Hi, I'm Megan. I am a writer, a photographer and an international public health professional. After a year-long research project in Indonesia, I'm back in my hometown, Chicago. It's great to see white snow again, but I miss the fresh coconuts that machete-slinging street vendors would chop open and sell to me for a mere 50 cents. Currently looking for ways, other than hibernating in a hat and gloves under my comforter, to stay warm. Please contact me at mmryan1@gmail.com to pitch your ideas. (FYI - I already tried hot potatos in my pockets, an old Irish tradition)

Friday, May 28, 2010

An Islamic Approach to Environmentalism

Indonesia is rich in natural resources with a less than perfect record of managing them. Debates about environmentalism in Indonesia naturally focus on politics, decision-making and organizations. But the idea of integrating environmentalist practices into Islam is new. As one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, something is missing if we fail to ask what the Muslim community thinks about environmental issues - conservation, exploitation and everything in between. This question has become the focus of my research for the last few months.

In my efforts to follow this "Eco Islam" movement in Indonesia, as people call it, I found myself sitting with ten Australian journalists around bowls of cassava chips and sambal in a forest in Bantul, Yogyakarta. We listened to Nashruddin thank us for visiting his brainchild, the Ilmogiri pesan trend, and motioned for us to begin eating.

We were all there to learn about the Islamic approach to envionmentalism in Indonesia, and Nashruddin is a man who is embracing this kind of approach. Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia are called Pesantren, and most are affiliated with one of two Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiya. But Nashruddin brought environmental education to this village with his own kind of pesantren, one based on culture and the environment. He calls it the Ilmogiri Pesan Trend, and it sits on a 70 hectar lot of hutan santri (protected forest).

Nashruddin's phrase "pesan trend" comes from pesantren. In indonesian language, pesan means message and trend is the trend that’s happening. He believes that he is following in the prophet Mohammad’s steps by delivering a message to the people. But, he is using the current context. He is not delivering his message conventionally, and he wants his idea to become a trend. The Ilmogiri Pesan Trend is not only a place where people from the community can come to pray and practice Islam, it is also a place to learn about conservation and have intellectual, inter-faith discussions. Participation only requires donating a book or a tree. Nashruddin often invites religious leaders of other faiths to join.

When asked for specific examples about the Islamic approach to environmentalism, Nashruddin replied with a unique idea. "When a couple gets married", he says confidently, "they should plant 20 trees on the day of their ceremony. They should then each plant one tree after every time they have intercourse. It's like an investment for their family. When their children grow old, the trees' value will increase and the environment will stay healthy for their grandchildren".

Other than the clearly educational component, Nashruddin began this pesantren with economical and ecological intentions. He encourages community members to buy a tree for 50,000 Rp (about $5) and to let it grow for ten years before cutting it down. After ten years the tree is worth more than 1,000,000 Rp (about $100). When they sell it, 40% of the profits go to the owner, 40% to a community microfinance fund and 20% to the forest managament and maintenance. In ten years time, the tree grows more leaves and roots that soak up carbon and water respectively.

Not only is this project an example of a Muslim community's approach to natural resource management and economic empowerment, it's also an example of the importance of informal education. Proud of his project's success, Nashruddin says to me "And you know, even students from Gadjah Mada University (Indonesia's top University) come here to learn what they can't learn in class". He's refering to his educational approach at the pesantren, where he focuses on leadership and takes people to the forest to learn about and build an appreciation for the community's symbiotic relationship with the environment. He says it's about helping the community find a balance between profiting from their natural environment and replenishing it.

For every person commited to change and social improvement, there is a history and a reason behind their motivation. When I asked Nashruddin about why he felt passionate to start this project, he referred to the Qur'an. "My last prophet Muhammad told me: if tomorrow is the last day and you have a handful of dates, you are obligated to plant them. Muslims are serious about that and we are taught not to exploit". Nashruddin's success is his keen insight into his culture. He realizes that environment and culture are related so he brings the message through a culturally specific context, in a way that reflects Islamic beliefs and values. This approach is meaningful to the community and more sustainable because of it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Borneo and the isolated islands of Derawan

Ever since reading the book Friction I've been looking for a reason to go to Kalimantan and some travel partners to go with. Friction is an ethnography about the effects of capitalism, transmigration and foreign ownership on the environment and livelihoods of people living in Central Kalimantan during the Suharto era. Desmond (a researcher in Jakarta) planned a trip to Balikpapan for his research so my friend Colin and I decided, if there ever would be a time to go, the time was now. Thus our planning started. Despite logistical annoyances - the need to fly 7 times to get to remote areas and the lack of assurance we'd find affordable accomodation while off the beaten path in an East Kalimantan Island - we followed through. The thought that we might not see sea turtles and wild orangutans before returning to the States was heartbreaking.

Here we are, naive and clean before we hit Borneo.

Derawan, our first destination, is a tiny island off the coast of Kalimantan Timur (East Kalimantan). Most tourists think of Bali and Gili Islands (off the coast of Lombok) as the best spots in Indonesia for beaches, diving, sea life, etc... I've been to both places, and Derwan is significantly more exciting for divers and aquatic life lovers. The fact that the island is difficult to get to keeps the beach relatively awash of tourists. Right off the jetty in Derawan we saw giant sea turtles glide through sea green water, barracudas that dart around jellyfish floating with the tide and other colorful creatures. Our first day, Colin and I swam near the island. We didn't last long because the water darkened and our visibility diminished as sunset neared and baby jellyfish stung our skin constantly. This is a sea cucumber hanging out in the water by our loesman (a cheap hotel-like accomodation).

The next day we woke up, gathered our snorkle equipment and took a speed boat to two islands nearby. After an hour under the sun in the salty air we arrived at Kakaban island. A thick forest covered the entire island. The beach was small and quickly turned into coral, rocks and sea shells as you walked towards the shoreline. I heard animal noises coming from the dense forest. They were the kind of noises I always associated with jungles because of the "sounds of the jungle" CDs at the Nature Store, not sounds I expected to hear so clearly and continuously in a real jungle.

The highlight of our trip was the marine lake on Kakaban Island. This lake is home to four species of jellyfish that evolved to lose their ability to sting. The lake used to be the lagoon of an atoll (an island of coral that encircles a lagoon) and after movements of the earth's crust the coral rose above sea level and created a landlocked marine lake. The four species of jellyfish trapped in the lake (Cassiopeia ornata, Mastigias papua, Aurelia aurita and Tripedalia cystophora) no longer needed their sting because of a lack of predators.

I was cautious around the jellyfish as I slid off the pier and into the water. It took a few jellyfish to brush against my legs for me to truely believe they wouldn't sting me. I floated there, still, as the jellyfish swam around me with a motion like the contraction of a muscle. Finally, I mustered up the courage to hold one in my hand and stroked it's delicate, slimey body with the other. I was in love. Unfortunately, I didn't bring an underwater camera and I can't share the experience - at the least visually - through my blog. Perhaps that's a good thing because I wouldn't want to downplay the magic of this unique place with just a picture.