"NATURE RESERVATION IS FIGHTING A LOSING BATTLE"
Some observations about Indonesian Forests and Nature reservation.
The Indonesion journalist, Yazir Marzuki, once wrote about Kostermans: "Where many Dutch people have always lived at the periphery of the Indonesian social society, Kostermans, at the contrary, has lived in, and with it."
Meeting Kostermans that evening, I was not sure what Yazir Marzuki really meant. The very first thing professor Kostermans said to me, "Indonesia is the most beautiful country in the world, the only problem is, it has been populated with the wrong people. The squandering of their newly-found wealth and environment, in particular the tropical rainforests, is incomprehensible."
As a world famous botanist who has lectured all over the world, even in Russia, he is a person who knows what he is talking about. In the 40 years of his connection with the Bogor Herbarium, he has crossed and explored every tropical forest in Indonesia.
Together with his Indonesian colleagues and staff he is responsible for the collection of over two million different tropical plants and trees, found in the five thousand various forests spread out over 3000 islands of the Indonesian Archipelago. Hundreds of these plants and trees have been discovered by Kostermans and are named after him.
Kostermans was born in 1906 in Purworedjo, Java. He studied physiology in Utrecht, Holland and taught chemistry for a few years. Just before the Japanese overran Indonesia, he went back to Java. Like all other Dutch people he became a prisoner of war and was sent to Thailand to work on the infamous Burma railroad. Of the 22,000 allied prisoners who slaved on that railroad, only a handful, about 2000, saw the end of World War II. Kostermans was one of them, overcoming a deadly infection of gangrene by using herbs found in the forest along the railroad. That inspired him to identify plants with medicinal properties wherever he could find them. His love for nature was born.
After recuperation for two years in Holland, he went back to Indonesia in 1947 to be a lecturer at the university in Bogor. Soon he became involved in the Bogor Herbarium and set his goal to collect all plant species of the Indonesian tropical rainforests.
When in the fifties, he was placed in a position to choose to either remain Dutch and leave the country, or to become a naturalized Indonesian citizen and keep working in the Herbarium, he chose the latter.
A difficult time indeed for Kostermans. There was never enough money for the Herbarium. The Dutch staff had left by now and to overcome this problem, Kosterman adopted many young boys from poor families to make them assistants at the Herbarium. Over the years he adopted more than 80 children, of which 38 managed to further their study and acquire university degrees. Two of his "children" became professors in America and Brazil. The Herbarium was of no importance to the government. To find the money to keep the Herbarium going and to pay for the study of his "children", Kostermans went lecturing in Leiden, Holland. Two months of lecturing overseas brought in enough money to run things in Bogor for a year.
The unmeasurable value of the neatly documented and stored two million plant species is not fully understood by the Indonesian authorities. The National Institute for Science (LIPPI), under which the Herbarium falls, is giving the institute the lowest possible priority.
Kostermans added, "Sometimes I can not understand the ignorance of the people of this country. When I go into the rainforests in Kalimantan (Borneo) or Irian Jaya, the local people think I am mad. The forest is for food, they say, not to collect species, that's just a waste of time. But they are not only Dayaks or Papuans who think that way. The same attitude is found at all levels of the Indonesian society, up to the Head of the Botanical Gardens in Bogor. Not so long ago this Kepala (Head) ordered to cut down an important section of the Gardens to make room for a coconut nursery. The coconut trees were then being sold to the public to make some money". Kostermans continued, "Only 20 percent of the original invaluable plants and trees are now left. It would be more appropriate to delete the adjective "Botanical" from the Gardens. The Gardens are now one big picnic spot for thousands of people where they leave their paper and plastic rubbish every Sunday".
Kostermans is even more pessimistic about saving the tropical rainforests in Kalimanten and Irian Jaya. "It will be only a matter of time and there will be only small pockets left of rainforest in the whole of Indonesia".
Kostermans is well recognized and highly revered in Indonesia and overseas. Last year, Kostermans received one of the highest Royal Honours from the Dutch government in recognition of his work.
DATE: March 1994
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