Suryo Prawiroatmodja, who developed his love for the strengthening peacefulness of nature in the teak forests of East Java's Banyuwangi highlands as a boy, is creating a series of simple environmental demonstration and education centers across Indonesia.
Long convinced both that most existing approaches to environmental education were not working and that environmental conservation would become real only if Indonesians quickly overcame stunning environmental ignorance, Suryo for years has been insisting that environmental education is essential but will not work unless two conditions are met.
First, there must be a physical demonstration center that serves as the heart of each region's environmental education work. People have to experience the environment either to appreciate it or to understand its complex workings. Theoretical discussions and paper displays are especially unhelpful in this uniquely interconnected, subtle field.
Second, to be effective in this field, a popular educator must be highly motivated, broadly interested, and creative. The number of issues and the diversity of people to be served requires this. Government servants only very rarely have the drive to reach beyond their categories or to create effective ways and expend the energy required truly to reach the public.
Suryo some years ago set out to build a model environmental education program that meets these two criteria. For years his colleagues and supervisors told him he was dreaming, that centers such as he was imagining would be financially unsustainable white elephants. Nonetheless, he persisted. Somehow he amassed the support necessary launch the first such center at Trawas in his native East Java. Located on a wooded 3.7-hectare site, it includes a library, training rooms, a dormitory and bungalows, a greenhouse, a model of a paddy field, demonstrations of alternative and organic agriculture, a segment of a tropical rainforest, and a number of trails.
Through this complex, Suryo provides educational programs that are down to earth, experimental, very concrete, easy to understand - and, therefore, popular. He organizes trainees into small groups of five or so to facilitate discussion and hands-on experimenting. Thus, for example, visitors not only hear of the idea of producing cooking charcoal from garbage, but they also produce and use it themselves. As he refines these programs, he hopes others will copy them and spread their impact.
Although more and more people know there is an environmental problem, Indonesia's public is overwhelmingly still poorly informed about it. There is, therefore, little real commitment to changing a process of unsustainable environmental exploitation, a process already seriously hurting the country - be it from the erosion and flooding caused by cutting the forests or the chemical contamination of food and water caused by the heavy pesticide use associated with the "green revolution" in agriculture.
The public's ignorance regarding the impact of its own actions is especially striking and harmful. This ignorance is exceeded only by the degree to which Indonesians are unaware of practical, economic changes they could introduce in their homes and at work that cumulatively could have enormous energy and environmental benefits. Home owners even in a city as big as Surabaya could run their waste water through simple settling ponds, alleviating the chief reason that 70 percent of the city's water sources are contaminated. Farmers could experiment profitably with lower-cost farming techniques that use few if any chemicals.
However, such changes will only come once the public understands the overall environmental problem and learns practical, attractive alternative paths it can adopt. That is a massive challenge for environmental educators.
It is a challenge that has yet to be met. Such centers as there are, chiefly at the universities, are the government's and have been staffed by the government. The government also runs the few centers that exist in public parks. Perhaps predictably, these centers have not had the energy, creativity, freedom, or staff to have the sort of impact now needed.
Suryo is now launching Indonesia's first non-governmental environmental education center. His job is to demonstrate how mass environmental education can be made to work. With his first center now built, he is hard at work showing how to put it to full effective use.
First, he has recruited highly motivated co-workers and is organizing them so they each feel responsible for their part of the work. They will eventually have to run this center and/or help Suryo move on to help others get started. The knowledge that they may have such an opportunity is, for some, a significant further spur.
With this team he is now beginning the experimental, iterative process of figuring out how best to reach out from the center to the millions of people in its region. His approach begins by focusing the center's efforts on key intermediary groups such as teachers and the leaders of women's organizations. Even so, the challenge remains formidable: there are well over 100,000 teachers just in East Java. Over the next several years Suryo and his colleagues will be experimenting with many different ways of leveraging the effort.
Given all the skepticism he faced about his white elephant, Suryo has developed a number of ways of making the center economically viable. It charges modestly for the training it gives. It rents the bungalows and offers restaurant service quite profitably. (People are drawn by the center's beautiful environment and by interest in its work.) It grows some of its own food. It has no electricity. Most important, it does not plan to grow: Suryo wants it to be credible as a model and does not want to risk institutional over-extension.
Suryo, the sixth of seven children, was born shortly after his parents moved to Surabaya. His father was an idealistic pediatrician who preferred to charge patients what they thought reasonable. He also fought his superiors to obtain free beds for the poor in his hospital even if it meant that his family stayed poor.
Suryo's love for nature and its animals led him to enroll in the faculty of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Airlangga University, Surabaya, where he obtained his degree in 1982. However, he was not satisfied with the faculty's single focus on how to get better poultry, stronger milking cows, more protein-strengthened beef, etc. He successfully sustained his interest in wildlife and ultimately wrote his thesis on the hatching of the eggs of the Macrocephalon maleobird - a wild bird that lives only in Sulawesi. This was not the sort of subject his classmates were taking up.
Responding to family pressures to be responsible, upon graduation he took a job helping a drug company sell veterinary medicine. Such a life, however, was not for him.
In 1984, he moved to Bogor and joined the Green Indonesia Foundation. He learned the field of environmental education over the next several years chiefly by helping with the Foundation's mobile environmental education vans and with its Voice of Nature magazine. He also benefited from two overseas training courses.
In 1985, he returned to East Java to start environmental education and to launch his vision of a model approach to educating Indonesians to their environmental situation.