Not many documentary films that made it into theaters in Indonesia. One of those that made it was “Pulau Plastik (Platic Island).” A film jointly produced by Visinema Pictures, Kopernik, WatchDoc, and Akarumput that tells how plastic waste is now haunting our life.

The film, directed by Dandhy Dwi laksono and Rahung Nasution, features three main actors one of them is Prigi Arisandi, the founder and executive director of Ecological Observation & Wetland Conservation (Ecoton), a foundation working for the protection of rivers in East Java province and surrounding areas.

The Society of Indonesia Environment Journalists (SIEJ) had a Zoom interview with this winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize 2011 on May 26, 2021. In the interview Prigi talked frankly about many things, starting from the research on 100 stool samples, what Ecoton has been doing since its establishment 25 years ago, and his views on environmental awareness among Indonesians.

Can you tell us how you came to be involve in the “Pulau Plastik” film?

I was maybe a reserve player, but maybe there was nobody and thus I was asked to join.

I was really happy to be invited to take part. I was contacted by Robi. He said he wanted Ecoton to be involved. Yes please, we are very happy to do so.  Last time I asked Dandhy, “Why was Ecoton asked to be involved? Why ask me to join?” He said he saw from a number of surveys and reports that Ecoton was interesting than thus it was made to take part, invited to do so.

Well, maybe because they view our movement unique, interesting.

You are a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, which is said to be the Nobel prize for environmental fighters, how could they not invite you?

Hahaha. That is possible. Yes, I also got the “Environmental Prize” because maybe there no one else was registering. Thus, I got selected. Hahaha.

One of the most interesting scene in the film, I think, is the research on 100 stool samples. What is the story about it?

Yes, that is true. So, actually we are in the middle of a war of narratives. Environmental issue are still seen as unimportant by many. Not a priority. Therefore, we always seek to find issues that people are thinking of and are close to their heart. Feces, I think, is one of that. If we chose to tell about the dangers of cancer, that would be difficult to translate into something that people can relate to and therefore we opted to pick this feces issue.

In 2017, there was a study in Vienna, by the Medical University of Vienna. They studied eight people from different countries and took 10 grams of stool sample from each of them. From those samples, 20 microplastic particles (between 50 to 500 µm) were found per 10 gram .

We tried to do something that was more than that.

Andreas Agus Kristanto Nugroho (Ecoton researcher) actually holds the key (to the feces research.) He was the laboratory. I am only the microphone, the amplifier.

Andreas is one of the researchers who handles microplastic. He has to look for its chemical components, learn the methods. We learned and despite our limitation, we could do it. We tried this and that, using a microscope that we modified and finally we could do it.

Actually, we did not plan to take so many samples, but Robi challenged us. “What if we break a new record, 100 (samples)?” We were ready and finally received samples from 100 individuals.

How were the stool donors found?

The donors were from some 15 cities, from Denpasar to Jakarta. Initially it was a bit awkward because it is actually improper to ask for such a thing.

We started with people who are close to us, myself, my family, children, and babies. We took multi-samples, from various ages, villages, cities. We have a wide network and this made it easier for us.

So, we got 100 samples, 103 to be precise and each of them contained microplastic. “Be that of small children, villagers, urbanites, ole people, young people, all had microplastic.

We do not yet know the response from campuses to this research, but at least this research gave us an advantage because people are not keen to study feces, it disgusts them.

So, there has been no response at all so far from campus researchers? including from your alma mater, the Airlangga University?

We had the results of our research verified. We took them to Professor Win Darmanto (a lecturer at the Faculty of Science and technology at the Airlangga University). Mr. Win said that the research was up to standards. We also later went to Reza Cordova, a researcher from LIPI (The Indonesian Institute of Sciences) who has a focus on microplastic in coastal waters.

We hold a record with 100 samples. In February 2021, there was a Chinese scientist who researched 20 stool samples. Our number is greater.

Did you insert a personal message or from Ecoton, into the Pulau Plastik film?

Actually, there are two messages that we wanted to include in the film. The first one is they were interested in the diaper campaign we were doing (a campaign to stop the discarding of diapers into rivers.)

We started the diaper revolution in July 2017 and intentionally, that year, we published (about the campaign) as much as we could in the media. Even “Kick Andy” covered our activity. This diaper campaign was actually organized to criticize our lifestyle, our consumerism. The government is confused in handling this diaper waste, so is the industry while consumers do not care.

Secondly, it is about imported waste. This is the angle the film took. This is also important for us all. It just so happens that my home is located in front of a paper factory that imports paper waste. From early on I really know how these imported waste entered the country, and this paper waste contained plastic too.

This is a new form of colonization. Developed countries have been sending their waste to developing countries since the 1960s. Those people in advanced countries threw their waste at developing countries, including plastic waste. That is what we wanted to convey. Developed countries, according to me, is stabbing us in the back by sending their plastic waste here.

We are always lulled by the term recycle. The thing is, if those developed countries wanted to recycle their own waste, why don’t they not just keep their waste in their own country? Why send them to other countries? One could interpret that recycling actually poses many challenges and is harmful to the environment.

So, can plastic waste be recycled?

Yes, but the fact is that since the 1950s until now, only nine percent of the plastic waste we produced are recycled. The rest are burned, dumped at landfills, circulating in our sea, in our soil.

Does environmentally friendly plastic exist or not?

The answer can be found in the “Pulau Plastik” film. The film depicts how environmentally friendly plastic can become even more harmful because it decomposes faster and produces microplastic.

From your early childhood, you were close to a paper factory. Was it this that inspired you to study biology and later establish Ecoton?

Right. In East Java, paper is evil because that’s what’s destroying rivers. Paper factories are water guzzlers because they have to cook paper, process pulp into paper, and this needs a lot of water, a lot of energy and chemical which later are dumped into rivers, polluting and destroying our rivers.

This is what motivated me to protect rivers. Because industrial activities in the 1980s have harmed and worsened the quality of water of the Brantas river, harmed the Surabaya river. That too is what later encouraged me to research and identify the sources of industrial pollution, the types of waste and what are their characteristics.

My friends and I finally established Econton in 1996 when we were still at university. We established a study group that consists of environmentalists. When we graduated in 2000, we turned it into a legal entity.

Are activities of Ecoton limited to Surabaya and Brantas rivers or…?

Actually our activities are national (in scope). In 2013, we collaborated with the Ministry of the Environment. The best practices we devised for Surabaya was then disseminated to various rivers in Sumatra, Gorontalo, Makassar and Maros.

What drew the attention of the Ministry of Environment?

The change in the Brantas river condition. The truth is we have a problem in terms of participation. People are not involved, they do not feel that rivers are part of their life so they do not care. Therefore, we have to create a new narrative about rivers. People do not care for rivers because they do not understand what is happening in those rivers. Ecoton, tries to popularize the result of researches that often are difficult to translate. We came out with a lot of news, published a lot of information.

I believe that a large participation circle starts from a small information circle. So, access to information will create some sort of room for discussion. And after discussions there would be consultation and only after that, a wide participation.

If we expect people to get involved, they should, in the words of Javanese “melu handarbeni” (have a sense of belonging). This starts with access to information. We, at Ecoton produces information within the framework of “how can one love something one do not know.”

So, the dissemination of information is a main strategy for Ecoton?

There are two things. If we are talking about research, that would mean the production of information. This information can become some sort of software that we translate into two forms; one for litigation and another for non-litigation.

For the non-litigation, we want to make people more critical. So, we go to communities and strengthen them. We also keep a good relationship with the media. We feel that there is a mutual symbiosis with the media. We need their help. That is what we have been doing since early 2000.

For litigation, we use the data produced by the research to conduct lobbies. In the research, we prioritize innovation and scientific background. We tested the samples in Japan, Prague, Amsterdam. We do this to build trust.

We also file suits. There have been seven legal suits that we have filed since 2007, against the government and industries. To file these suits you need valid data. We have also been lobbying our friends at the legislative council, also the governor. We use the voice of the governor, of district heads to convey our message. For example, Khofifah (Indar Parawansa, the Governor of East Java). Khofifah’s first program after becoming a governor is to clean up the Brantas River from diapers.

So that is our way. We attack from everywhere, just like that.

Having worked since 1996, how does Ecoton see the improvements in Brantas River and Surabaya River? Are you satisfied?

Amidst the government’s lack of priority for environmental issues, what we achieved in Brantas is not bad at all. Meaning, this is a process. If we wanted to be quick, it would only ruffle many feathers.

At the very least, people now do not accept instant noodles and cooking oil as compensation for the pollution in their area. People now dare to demand companies that want to set up factories in the area, to first show their IPLC (permit for the disposal of liquid waste.)

We once conducted a survey on industries along the Brantas River. They are now afraid of “making the headlines” or being “reported to the police.” Gradually they have begun to improve their waste processing using waste processing technologies that meet the standards.

The problem now is the standards. The one authority that sets these standards is the government, so it is for the government to raise these standards.

Rivers can indeed undergo self-purification. But their are now overloaded. Their health has deteriorated and are prone to diseases.

Has Ecoton ever been threatened by corporations?

No. We use the role of the media, by providing them with the data. Factories cannot pressure us because when the data is published, everyone can take part in supervising.

What is interesting is that there are now a number of industries that are sending us parcels, which we returned to them. If we accept them, our reputation would go down the drain. So we just explain to them that it is just a matter of reputation.

Ecoton is protecting the environment for the future and the future means the young generation. What is the way to encourage the youth to care more about environmental issues?

In 1997, Ecoton, in collaboration with NGOs in environmental education, took part in establishing a network for environmental education. This network then led to the establishment of the Adiwiyata School. There is always space in our place, there is a large space for children. Because we realize that children can make a difference.

We have the Surabaya River Detective program, the Waste Tourism program, that teach children to care for the environment. We position children as an important part of changes in the environment.

Is it feasible to clean up rivers in Indonesia, starting from the Surabaya River first?

Feasible, very feasible. But much work to be done to increase the people’s contribution which is still low. For comparison, about 60 percent of Germans have membership cards to environmental organizations. In Japan, one person can have three such cards: this person may be a member of Birdlife, WWF.

To have this membership cards, they are willing to spend money, contribute. On the matter of contribution (to environmental matters), in Indonesia it is still very low. For contribution for organization such as the Badan Amil Zakat (The Amil Zakat Agency which manages religious alms) Dompet Dhuafa (Wallet for the Poor), they are numerous. Environmental issues is still lagging behind our friends in religious organizations.

That is why we need to strengthen the narrative. Our narrative must be able to embrace more people so they become more willing to spend money to save rivers.

Right. It is important to be able to draw the public’s attention. So far, 70-80 percent of the budget of Ecoton comes from foreign funding. From donor agencies such as the Dutch government, US NGOs. So, we still depend on foreign funding.

We want to be like our friends in the Islamic organizations whose funding are supported by the public. This is because of our failure in building our narrative, so people do not care for rivers.

So, foreigners care more for the work of Ecoton than Indonesians or people in East Java itself?

Right. Almost all NGO in the environment sector experience the same thing. 

We want to be strong because we are supported by funding from the people, donations from Surabaya residents, donations from people in East Java. We are trying that (to raise fund from the society) through cooperation with starting this month (May 2021.)

Is there any specific program that will be funded from this fund raising?

Rivers. We are currently assisting environmental defenders who are focused on rivers. There are housewives who want to save the rivers from diapers, there are those upstream who want to conserve water springs, there are river fishermen who plant trees, and there are children who are advocating against imported waste.

We really want, let’s say, to eat from the money given by our friends. Not from foreigners’ money. The success of a campaign is when our own people are willing to spend their money to support the cause and its success.

What we have here is rather ‘antique’. We save our environment, our rivers, but the fund comes from foreign donors.

Lastly, what message does Ecoton want to convey to the government or the people?

This is our final call. We always talk, make too much speech, but they never get translated into actions. We talk about love, but that will be nonsense if we continue to allow our rivers to be dirty, polluted by our own behavior. This means that we do not love our children. This means we are polluting rivers that would be inherited by our children and grandchildren.

So, our bad behavior — bad policies, our bad industry, our bad behavior — will later cause great suffering for our children and grandchildren. Therefore, we have to be wiser. But it is indeed easier to talk about environmental problems. It is actually easy to reduce plastic use. We now have a campaign to stop using plastic, reduce the use of plastic straw, bags, disposable bottles, and sachets. This is actually easy but also really difficult. Easy to say but hard to implement.

Abdus Somad

Abdus Somad

Abdus Somad, born in Karangasem, Bali, 27 years ago. He plunged into journalism by joining Axis Student Press at Ahmad Dahlan University, Yogyakarta. After graduating from college in 2018, he worked as...

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