When Your Country is a Case Study: Being an Indonesian Environmentalist at Yale
My experience and knowledge, and the experiences of all minorities, matter, even when those perspectives feel insignificant because of all the extra effort to make people understand.
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I graduated in May 2019 with a master of environmental science from Yale University (United States). I am from Indonesia, a country known for its diverse cultures, rich tropical forest, and immense environmental problems.
My experience at Yale was a story of conflicts between my identity as an Indonesian environmentalist and studying with Yale environmental scholars holding Western-centric views about my home country.
To many Western environmentalists, Indonesia is a study site—a giant lab to investigate tropical social-environmental problems and save the rainforest. Many of my American classmates worked in Indonesia. My own thesis adviser is famous for his human ecology research in Indonesia. I was drawn to Yale in order to join the table of Indonesia experts, but I found my views as a native Indonesian were constantly confronted by Western academics. For example, when I explained that interventions designed by Western researchers to reduce forest fire actually hurt Indonesian farmers’ land rights, I was seen as being too ‘pessimistic.’ To engage in conversation, I learned to reframe my understanding of my own country in accordance with their preexisting knowledge and Western-centric ideas about Indonesia.
When I presented my research on environmental issues in Indonesia at Yale, I was often asked: “what makes environmental issues in Indonesia so unique compared to the other countries?” This seemed like a perfectly normal question, until I realized that I was being asked to defend why Indonesia deserved notice by the academic community. To my peers and professors, worthwhile research is that which generates new ideas. They viewed Indonesia as a mysterious, giant laboratory in the far east, useful for hypothesizing. But for me and the communities I work with, intellectual theories do little to address the tangible, imminent environmental problems that affect many lives. Whether environmental problems in Indonesia are “unique” or not, the fact that Western academia has failed to solve these issues is all the more reason for Indonesian environmentalists, like me, to keep working.
Although Yale prides itself on hosting extensive research on Indonesia, I found that most Yale researchers only associated Indonesia with two issues—tropical deforestation and orangutans. Therefore, to get interest in my research about communities affected by peatland conservation, I had to talk about topics like ‘deforestation’ and ‘biodiversity loss’ that interested Yale researchers, even though I wasn’t focused on those themes. Despite being the resident expert on Indonesian peatland policy at Yale, I experienced a consistent feeling of inferiority and rejection by Western Indonesia scholars because the knowledge I generated was only valued based on how it fit into their priorities. I learned that, for my perspectives to be respected and understood, I needed to first understand the perspectives of my Western classmates and professors and learn to speak on Yale’s terms. Second, I recognized that Yale, embedded so deeply in its Western-centrism, will likely never understand the complexity of my perspectives. This led to my third lesson from Yale: my experience and knowledge, and the experiences of all minorities, matter, even when those perspectives feel insignificant because of all the extra effort to make people understand. It took a long time for me to learn how to tell my own story and be heard. Hopefully, as more people like me sit at the academic table, it won’t take so long for those who come next because their experiences will be recognized from the start.
 Particularly among environmental anthropologists, Indonesia is infamous for environmental conflicts: moneyed interests destroying tropical forest, state-sponsored deregulation of environmental protection, massive ocean plastic pollution, and, of course, endangered orangutans.
 By ‘Western-centric’, I mean the prioritization of European and North American perspectives on all issues; in this case, particularly the deference to European and North American research about Indonesia over the knowledge of Indonesians themselves.
 More information at my CIFOR profile: https://www.cifor.org/feature/usaid-cifor-fellowship/brurce-muhammad-mecca/ or Tropical Resources Institute profile: https://tri.yale.edu/people/brurce-mecca
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