Thanks to a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, William Faries is currently working as an environmental journalist for the Jakarta, Indonesia-based Tempo magazine. This week, he is reporting from Bali, site of the final preparatory meeting for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held in South Africa this August.

Tuesday, 28 May 2002

BALI, Indonesia

If you believe the press reports, the world is coming to Bali. An estimated 6,000 people — a potentially raucous mixture of labor and business leaders, HIV/AIDS activists, environmentalists, indigenous community representatives, development experts, and others — are expected to arrive this week to press their various agendas at what is officially, in U.N.-speak, the “Fourth Preparatory Meeting for the World Summit on Sustainable Development,” or PrepCom IV for short.

Importantly, there will be no PrepCom V. For anyone interested in sustainable development, this meeting in Indonesia’s famous resort island is the last chance to ensure that their ideas and issues are included in the negotiating papers world leaders will sign in South Africa later this year. In addition to the official meetings, there are enough seminars, cultural performances, and outdoor rallies — Greenpeace’s boat just arrived! — to make the entire gathering seem part festival, part university lecture.

As a journalist for an Indonesian weekly, I’m obliged to pay attention to the issues that most interest my editors — i.e., how all the discussions in Bali relate to what is happening within Indonesia. But as an American, an outsider, it’s been interesting to observe how motivated the government and local media have been about PrepCom IV. This is, after all, a meeting about a meeting. In the U.S., the whole thing might not make the local newspaper — unless, of course, a Starbucks or a McDonalds got ransacked.

But in Indonesia, it’s another story. Ever since Sept. 11, Indonesia has generally appeared on the international radar screen only in the context of terrorism. Rightly or wrongly, such media attention has generally not been very positive. For Indonesia’s leaders, the Bali meeting is seen as a chance at redemption. If the meeting is successful, Indonesia will get some of the credit it craves as a regional leader — credit that will be more than welcome after several years of economic and political tumult.

For me, Indonesia has been an inspiring and intimidating place to live as a journalist. Without a doubt, there is no shortage of environmental stories to cover here. Bridging continental Asia with Australia, this is arguably the world’s most biodiverse country — 17,000 islands-worth of tropical forests, reefs, and volcanoes. Culturally, it’s just as complex, containing hundreds of languages, ethnic groups, and religions all under the same flag. But in the aftermath of the Asian economic crisis, natural resources have been increasingly pillaged without regard to law or common sense, and millions of people have been thrown back into poverty after decades of generally rising incomes.

It’s too easy, though, to simply cite statistics on how bad the environmental trends are here in Indonesia, no matter if we’re talking about deforestation rates or the number of people without access to clean water. If I’ve learned anything in my eight months here, it is that the statistics only tell one side of the story.

Whether I’ve been interviewing a marine patrol chief in Sulawesi, logging activists in Kalimantan, or Jakarta-based bureaucrats within the park service, I’ve come across many dedicated Indonesians who have spent much of their professional lives fighting for the environment — too many, in fact, to believe the situation here is hopeless. But while I can mine their knowledge, hike into the forests with them, and see the scars they’ve received from their opponents, I still have to tell their stories accurately in the articles I write. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, it can be a daunting prospect.

So now, as I prepare to fly in to Bali tomorrow morning, and as my concerns grow that this could be more of a media circus than a substantive discussion, the opportunity to meet many of these activists and officials is what keeps me excited about my job. As an outsider here, and one who speaks only limited Indonesian, I’m little more than an observer. But at least through my work I can help other people see some of the sacrifice and bravery that Indonesians are demonstrating daily in an effort to make their country a better place to live.

Nevertheless, I’m also a fan of something Edward Abbey said over a decade ago. At an Earth First! rally at the Grand Canyon, Abbey told the crowd, “Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast, a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure.” With that advice firmly in mind, I’m also looking forward to taking a break from the official program to enjoy some of Bali’s greatest assets — its waves and its diving. So check back tomorrow for the dish on the politics and the scoop on the surf.