A Sonny Keraf - Philosophizing about the environment

09/29/2010 00:00:00
Penulis/Peneliti : Setiono Sugiharto


Bidang Penelitian : Linguistik


Jurnal : The Jakarta Post


Volume : 2010


Tahun : Tue, 09/28/2010


Had the late former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid personally asked A. Sonny Keraf to join his Cabinet, Sonny would have never been become state minister for the environment.

“How could I possibly accept a ministerial post when I don’t know anything about environmental issues? I just wasn’t ready,” Sonny told The Jakarta Post recently.

A few days prior to the Cabinet announcing the line-up, Sonny had heard through his friend — who was one of Gus Dur’s close aides — that he had been put forward for the position of state minister for the environment. Sonny laughed it off, thinking it was a joke.

“I said to my friend: ‘you’re pulling my leg!’”

But the doctor in philosophy was indeed on Gus Dur’s list.

With encouragement and strong moral support from his pals — academics and members of politicians — Sonny finally accepted the post.

“A friend of mine convinced me to take the job, saying jokingly that environmental matters were also philosophical matters,” Sonny recalled. 

His appointment, however, wasn’t as smooth as one might imagine. Many of his friends questioned his ability to solve the country’s lingering environmental problems.

“I can fully understand their objections to my appointment as a minister, and if I were in their shoes, I would have done the same, but because the president trusted me to carry out state duty, I could no longer say no.”

During his tenure as the state minister for the environment, Sonny opposed an American company’s proposal to plant transgenic cotton seeds — a kind of genetically engineered cotton — in North Sulawesi. No environmental impact analysis (Amdal) was available at that time to ensure the safety of the cotton for the environment and human beings.

Sonny then demanded the owner of the Freeport company, James Moffet, to improve the company’s performance on its surrounding environment.
Wanting to have a tête-á-tête with Sonny, Moffet was disappointed when the former turned him down. 
“Moffet told the ambassador he wanted to meet with me. The ambassador came to my office, accusing me of being anti-American. I told him I wasn’t anti-American, but against the company’s insensitiveness toward the environment,” Sonny told The Jakarta Post.

Although Sonny served his term as state minister, he still voices his opinion by writing opinion articles and books. Sonny’s concern with overpopulation in Jakarta has led him to propose what he calls a moderate solution to overcome traffic and flooding in the capital, which often paralyzes economic activity.

“The government must implement a strong policy not to issue building permits for malls, hotels and universities. The government should give all the regions the opportunity to develop their potential as centers of economic activity,” the former minister says. However, he doesn’t expect much to happen as government officials often turn a deaf ear to experts’ advice.

“Environment experts have on many occasions expressed their concerns over the urgency of Amdal by submitting scientific data to the provincial and central government, yet no one ever bothered to follow up their recommendations. Political and economic considerations take precedence over environmental matters.” 

“With developers increasingly resorting to ‘smart’ lobbying, building permits can easily be obtained to build malls and other commercial sites in areas. Economic value, rather than the environmental impact analysis, has become the sole consideration for issuing a building permit.” 
Sonny thinks relocating the capital city to another region, such as Palangkaraya, is another viable option in the long term, adding president Sukarno had initially planned the capital city of Central Kalimantan, not Jakarta, would be the country’s capital.

In Sonny’s view, overhauling the urban system will only exacerbate problems in the capital, rather than provide solutions.

“The more we improve the capital, the more attractive it will be, and the more it will lure newcomers. This will further encourage more urbanization,” Sonny explained.

“Provincial government can’t blame or even bar the exodus of people coming to Jakarta after Idul Fitri. You can’t blame people for wanting to better their lives.”

Sonny added we need to look beyond the seemingly large costs of relocation of the capital city.

“Thinking about costs only is too simplistic. Just think about the long-term economic benefits we’ll reap if we can explore the rich potential in other regions.”

The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya University, Jakarta, and chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.