Who? Gersom van der Elst, Master’s student of Environmental Sciences
What? Thesis at the Centre for International Forestry Research
Where? Bogor, Indonesia
‘Arranging a research visa for my thesis in Indonesia was quite a business. It took me three months. I had to upload a lot of documents and then I still had to Skype at four o’clock in the morning to defend my study in front of an Indonesian admission committee. I had already booked my flight and they gave me no indication whatsoever of what they thought of it, so it was still uncertain whether I was accepted. Luckily I was.
I studied how the Indonesian government seeks to create legitimacy for their sustainable palm oil. I conducted more than 40 interviews, most of them in the cities of Bogor and Jakarta, but I went to Sumatra and Borneo too. I had already learned a little bit of Indonesian, just for the daily shopping, but if the interviews were in Indonesian, I took an interpreter along with me. Fortunately, most of the interviews were in English.
Most of the interviews were with government officials but I also interviewed people from NGOs, companies, and representatives of farmers. I found out that the Indonesian government pursues a dual strategy to legitimize its policy. On the one hand, they adopt a very cooperative attitude and there is scope for participation by stakeholders, and on the other hand they set clear boundaries. Internationally, for instance, they behave in quite an authoritarian way. The palm oil is produced in Indonesia so other countries have very little say about it.
During my research I stayed in Bogor, a city with about one million inhabitants near Jakarta. Very few western tourists came there. When I was in the famous botanical gardens, a lot of Indonesians wanted to have their photo taken with me. But I still felt I was part of the city: I learned to find my way around and I lived among Indonesians. Thanks to the research visa I could come and go as much as I liked so I went to Malaysia, for example. Towards the end of my stay my girlfriend came over and we travelled east, via East Java and Bali to Lombok. It was beautiful and varied, with cities and nature. We usually slept in the homes of Indonesians who rented out rooms. That meant you had a lot of contact with them, which was very nice. I was sorry to have to go back home.’