Long-term EIA partner Ambrosius Ruwindrijarto has this week been awarded one of Asia’s most prestigious accolades for his fearless work on the front lines of the fight against illegal logging in Indonesia.
His citation on receiving the 2012 Ramon Magsaysay Award recognises his “courageous advocacy of natural resource management based on social and ecological justice, and his committed leadership in offering entrepreneurial alternatives to resource exploitation that place at its center the welfare of the people themselves”.
Here, EIA Campaigns Director Julian Newman recalls the investigation in which “Ruwi” began his long and fruitful partnership with EIA.
When I heard the great news that Ambrosius “Ruwi” Ruwindrijarto of our Indonesian partner Telapak has been awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, my thoughts drifted back 13 years to when I first met him, in deepest Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.
I had travelled to Indonesia in May 1999 with EIA Director Dave Currey to carry out our first joint investigation with Telapak into illegal logging. We had received a series of tip-offs about anarchic illegal logging in the heart of Tanjung Puting National Park, and our plan was to get on the ground to document what was going on and find out who was behind it. After a few days spent meeting sources in Jakarta and Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, , we headed to Pangkalanbun, the nearest town to Tanjung Puting, to begin the investigation.
My internal trip report from that time states: “The rendezvous with Ruwi occurred as planned on 20th May at the Blue Kecubung Hotel.” This was the best hotel in Pangkalanbun, which is not saying much, populated by the occasional tourist looking lost and a motley collection of timber and gold traders. Upon meeting we did the obvious thing and retired to the airless basement restaurant for a cold beer and to plan our next steps.
Over the next few days we went by boat along the Sekonyer River inside the park, gathering evidence of the rampant logging of a valuable tree species called ramin. As neither Dave nor I spoke Indonesian, Ruwi played a vital role in gleaning information from the boatmenand forest rangers we encountered.
Obtaining visual evidence of logging on dry land proved more troublesome, given that Tanjung Puting is peat swamp forest. My 1999 report says: “Awoke at around 7am on 22nd May to the sound of chainsaws coming from within the park. Followed the Sekonyer up river and spotted what appeared to be a busy logging camp through the trees. As approaching the camp via the river was not possible, went on foot. Despite trekking through the forest for around three hours no camps or rails were found.”
Reading this again, memories of the intense heat and swarms of insects come flooding back. Also the feeling of being totally lost. I had only just started using GPS but, before embarking on the hike, Ruwi assured me he knew how to use way-points to navigate our way through the dense forest and back to the boat. After an hour or so we were ready to turn around, at which point Ruwi admitted that his efforts to track our trail had been less than successful and we were lost. Two hours later, after stumbling along intermittent trails, we finally got back to the river.
By the time we returned to the Blue Kecubung we had a good idea of who was behind the plunder of the park – local tycoon Abdul Rasyid, boss of the Tanjung Lingga company. So the next stage would mean going undercover; with Dave and I posing as investors and Ruwi playing the part of our fixer, a meeting was arranged with a man called Sugianto. He turned out to be Rasyid’s nephew and was in charge while his uncle was away in Singapore.
It’s never easy engaging in these types of meetings where a pretence has to be maintained, and especially difficult for the person who is translating. Ruwi played his role well, and Sugianto was soon spilling the beans about his company’s illegal business; he even laid on a tour of one of the sawmills where Tanjung Lingga was processing ramin logs stolen from the park. Ruwi was so convincing that Sugianto offered him a job, which was politely declined.
It was with relief that we flew out of Pangkalanbun; we had been there over a week and it was beginning to feel oppressive, especially as Rasyid and his family were clearly a major power in the town. Uniformed police officers lounged outside Tanjung Lingga’s office and Sugianto always had a couple of bodyguards nearby for effect.
Within three months of the investigation, Ruwi and Dave released our findings in The Final Cut report at a press conference in Jakarta. EIA and Telapak’s campaign against illegal logging was underway.
The next time I saw Ruwi was in January 2000. I was woken up at home in London with the awful news that he and my EIA colleague Faith Doherty had been assaulted and kidnapped by Sugianto and his henchmen while on a follow-up investigation in Pangkalanbun. After a long day at EIA’s office working with Telapak to pull all the levers we could think of to secure their release, I boarded a night flight to Jakarta. By the time I arrived all the efforts had paid off and Ruwi and Faith had managed to get out. Ruwi was somewhat battered but unbowed, and the next day spoke at a press conference, defiantly showing that activists in Indonesia would not be silenced by the thugs stealing the country’s natural resources.
So the recognition of both Ruwi and Telapak’s contribution to protecting Indonesia’s forests is long overdue. The award honours “greatness of spirit and transformative leadership in Asia”. This certainly applies to Ruwi – just don’t expect him to lead you through a swamp forest using GPS.