Indonesian Activist Targets Community Waste

Yuyun IsmawatiSix relatively unknown grassroots activists from around the globe receive a moment in the spotlight when the Goldman Environmental Prize announces its list of annual recipients. The prize, now in its 20th year, is considered the Nobel Prize for the environment. Past recipients include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, former Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva, and Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed seven months after his recognition.

The Worldwatch Institute is honoring this year's prize winners with a series of profiles based on personal interviews. Click here for additional profiles.


The islands of Indonesia are overrun with trash. Faced with growing urban populations and the increasing use of plastic bottles, plastic bags, and aluminum cans, local residents and municipal services struggle to keep up with the mounting waste.

In the country's largest city, Jakarta, authorities have been known to dump untreated garbage near fish farms, killing thousands of fish in ponds that local people depend upon for their livelihood. In Bandung, West Java, a 70-meter-high open garbage dump collapsed in 2005, killing 147 residents living in a settlement nearby.

Government-run services collect less than half of Indonesia's solid waste, and poor communities are most often ignored. "If we wait for the government to provide everything-all the sanitation services-the government will wait for decades," said Yuyun Ismawati, director of the Indonesian nongovernmental organization BaliFokus.

Ismawati, who was recently honored with the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize for islands and island nations, works with poor communities to develop collective waste management services. Her five-person team has coordinated 200 community organizations across six Indonesian provinces since 2003. She says that more than 600 communities have applied for her help in gaining local government support.

"We facilitate the process and ensure the money is transferred by the government," Ismawati said. "We provide them with the necessary training and show them informed choices of what's the most usable system in their neighborhoods."

Those choices have included community-run composting and recycling efforts. Ismawati has also helped develop solid-waste sanitation systems that rely on biological processes and gravity rather than electricity or chemicals. Ismawati estimates that BaliFokus projects have reduced household waste in the participating villages by 50 percent.

Among the success stories is the city of Denpasar, the capital of Bali province. Ismawati said the city of 492,000 has been transformed from hosting one of Indonesia's foulest-smelling slums into one of the most visited neighborhoods on the island. In 2005, BaliFokus began teaching residents how to make compost from their organic waste and to develop biogas digesters. Several small-scale entrepreneurs have since settled there, she said.

Ismawati, 44, was raised in a military family that traveled throughout eastern Indonesia during her childhood, exposing her to the violence that often erupted among the islands' various ethnic groups. Despite her father's objections, Ismawati became involved with the democracy movement while attending Institute Teknologi Bandung, the country's premier technology university. "This critical period inspired me to make a change," she said.

Trained as an environmental engineer, Ismawati worked with private consultants in Bandung until the early 1990s, when economic recession led her to Bali in search of employment on the country's main tourism island.

Ismawati joined an English-language newspaper to gain a better understanding of the island. She expected to find internationally accepted sanitation standards, but instead found that many residents were caught between traditional and modern ways of life. Ceremonies frequently would dispose of used goods into rivers to enable the articles to "purify" in the sea. But in many places, plastic has replaced traditional palm leaves for storing and serving food, and the discarded trash has left waterways polluted.

Ismawati developed her community-oriented approach to waste management as a volunteer with the Wisnu Foundation, an environmental organization. After rising to become the group's executive director, she left in 2000 to found BaliFokus.

In addition to working with local communities, Ismawati has helped various tourism resorts reduce waste. Her "green tourism" model has been incorporated in the Bali towns of Ubud and Candi Dasa, as well as in Hua Hin, Thailand.

As a student, Ismawati was reticent to work in the sanitation industry. She wanted to be a doctor. "After I graduated, I realized that my profession is also a doctor," she said. "I cure people. Not directly for their diseases, but through improving their environment."  

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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