatened wildlife species. The Pesut Mahakam is located in the Indonesian Borneo and is an endemic and genetic subspecies of the Irrawaddy dolphins. Its population has plummeted rapidly, leaving the species critically endangered with less than 70 individuals remaining in the entire Mahakam River. The conversion of fish spawning swamp areas into palm oil plantations, the underwater noise pollution from coal barges crossing a major dolphin tributary, and illegal fishing practices have exacerbated the problem. As a result of these human activities, the surrounding habitat has declined substantially since 2009. The plight of the Pesut Mahakam is indicative of the decline in the entire ecosystem which could affect local livelihoods in the future.

Furthermore, there is a resource-based livelihood conflict between the river dolphins and people living in the Mahakam River Watershed. Their fish catch areas overlap with Pesut Mahakam feeding areas. Often dolphin presence is used by fisherfolks to identify good fishing spots and install gillnet entanglements near the dolphin feeding area. Culturally, the Pesut Mahakam are deeply revered in local folklore, so it’s distressing for fisherfolk to find dolphins in their nets. However, fisherfolks are largely limited to using the near-invisible gillnets that hang passively in water columns for their daily catch and livelihood which has sadly been reported to cause two-thirds of recorded deaths of the Pesut Mahakam in the Mahakam River.

Unsustainable practices along the Mahakam River are partly due to lack of environmental awareness of the local people. Although local indigenous people very much respect the natural environment, traditional household waste is still dumped in the river, polluting the river with plastic waste and other pollutants. In addition, fisherfolks are adopting unlawful practices such as fishing with cyanide and potassium bombing to increase their catch. With these fishing practices, there will not be any sustainable source of livelihood available for the fisherfolks in the long run. Without alternatives, the Mahakam community of fisherfolk and the Pesut Mahakam will see continued degradation of the river ecosystem and wildlife and lead to continued loss of livelihood and biodiversity.

The Strategy

In order to bring about sustainable co-existence between local communities and endangered species, Budiono focuses on community engagement in, and ownership of, policy development and implementation. He started by conducting a community-based participatory scientific survey to identify the needs of the people, the habitat of the Pesut Mahakam, the protected area zoning, and the willingness of the community to set up a conservative area. The survey extensively covered the 27 villages living in the proposed conservation area. After Budiono shared the findings of the research back with community members, they then proposed and signed a conservation area proposal which was handed over to the Village, Sub-District, and District Governments for approval. The ecosystem conservation regulations agreed to protect, preserve, and utilize ecosystem functions as a habitat to support present and future aquatic life. The policies included conserving the habitat of the Pesut Mahakam and strengthening the law on sustainable fishing practices, waste management, and boat traffic. Finally, it established the Essential Ecosystem Area as the buffer zone of the Aquatic Conservation Area.

RASI, the organization Budiono co-founded, and the Marine and Fishery Office of Kutai Kartanegara District finalized the draft regulation by developing the Management and Zoning Plan. In 2021, the local Government issued the Kutai Kartanegara District Decree on the Reserved Area of Aquatic Conservation for Pesut Mahakam Habitat for a total area of 43,117 hectares. As there is no State Regulation to support the issuance of the local regulation, the draft will be issued by the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, but the direct implementation will be done by the local government. The draft policy is underway to become the first National Regulation on Aquatic Conservation Area issued by the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries. Budiono is currently developing another regulation on the Essential Ecosystem Area covering more than 170,000 hectares to act as a buffer zone for the Aquatic Conservation Area. The regulation aims to ensure that there will not be any land conversion of status and function within the buffer zone in order to protect the conservation area.

The overall purpose of these policies is to obtain: 1) efficient habitat protection through improving habitat quality; 2) protection of fishery resources through sustainable fishing and aqua-culture methods as well as law enforcement against illegal fishing practices; 3) sustainable forests on the edges of rivers and lakes in and around the buffer zones that aims to reduce erosion and sedimentation, protect fish breeding areas, fishery resources, other protected species, and ecotourism potential; 4) achieve increased environmental awareness of the local community, government and various other parties; 5) realization of monitoring system against threats to the Pesut Mahakam, fishery resources and water quality; and 6) community-based and natural ecotourism in the Pesut Mahakam habitat area.

In support of implementing these policies, Budiono has adapted and contextualized the Acoustic Pinger technology, previously only applicable to ocean contexts, to be appropriate in safeguarding the Pesut Mahakam and other river species from gillnet entanglements. His adaptation is now being tested and replicated in other river ecosystems such as the Mekong and Amazon. He also empowers local community members elected as rangers to conduct regular patrols using cyber-tracker software modified to monitor river dolphin movements and document illegal fishing activities in a controlled and verifiable manner to be reported to law enforcement authorities. Since the start of these patrols, there has been a 50-75% decrease in illegal electro-fishing. Lastly, an emergency rescue system has also been set up through which fisherfolks have been trained in stranding rescue. Over the years, a total of seven dolphins were safely rescued from swamps and 10 dolphins released alive from gillnets.

Budiono was able to accomplish this dramatic shift in mindset and the full participation of the community because he has spent decades understanding the ecosystem around the issue and building ties to the community. To ensure the reciprocal benefits amongst Pesut Mahakam, humans, and the habitat, Budiono applies a sustainable fishery approach to ensure alternative income for fishers and their engagement to comply with ethical fishing practices. Resulting from scientific research, Budiono and his team, work with the fisherfolks to apply sustainable aquaculture. It aims as an alternative to reduce the fisherfolk's dependency on a single source or method of fishing. He has facilitated 80 gillnet fisheries with floating fish cages and fish larva to run sustainable fish farms. Budiono is also exploring training the fisherfolk to self-produce fish pellets and develop their own fish pellet businesses in collaboration with RASI which holds a fish pellet copyright. Instead of fish farmers relying only on fresh fish sales, Budiono introduces added-value fish products to increase and diversify their income. He also trains the women to produce novel fish products such as pressured-cooked fish and shredded fish which RASI helps to market.

Furthermore, recognizing that women were an untapped part of the community, Budiono introduced other alternative livelihood opportunities for women including the development of locally processed traditional products such as woven crafts made of Purun plants and natural dyed batik clothing with distinctive motif designs. Together with the village groups, Budiono recently started developing hydroponic farming to meet the vegetable needs of people living on the riverbanks and raft houses who cannot grow vegetables. It is also expected that hydroponic farming will become small-scale businesses supplying vegetables for their neighboring villages. They encourage villages to share their experience and provide technical assistance to other villages.

Budiono focuses on the engagement of youth in the campaign as awareness raising measures takes generations. He also involves women since they connect the campaign message into their daily lives. He uses local legends for the narrative of campaigns and engages local sultans to support his interventions. He works with teachers to teach the environmental education curriculum to junior and high school students in collaboration with 42 Mahakam River schools. His campaign work with the students is ongoing, with young people continuing the campaign into high school. The campaign has brought attention and concerns not only from the local level but also nationally. The learning application of the in-class awareness raising activities include promoting responsible waste disposal in garbage bins and not in the river. The students colorfully painted garbage bins and distributed them to schools and different spots in the villages. The youth and women are also trained to produce sustainable handicrafts using recycled materials to spread awareness on recycling plastic waste disposal while earning income.

Furthermore, Budiono supports the establishment of a community-based sustainable ecotourism model in the river dolphin’s core habitat as tools for the environmental campaigns. The village has successfully achieved the official government label as an eco-tourism village and has attracted domestic and international tourists. The village has also made a commitment to zero-plastic waste into the river. They celebrate traditional fishing practices and rowing competitions in annual festivals. While promoting the Pesut Mahakam as a tourist attraction, the visitors apply a safe dolphin watching protocol.

By his interventions, Budiono has brought social impacts at different levels. In addition to bringing about new policies on protected area conservation for the habitat of Pesut Mahakam at the national government level, Budiono also got the Marine and Fishery Ministry to innovate in the absence of formal policy issuance mechanisms. Now, the local government becomes the policy implementor under the supervision of the national government rather than a direct implementation by the national government. At the grassroots level, people now own, reform, and implement the policies that affect their lives. Budiono also sees his impact in the material livelihoods of the local communities; for example, 200 fisherfolks have changed their way of livelihood from catch fishing to aquaculture. Since Budiono has worked with children in schools for decades, they are now becoming young adults continuing their engagement as campaigners.

Once the formal law for the Aquatic Conservation Area is issued, Budiono, in partnership with all key stakeholders, will follow up on the implementation of the workplan. With success, Budiono plans to expand the Essential Ecosystem Area (EEA) throughout the 300 km upstream of the Mahakam River, protecting the land from conversion and supporting the region’s endangered species.

The Person

Budiono was born in 1973 in Balikpapan, as the youngest of five siblings. He was raised by a single parent mother but was practically nurtured by his fourteen-year-old sister. Budiono gained a lot of life values from his mother. Amongst the values Budiono learned from her is that “the Greatest has created the universe for us, so take very good care of it and do not become the destroyer.” This value has become his inspiration and moved Budiono to endeavor his idea to preserve and restore nature. Budiono also recalled that since childhood he loved playing in the woods and observing how ants live. When he was five years old, he remembered seeing, for the first time, a group of river dolphins in the Mahakam River.

Budiono always tried to support his mother financially as she was a single mother. As a child Budiono was creative in earning money from doing a lot of different jobs. His only purpose in doing these jobs was to help his mother with his earnings. When he was in primary school, he earned from running an umbrella service in the traditional market. During his junior high, he observed how a butcher cut the meat which later led him to become a satay seller. He also earned income from being a motorcycle taxi driver during high school and joined a cargo ship as a porter after graduation. This experience has helped him see alternative income opportunities as critical to fisherfolk’s sustainable livelihood.

Although he was hesitant to stop working and earning, Budiono continued his university studies upon his mother’s wishes and was financially supported by his older sister. He took forestry as his major and was active in the environmental student club. However, there was a time Budiono wanted to discontinue his studies and spend time drinking. Once again, his mother brought him to his senses, and he resumed his studies. During this time, he learnt different foreign languages including English and Dutch. Towards his final year, because he was the only student who spoke English, he was recruited to become a research assistant for a PhD student named Daneila Krabe from the Netherlands to study the life of the Pesut Mahakam. They later married and together set up the Conservation Foundation for Rare Aquatic Species of Indonesia (Yayasan Konservasi RASI) in 2000.