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.

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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.

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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.

Wednesday, 29 May 2002

BALI, Indonesia

As the Bali PrepCom got underway this week, the Indonesian delegation seemed confused about its role — were they expected to be the magnanimous hosts or should they be more engaged in the nitty-gritty negotiations? Indonesians take particular pride in not offending their tamu, or guests, and there are thousands to look after in Bali this week. But the uncomfortable reality of this conference is that there are radically divergent views on what the final documents should look like, so disagreement is inevitable.

For its part, the national media seems to be on the side of activism, and the first two days have seen the Indonesian representatives excoriated for a lack of leadership. That prompted the headlines I read as my plane descended into Bali this morning, with the government promising to be more proactive.

After checking into my hotel and loading 500 copies of Tempo into a taxi, I headed off towards Nusa Dua, the site of all the negotiations and most of the island’s five-star hotels. Since I’m not traveling on a lavish expense account, I had booked a modest room in the Kuta area, about 30 minutes from the main conference center.

For those who haven’t been there, Kuta is the part of Bali that is literally bursting from the explosive growth in tourism over the past three decades. Row upon row of T-shirt and jewelry shops line the narrow roads leading to Bali’s most famous beach. In the evenings, when happy hour gets going, the entire area is a traffic engineer’s nightmare, with cars sharing the roads alongside horse carts, noodle vendors, and drunk Australians. But this was the morning, and all the party-goers were still in bed.

I had never been to Nusa Dua before, and only knew it from my guidebook as a relatively new enclave designed for tourists who want to “leave Bali and Indonesia behind.” Even with that description, it was a shock to pull through the gate into the Nusa Dua complex — a gate designed to keep out the public vans most people use to get around. What I saw were sculpted lawns, idyllic fountains, and pedestrian-free roads connecting a collection of exclusive resorts. It was an ironic setting for a conference about poverty and sustainable development.

By the time I received my media credentials and handed over my copies of Tempo to conference organizers, the negotiators had taken a break for lunch. I headed over to the media center to get situated and learn what I could about that morning’s events.

Just inside the media center were several tables covered with hundreds of press releases, reports, and declarations, many taped along the walls like fliers for a rock concert. Before me, thousands of new acronyms were just waiting to baffle the latest reader: WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene for All) was advertising a roundtable discussion; CIFOR (the Center for International Forestry Research) was optimistically drawing attention to “Forests — At Last the Good News!”; and GEF-SGP (Global Environment Facility – Small Grants Program) was hosting something innocuously titled Green Call.

Among the piles of documents, I saw an announcement that the head of the Indonesian delegation, Deputy Foreign Minister Makarim Wibisono, was giving a daily press briefing at 5 p.m. That was good news for my work with Tempo. As I continued looking, a young Thai activist tapped my shoulder.

“Excuse me. We’re having a media event on Friday, before the negotiations resume, and we’d like to see you there,” she said.

Thinking I might forget about it over the next two days, I asked “Are you going to post some flyers or announcements about this?”

“No. We don’t want to waste the paper.” I looked down at the morass of documents spread out in front of me and smiled. At least someone was exercising restraint.

Later that afternoon, when Wibisono arrived to give his daily update, I got another, more embarrassing, glimpse at Indonesia’s generosity towards its guests. After looking over the crowd — a mix of perhaps 30 writers, photographers, and television crew members — the minister announced that he would first present his summary of the day in English, a statement that caused some of my colleagues in the room to groan. This seemed to be a total capitulation to me, the only non-Indonesian in the entire room. I felt very self-conscious, and wanted the moment to end as quickly as possible.

But it was not to be. My embarrassment resurfaced only a few minutes later, when the minister finished his summary, offered his thanks to everyone, and turned off the microphone. No one moved. After several long seconds had passed, the minister’s assistant leaned over to his boss and whispered something. “Oh yes, I forgot!” the minister replied, before finally proceeding to give his presentation in Indonesian.

Thursday, 30 May 2002

BALI, Indonesia

“What are we going to do about the United States?” That was the message on stickers some participants here wore on Tuesday. The slogan arose from a comment the head of the conference made during a meeting when he thought his microphone was turned off. The question quickly became a rallying cry for the disgruntled, at least until U.N. officials banned the stickers — and any criticism of a “member state” — from the meeting’s premises.

Yet it’s still easy to find people willing to share their frustration with the U.S. delegation. Among many delegates and NGOs, the U.S. is seen as trying to avoid any commitments that come with funding requirements or timetables, and of being too supportive of corporate interests. The delegation itself is at times upset about its own position. “Our job,” one official said jokingly, “seems to be to keep the Third World in its place.”

So despite the official ban on criticism, there is plenty of anger and frustration to go around. At this meeting, my green press badge is the equivalent of a psychiatrist’s couch, magnetically attracting people who need to vent. “Our government is doing nothing,” one Indian delegate said to me after leaving a discussion on water scarcity. “Too many countries are remaining silent,” said Greenpeace’s Remi Parmentier. Frustration in the negotiating rooms sometimes leads to petty attacks; a German activist was chastised by her government’s delegates for going swimming during the lunch break. “They said my wet hair makes it look like I’m not working,” she complained to me.

My own anger was provoked during a briefing the U.N. gave at midday. “We’re making much better progress today,” the spokesperson said after delegates broke for lunch. But I had just spent the previous hour watching negotiators try to agree on the wording of a single paragraph. The U.S. and a coalition of developing countries kept suggesting changes to a section of text they all agreed was relatively unimportant. If that was progress, what was happening in other rooms where issues were much more contentious?

And then there are the larger, more haunting questions: Even if progress is being made in the negotiating rooms, does it really matter? Will anyone’s life actually be affected by the agreements signed here? Perhaps there’s some trickle-down environmentalism at work, but for many of us it’s hard to see the connection. Linda Engstrom, an orangutan researcher representing the Swedish Society for the Conservation of Nature, said it best: “I’m sure all of this is important, but it just seems so disconnected from reality.”

The relevance of these international meetings was a question I put to Earth Day founder Denis Hayes in an interview last year. Hayes attended the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the first major meeting to discuss environmental issues. Stockholm, Hayes said, seemed like a failure to him and most of the participants at the time. But in the years following, governments began creating environment ministries and drafting some of their first environmental laws. The impact of Stockholm wasn’t immediately apparent, but it was long-lasting.

If these deliberations are going to have a legacy, they might be remembered for their focus on the controversial notion of voluntary partnerships between private corporations, the U.N., and national governments. A seminar on these “Type-2 Partnerships” was the hottest ticket in Nusa Dua this evening, with discussions continuing long after the scheduled closing time.

To summarize the idea, countries like the U.S. believe that private sector companies have expertise and financing that can help developing nations bring water to their people, power rural villages, and generally foster development. Isolated examples of this kind of work exist in several countries, but so far they have had mixed results.

Among the many NGOs and countries opposed to, or at least suspicious of, the plan, a general fear is that national governments will abdicate their public responsibilities to unelected, unaccountable corporations. “These partnerships can not replace leadership by governments,” one participant said. She and many of the groups represented would prefer to see a discussion on an international treaty addressing “corporate accountability.” The topics sound academic, but they are attracting fierce debate in the conference halls.

In the room next door, however, a more modest legacy was being built. Taking a seat behind a nameplate for the Syrian delegation, I watched a panel of activists from seven countries share their experiences in making governments more accountable by passing laws requiring environmental impact statements, public sharing of information on air and water pollution, and other tools that many of us take for granted. In the audience, a delegate from tiny Andorra stood up to recount her experience at the conference.

“Yesterday I spent my day in long negotiations over some disputed text, and I wondered what I was doing here at all,” she said. “But this has been different. We have so many problems in Andorra trying to get the government to listen to its people, but what you’ve said here today will help. We’re going to follow your examples and see if we can’t get them to change.”

Andorra. It’s a small start, admittedly, but it’s still something to build on.

Friday, 31 May 2002

BALI, Indonesia

The media center was full this afternoon, all the Internet connections busy with journalists trying to file their reports ahead of schedule. This had less to do with the approach of the weekend than with the impending start of the World Cup. In all likelihood, the most popular place tonight will be the Greenpeace ship, whose crew has promised a BBQ dinner and a big-screen display of the opening match between France and Senegal. Think of it as an olive branch to the French, whose special forces sunk one of Greenpeace’s boats several years ago.

Yet even the start of the World Cup hasn’t eclipsed the day’s biggest announcement: European ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. That news is still “embargoed” as I write, 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, but it will be official by daybreak in New York. The E.U. decision doesn’t really affect the meeting going on here, but it does give the Europeans something to crow about as the negotiations reach the halfway mark.

Other groups have less to celebrate. A closely watched vote this morning on whether the India-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy should be allowed to participate in the discussions was rejected. The U.S. helped lead efforts to have the organization included, but China’s delegation gathered a sufficient majority to deny the application.

For the NGOs that can participate, the consensus so far is that progress has been minimal. At a press conference this morning, the U.S., Canada, and Australia were labeled the “environmental axis of evil” for their continuing refusal to include timetables and financial commitments with their development goals. South Korea’s Kim Jai Ok, representing Consumers International, summed up the feeling among many activists: “We want concrete action, not more vague promises.”

But other messages in Bali are even less clear than the negotiating text. A mysterious person named Benjamin Creme, who claims to be channeled by “The Master,” has been leaving his own press releases around the convention center. Under the headline “Policeman,” Creme says, “The voice of Maitreya will soon be heard above the cries for revenge and hate. Soon, the world will awaken to His presence in our midst and the Great Choice will be offered to men.”

Most of us, though, are not at all sure whether we’re facing a Great Choice. We’re just trying to figure out what’s most important about what’s going on around us. And that, of course, depends on your point of view. For the South Africans, who have the largest press presence here after Indonesia, the most pressing issue has been to figure out which controversial topics will be passed along for debate in Johannesburg this August. The Indonesians, on the other hand, realize that their moment is quickly passing and are beginning to wonder aloud just what sort of influence this PrepCom will leave behind.

A hint of an answer could be detected this afternoon on a grassy field in Nusa Dua. Under clear blue skies, the Indonesian environmental group Telapak was hosting a panel discussion with fishers, environmentalists, and former government ministers about the state of Indonesia’s fisheries. Not a very notable event, except that the discussion was being broadcast live on 240 radio stations across the country. With a backdrop that read “Indonesia: Are you ready for Johannesburg?” listeners from Aceh to Irian Jaya were encouraged to call in to share their thoughts and concerns. The response during the hour-long program was impressive, and the broadcasters promised to continue each afternoon for the next week.

As the callers and participants in this radio program acknowledged, however, Indonesia still has a long way to go if it is to achieve the goals spelled out by the delegates here. The country’s forests are still being destroyed as fast as the Amazon’s; its cities are mired in a pall of toxic pollutants; and threats like HIV/AIDS are growing. The consensus at the Telapak discussion was that Indonesia as a nation needs to be proactive.

“Go out and organize patrols that can report to the police,” one of the panelists said in response to a caller from Sumatra who wanted to know how to counter growing numbers of illegal fishers in his community’s waters. “Organize through your mosques and churches; don’t wait for someone else to come help.”

Maybe that’s the message that was lost this week in the midst of all the finger-pointing. If there really is a Great Choice to be made, perhaps this group gathered on an open field in Nusa Dua, with the sounds of a gamelan drifting over from a nearby temple, was already making it.

Wiwiek Awiati, director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law, certainly thinks so. “The negotiating text is important,” she said. “This whole process to Johannesburg is important. But if the national government and local communities aren’t willing to get more involved in solving Indonesia’s problems, then none of these agreements will ever matter.”