For the helmsman of a tech-savvy, archipelago-spanning NGO, Hapsoro cut a distinctly retro figure. In Bogor, his home base, people remember him on “car-free” Sunday mornings riding a beat-up bicycle in a sarong and batik blangkon turban.
As a founding member of Telapak and later Forest Watch Indonesia ( FWI ), Hapsoro was an early and persistent activist against large-scale deforestation. So much was his energy and reach that his untimely death in October at the age 41 has left a huge gap in the nation’s environmental leadership.
At his tahlilan recently, a traditional Muslim “wake” to mark the 40-day anniversary of his passing, Indonesia’s foremost environmentalists turned out to pay their respects.
Many of them were Hapsoro’s classmates or seniors at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture ( IPB ).
The school’s Pecinta Alam or Nature Lovers’ Club in the late 1990s proved to be a fertile intellectual seedbed of “green” activists. Among them are Emy Hafild, Abdon Nababan and Tri Nugroho, who went on to head, respectively, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, Indonesia’s Indigenous People’s Alliance and the Indonesian Tropical Institute.
While other students militated against the Soeharto dictatorship, Pecinta Alam members busied themselves hiking and climbing. It was only after Soeharto’s downfall that massive deforestation drew many of them into activism.
The regulatory vacuum post-dictatorship coincided with the Asian economic meltdown, causing Indonesia’s forests to be cut and sold at a rate higher than anywhere else in the world. Two percent of Indonesia’s forests, a whopping 1.8 million hectares, were logged every year between 2000 and 2005. The Forestry Ministry contests that this was a consistent rate.
Hapsoro, along with another IPB-alumnus, Ambrosius Ruwidrijarto, cofounded Telapak, which became a leading investigator of illegal logging in the 1990s. Beginning at Telapak and later at FWI, Hapsoro documented and denounced the impacts of large-scale illegal logging. This became his life’s work.
In 1996, he founded FWI — an independent non-profit that produces their own, publically accessible maps to monitor those produced and used by the Forestry Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry, the President’s Climate task force and the National Land Agency to grant and manage forest concessions. Since 2002, FWI has worked with the World Resources Institute to monitor illegal activity in Central Kalimantan’s forest concessions where much of Indonesia’s deforestation occurs.
Hapsoro was a vital link between international environmental activists and the ground realities in Indonesia. In 2006, Hapsoro sailed aboard Greenpeace’s signature ship, the Rainbow warrior, to Papua to protest the cutting of the last stretch of intact, as-yet-untouched tropical rainforest that was to be converted into logs bound for markets abroad. The following year, he helped the international environmental watchdog photograph the extent land was being converted from forest to oil palm plantations in Riau.
The nature of the fight against illegal logging has since changed. In 2002 and 2003, licensing and the government’s natural resource management system moved from dictums sent out from Jakarta to regency or province-level duties.
And instead of finding a new way to battle this tide, NGOs seem to be getting smaller and fewer. “Decentralization created more actors,” Ambrosius says. “A new common strategy is needed in Indonesia’s environmental movement but we are still struggling to create one.”
Though his major legacy is helping to preserve his country’s magnificent forests, Hapsoro was also a founding member of Indonesia River Defenders ( IRD ). But this was not as dramatic a shift as one might think. Hapsoro saw forests and their waterways as intrinsically connected. Forests act as catchment basins for river water. Clean rivers full of fish indicate intact forests along the river-course.
With IRD, Hapsoro returned to Riau again, this time to map river health, and since the visit, the NGO has gained many more regional branches across Indonesia.
“Rivers are where you can see the impacts of the destruction of forests,” explains Hariyanto Kikuk, Hapsoro’s friend. With Hariyanto, Hapsoro cofounded his last NGO, Komunitas Peduli Ciliwung ( KPC ) or the Community of Concerned for Ciliwung River. The Ciliwung arises in the mountains above Bogor and flows over a hundred kilometers through the capital city before it empties into Jakarta Bay. As part of its activities, KPC organizes weekly river walks to pick trash or plant trees along its banks.
Kikuk sees the founding of this last organization as coming full circle for Hapsoro. “He had already been everywhere advocating for Indonesia’s forests — Kalimantan, Papua, Europe. [With KPC] Hapsoro wanted to be answerable to his neighbors,” says Hariyanto .
And what better place to start than the river he grew up fishing along.
Hapsoro is survived by his wife and three children.