Fri, 11 Jun 2004

Ismid speaks out for biodiversity

Tantri Yuliandini, Jakarta

Ever since his university days, the executive director of the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation (Kehati) has always found himself in the thick of things.

Even so, Ismid Hadad has managed to keep outside of the system, an outsider looking in.

Of course, as a university student during the 1960s, he could not help but be swept into the whirlwind of activism and political changes that marked that era.

Born on April 29, 1940, in Surabaya, East Java, Ismid left his small hometown of Pasuruan in 1965 to pursue his tertiary education in economics at Indonesian Christian University (UKI).

But Ismid had no passion for economics, the theories of which he thought, at the time, were unrealistic for a developing country such as Indonesia.

"Of course, by 1966 there was no more school," Ismid said, referring to the political upheavals following the coup on Oct. 30, 1965, that led to president Sukarno's ouster and was blamed by the state on the recently restored Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

During that period, the climate was thick with the political ideologies of religious groups, nationalists, socialists and communists. It was not only the political parties that subscribed to these ideologies, but university students also set up extracurricular political organizations.

Ismid did not want to be part of any of this fervor: "I wanted to be in a professional organization and not be involved in that kind of ideological dispute."

Instead, he joined the Indonesian Student Journalists' Union (IPMI) -- not because he was interested in journalism, but mostly because it was politically independent.

"It just so happened that (IPMI) dealt with journalism," said Ismid.

IPMI organized many discussions on the contemporary socio- political climate, its members wrote articles and essays for printing and distributing to various social and political figures.

"It was all clandestine, underground, because of the repressive climate of the time," said Ismid, who later became IPMI's Jakarta chairman and a vice chairman of its central board.

Eventually, however, he heard the call of political activism and joined the anti-communist student association, the Indonesian Student Action Front (KAMI), when the movement got well under way.

As a representative of IPMI, Ismid was made KAMI's chief of information and acted as the association's spokesperson between 1966 and 1969.

"We distributed bulletins on bicycles that had a stencil machine on it. Whenever we stopped, we would print them on the machine and pass them out."

Ismid also worked as managing editor of the association's daily, Harian KAMI, and broadcast information on amateur radio stations, particularly to rally people to large demonstrations.

"Of course, we had a lot of trouble with state intelligence, but the radios were easily dismantled and hidden." As for KAMI's own intelligence unit, Ismid was in charge of 600 operatives across Jakarta.

He believed in generating change, and admitted that any other ambitions he had back then were lost to this greater aim.

"If you don't act, who will? If not now, when?" was his personal motto.

In order to spark a will for change among the people, he organized photography exhibitions between 1966 and 1967 in Jakarta, Bandung, Malang, Yogyakarta and Manado, corralling the talents of various illustrators, photographers and poets.

"Everywhere the exhibition went, there would be reactions pushing for change," he recalled.

In 1969, he spent four months at the International School of Journalism in Berlin and even took time to report on the political upheavals between East and West Germany.

"Essentially, I am very interested in battles," he laughed.

But when the new government of Indonesia was installed, he declined a seat in the newly established House of Representatives, believing that he could do much more in being active outside as part of the "fourth estate": guardians of democracy, defenders of public interest.

"I believed that democracy was a matter of checks and balances. Someone must fight for the rights of the press, for civil society."

In the 1970s, he helped found the Institute for Research, Education and Information on Social and Economic Affairs (LP3ES) toward this very end, and from 1975 to 1980, was its director. Change was also in the air for his personal life, and in 1971, married fellow IPMI member and activist Suarhatini.

LP3ES's publication Prisma, which he led from 1972 to 1982, came to be known as one of Indonesia's top social science journals.

"Ironically, the publication that became the symbol of intellectual thought was headed by a university dropout," he said, laughing. By the next decade, however, this was a claim he could no longer make: in 1980, he went to Princeton University on a fellowship and then in 1982, to Harvard University for a Master of Public Administration.

He was again ready to embark on something new by this time, and established resource and development consultant PT Redecon, which mainly deals with energy and environmental impact.

It was through his work at Redecon that Ismid was exposed to the issues of environmental damage, which prompted him to enlist the help of environmentalist and former minister Emil Salim to establish environmental NGO Yayasan Kehati.

"I was also getting on in years, and I wanted to find a less stressful activity," he said. However, he soon found that being an environmental activist was no less stressful than being a political activist.

Ismid was not deterred by his having no background in environmental science, he instead adopted Emil Salim's motto: build the ship while sailing.

"All we knew and strongly believed in was that the environment was important." Eventually, he learned all he needed to know about the environment through his direct involvement in conservation efforts.

He believes the country's biodiversity is an asset for both its present and its future: As the local oil supply is dwindling and the manufacturing and agriculture sectors were not promising, its rich biodiversity was the only asset that could be left to future generations.

"When the world fails to find a cure for diseases, to find alternative foods when our crops diminish, the genetic resources can be found in our ecosystem -- in the forests, the ocean, the reefs, mangrove, mountains -- it's all there. There are many thousands of organisms yet to be identified, but because we don't understand, sadly, they are being sacrificed.

"Kehati has so far tried to raise people's awareness on biodiversity, but I think what is more important is the environmental awareness of officials and businessmen. In the end, no matter how hard an effort we (environmentalists) make at conservation, the forces of destruction come tenfold."

Resolutely, he stressed that no matter how frustrating the situation, an environmentalist must always remain optimistic.