Indonesia is one of the world's most important countries when it comes to nature conservation. (Antara Photo/Zabur Karuru)

Erik Meijaard: Intelligent Conservation in Indonesia


DECEMBER 01, 2015

There is some strange information to be found on the Internet. For example, while browsing, I recently came across a list of average national intelligence. From what I understand, these kinds of national IQ measurements are highly controversial, also because, reeking of racism, they are politically totally incorrect.

Still, there is something in the thinking that most of our intelligence is in our genes, we get it from mummy and daddy, and the rest is from education, which we should get from our governments and teachers. As there are no known ethnic or racial differences in intelligence, it is little surprise that the above national IQ rankings align nicely with rankings of educational quality. Singapore, South Korea and Japan are, as usual, at the top.

Good education helps sharpen the brain. Just like going to the gym or playing other sports keeps muscles healthy and strong, and ready to cope with high demands, training the brain by asking it difficult questions and forcing it to think hard, should improve the brain’s functions.

All this leads to some interesting questions. The above IQ measurements are, of course, averages, which means that there are loads of people much smarter than that, and there are also a lot of people who are less smart. Who are these people and where are they located in the country?

Assuming the relationship between IQ and quality of education is real at least to some extent, it is worth looking at some of Indonesia’s educational statistics. According to Indonesia’s Central Statistics Agency (BPS), Riau Islands province is the best educated in the country, with nearly 68 percent of children making it to senior high school. Provinces like Papua, and West and Central Kalimantan are at the other end of the list, with respectively 37 percent, 45 percent and again 45 percent of kids making it to senior high school.

In terms of environmental management this is a bit worrying, because the provinces with the highest environmental values, i.e., those with the biggest area of forest, are also those with the poorest educational attendance. If that then means that people in those provinces are not as skilled in analytical thinking as elsewhere in Indonesia, this doesn’t bode well for the sustainable use of forests, rivers and seas in these parts of Indonesia.

Of course, most decisions about natural resources are made by people in government, so we can only hope that they are really smart and know what the best decisions are for Indonesia. However, judging from some of the comments and actions by officials about, for example, this year's fire and haze crisis, I am not convinced that this is necessarily the case for all people in government. Whatever the final estimates of the economic damage from the 2015 fires ($18 billion, $34 billion, $50 billion?), losing several percent of Gross National Product through something that could have been prevented is not smart.

Now, Indonesia is a really important country in this world. It upholds the strongest democratic principles in the whole of Southeast Asia. It has the largest and most moderate Muslim population in the world. And it sits on some of the world's biggest carbon stores in its peatlands and forests, with more unique wildlife than pretty much anywhere else.

Furthermore, Indonesia has an increasingly wealthy middle class, which makes the country’s economy grow at a rate at which it may surpass Germany and the United Kingdom by 2030 to be the world’s seventh-largest economy. That same report also points out that despite the government’s call for more development of natural resources, especially oil palm, Indonesia’s growth really comes from domestic consumption and services rather than manufacturing or resources.

Chain-sawing trees and growing oil palms don’t require massive brain power. Being globally competitive in the fields of service delivery, however, does require smart, strategic and analytical thinkers. Indonesia’s path to prosperity, peace, green development and high standards of public well-being requires intelligent people taking the right decisions. And really intelligent people require good education.

At least to me it is a no-brainer (no pun intended) that for Indonesia to progress on such an ambitious sustainable development path the country needs to have a really good look at its educational system, and work out how it can build something powerful from its presently creaky foundations.

One caveat to all of this with regard to environmental sustainability is that the smartest people in the world – Singaporeans, South Koreans and Japanese – are not necessarily known for their exemplary environmental performance. On this list, the three countries are reasonably high but not the very top.

It takes something more than intelligence to be truly environmentally sustainable. Empathy, sense of community, and appreciation of well-being probably feature just as high. Improving education is a good place to start, though.

Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures research initiative.