News - April 16, 2020

‘Always a lovely smile’


Who? Thomas Westhoff (20), BSc International Land and Water Management
What? Internship at the World Resources Institute (WRI)
Where? Java and Sumatra (Indonesia)

‘Indonesia is plagued by annually recurring peatland fires, a problem I’ve been following for years. So when I got the chance to do a six-month study in Indonesia, I got in touch with as many of the organizations involved as possible. And with success, so I could do an internship at the World Resources Institute (WRI), which tries to document restoration work and monitor the fires online, so as to gain a fuller understanding of the peatland fires. 

A metropolis
My department at WRI was located in the business hub of Jakarta, in one of the many office tower blocks. To my great surprise, it turned out to be on the top floor with a fantastic view over the city. In this great metropolis, the smartphone has become a basic essential, mainly due to Gojek. That is an app with which you can do practically anything in a single click: deliver food, order a taxi, do online banking, and chat.

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The countryside

Life in the city was totally different to life in the field. I flew over to South Sumatra twice, and collected my data in the Indonesian countryside there. During the fieldwork we got up early and I rode pillion on a scooter, going into the plantations or the forest with a group of local colleagues. I walked to the designated locations to measure groundwater levels and take soil samples, wading through canals and balancing on tree trunks.

Hard reality

During my time in Indonesia, new peatland fires occurred, making it too dangerous to go into the field in September. I could finally set off in October, but once I was in the field, I experienced for myself how bad the visibility can get. One of the research locations had been changed into a lunar landscape by the fires. The terrible sights I saw brought the importance of this work home to me once again.

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The lovely smiles in Indonesia are what has stayed with me. Everywhere I went, people smiled and that always made me feel welcome. During my fieldwork on South Sumatra, I went with a colleague to a village five hours’ drive from a big city. We had the honour of staying with the mayor, and were welcomed in the village like guests of honour. In the evening, the whole village came to visit us, and I was served all sorts of things and asked all sorts of questions. On the last evening, the mayor wanted a photo taken with me, to frame and hang on the wall.’