Lately, Prof Dr Ir Siti Nurbaya (Indonesia’s Minister of Environment & Forestry) is being heavily criticised for her Ministry’s decision to halt cooperation with five leading scientists in orangutan conservation. Various national and international organisations continue to fuel the criticism, with some even accusing Siti Nurbaya of being anti-science. But, is she?
‘these parties tend to deliberately build narratives as it pleases them in order to achieve the goals of their organizations, regardless of whether the evidence they mention matches the facts on the ground‘Siti Nurbaya, Minister of Environment & Forestry (Anon 2022a)
The five scientists’ challenged Siti Nurbaya’s statement on the occasion of International Orangutan Day 2022 (Anon 2022a), criticising the reference to growing orangutan populations (Meijaard et al 2022). One journalist even quotes her as claiming all orangutan species will “grow and thrive” (Rochmyaningsih 2022).
However, these narratives have a fatal flaw that is being largely ignored: Siti Nurbaya’s statement on the occasion of International Orangutan Day 2022 did not refer to either growing or thriving orangutan populations!
‘The statement … made no reference to data of the orangutan population nationally or globally.‘Nunu Anugrah, Spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment & Forestry (Anugrah 2022)
The key publications (Anon 2022a-b, Anugrah 2022 and Meijaard et al 2022) indicate the reference was included in the initial publication (Anon 2022a) to, albeit poorly, link to last year’s celebratory statement on Orangutan Day (Anon 2021). The absence of quotation marks in the intro and the discrepancy between the intro and the later quotes are clear signs that this paragraph is not part of the Minister’s statement. The narratives that it was part of the statement thus are … surprising; scientists in particular tend to be more skeptical towards unverified claims.
‘I have ignored unproductive and unconstructive campaign approaches like these for years.‘Siti Nurbaya, Minister of Environment & Forestry (Anon 2022a)
Thus, it’s the five scientists – not Siti Nurbaya – that should be criticised! After Siti Nurbaya’s clear rejection of narratives built to pursue organisational goals, it’s neither productive nor constructive to counter with another, false narrative. Did the five scientists expect this ‘hold my beer’ approach, whether by design or (more likely) by mistake, to be ignored as well? And, will it result in anything beyond a very visible dent in international orangutan research?
This brings me to the crux of this post: trust but verify. A journalistic blog rarely is an accurate record of any statement! The many click-bait links that fail to cover the linked information should turn anyone in a staunch skeptic of such blogs. Hence, additional sources are needed to verify their accuracy. Similarly, a celebratory statement on any occasion rarely is an accurate record of the underlying science! Their purpose is not based on scientific merit but communicate an overall message, in this case a message of (justified) hope. Hence, alternative sources are needed to verify their accuracy.
‘an effective population of both Sumatran and Bornean orangutans inhabiting fairly substantial parts of Indonesian palm oil and forestry concessions is viable‘Siti Nurbaya, Minister of Environment & Forestry (Anon 2022a)
Thus, does Siti Nurbaya’s reaction to such false narratives warrant the consideration – let alone the accusation – that she is anti-science? Absolutely not! Can she be accused of a knee-jerk reaction? Not even that. From a diplomatic perspective, a response to the five scientists was inevitable, with the Ministry of Environment & Forestry halting cooperation being the mildest of the few available responses. In stark contrast, that dent the five scientists left in international orangutan research will remain visible for a long time.
Anonymous 2021 Minister: Orangutans are part of “Resilient Indonesia, Growing Indonesia”, foresthints.news
Anonymous 2022a World Orangutan Day: Indonesia leading the way in orangutan protection, foresthints.news
Anonymous 2022b Opinion piece “Orangutan conservation needs agreement on data and trends” raises concerns, foresthints.news
Anugrah, N 2022 Forestry Ministry responds, thejakartapost.com
Greenbury, A 2022 How to be, allegedly, blacklisted: Show that #orangutan population is declining, twitter.com
Meijaard, E, J Sherman, M Ancrenaz, H Kühl and S Wich 2022 Orangutan conservation needs agreement on data and trends, thejakartapost.com
Rochmyaningsih, D 2022 Indonesia bans five foreign scientists, shelves conservation data, science.org