Floodwaters creeping through the village year in and year out and the stinging smell of rice fields burning after the growing season in the small town of Banjar in West Java are some of the childhood memories of Jatna Supriatna.
As the Regional Vice President of CI-Indonesia, Supriatna recalls his yearning to understand the events that often plagued his village and to explore the true depth of nature. This desire led him on a lifetime journey of exploration, science and the world of conservation.
As an adolescent, Supriatna set out to explore the lush Indonesian forest and mountains by becoming a member of an ecological mountain climbing group in high school. His family encouraged him to follow his father’s footsteps in a career in the Indonesian military – or to a least attend medical school – but in his heart Supriatna knew that he had only one real passion: he wanted to be a scientist.
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By studying biology, Supriatna knew that he could find real solutions to the problems that face his country; a first step to conservation. He earned a doctorate in primatology from the University of New Mexico and did post-doctoral studies at New York’s Columbia University.
He eventually became the Conservation Biology Graduate Program coordinator at the University of Indonesia at Jakarta, and there developed relationships with people from various non-governmental organizations.
He was courted for many years by various conservation groups. After getting to know CI President Russell A. Mittermeier over the years, Supriatna recognized a good “fit” and joined CI in 2004.
The Conservation “Sandwich”
Supriatna compares conservation to the fillings of a sandwich. Some layers are soft like the bread, fragile like a ripe tomato, satisfying like the taste of fresh cheese, and others are simply like a newly cut-onion – not at all enjoyable to slice into.
Supriatna’s “onion layer” is the competing logging companies in Indonesia, where money and persuasion fight for the locals’ attention. He uses science and education to combat the overpowering influence the logging companies have on conservation efforts among local communities and governments.
In North Sumatra, where loggers were planning to clear heavily forested areas, Supriatna demonstrated to the local government that the area was an important orangutan habitat. Supriatna’s efforts convinced the government to protect the area. It was one victory in many fights against the logging companies.
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“Sometimes you are convinced that you are preaching to others to understand [conservation] and the people who understand it, just don’t care,” Supriatna says.
Yet he isn’t discouraged. If he wins support he’ll be elated, but if not, he’ll do it anyway – it’s in his blood. That determination is what gets Supriatna out of bed every morning, traveling sometimes from one end of Indonesia to the other on seven-hour flights.
His conservation efforts often take five years or more to build consensus before results can be seen. Supriatna explains he must fight the perception that conservation is for the rich, “so that they can see some trees.”
The most important message he attempts to convey to stakeholders is that conservation is not just about protection, it’s also about the benefits: preserving the natural assets that we derive from healthy ecosystems.
“I always believe that the people who oppose conservation basically don’t understand,” he says, “and for that we have to teach many angles of conservation – not just protection.”
Through his efforts, Indonesia has created four new national parks and marine protected areas. His most inspiring moment was watching the President of Indonesia declare these parks – an unprecedented act in his country.
For this work and more, Supriatna is the 2008 recipient of the prestigious Habibie award for his achievement in helping conservation science in Indonesia.
Supriatna tries to balance hard work with his personal life. His wife and three children are always in his thoughts and often with him, as they travel together to Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park, close to Jakarta.
There they camp and enjoy natural surroundings filled with monkeys and birds. When he is not communing with nature, Supriatna indulges a tennis “addiction,” carrying his racket with him around town whenever possible.
Yet he gladly trades his racket for camera and binoculars as he heads out to into the field joining his staff, who he proudly calls his “conservation warriors.”
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