For years the Government of East Java in Indonesia had ignored community concerns regarding its failure to enforce laws preventing illegal dumping of industrial wastes into the Surabaya River. The work of a small local environmental organization named ECOTON, led to a breakthrough in April 2008, when the Organization filed and won a lawsuit against the Governor of East Java.

The outcome of the lawsuit was the first of its kind in Indonesia. Never before had a court decision so overtly demanded a change in public policy, ordering a Provincial Governor to implement concrete measures to ensure environmental protection. Commenting on the court decision, Prigi Arisandi, Director of ECOTON, emphasized:

Our win in the dispute against the Provincial Governor of East Java belongs to the people of East Java, not to ECOTON. The court decision sets a precedent which will hopefully encourage other similar actions across Indonesia. Already, the Islamic Leader Board has begun developing rules forbidding people to dispose wastes directly into the Surabaya River.

The court decision provides that the Governor establish a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) – the maximum amount of a pollutant that the river can receive while still meeting water quality standards – and a system to monitor the TMDL. Both measures must be implemented by April 2009. Prigi has been disseminating the court’s ruling to local and national media to raise awareness in communities and increase pressure on local authorities and polluting industries. He noted without hesitation: “If the Governor does not respect his commitments, we will sue him again”.

The water of the Surabaya River, an important source of drinking and irrigation water for thousands of people, has turned chocolate-brown and has a reeking odor. Latest studies have revealed that the concentration of mercury in the river is 100 times the tolerable limit established by the World Health Organization (WHO). In recent years, there have been several episodes of mass fish deaths and a rise in cases of severe pollution-related illnesses in communities living along the river banks. Underlying the gravity of the situation, Prigi noted:

The Surabaya River currently receives 74 tons of hazardous waste every day. Ideally, the river can take only 30 tons of waste a day. So even if the present waste load is reduced by 50%, it still would not be enough.
A general low awareness of environmental issues and impacts, the lack of law enforcement and the presence of corruption in local authorities and legal institutions are the main factors contributing to the continued ecological degradation of the waterway. Polluting industries often find it more ‘cost-effective’ to pay bribes to evade investigations and sentences against them while continuing to dump hazardous wastes into the river. ECOTON has found that in more than 40 recent alleged cases of illegal dumping, only ten have been investigated. In addition, Prigi has evidence that most industries store wastes during the day and release them into the river at night via hidden pipes.

The inaction and indifference of the Governor prompted ECOTON to file the lawsuit against him. Prigi commented:

We now hope that the Governor will take action. We expect him to ensure that polluters be duly prosecuted and that he be more available for the municipal government, which strongly depends on him for its environmental protection responsibilities.

ECOTON has been monitoring the water quality of the Surabaya River for nearly a decade. Prigi has often received threats and been offered bribes from industries to dissuade him from reporting illegal dumping activities. Prigi strongly emphasizes:

I have always refused their ‘dirty money’. I ask them to donate that money to support our River Conservation Projects, which includes replanting riparian land, buying fish to release into the river and providing environmental education to the community, particularly children.

Though a small and relatively young organization, ECOTON has been having an extraordinary impact. Many local communities have adjusted traditional behaviors that negatively affected the waterway, resulting in the substantial reduction of residential pollution in the Surabaya River. A number of industries have also positively responded to ECOTON’s appeals and have significantly improved their waste disposal procedures.

The toughest challenge remaining is improving public policies and the recent successful lawsuit against the provincial Governor demonstrates that ECOTON is ready for this challenge.

Prigi was a participant in IDLO’s course on “Legal Aspects of Water Resource Management” held at the Organization’s Asia Pacific Regional Center in Sydney in October 2007. Speaking about the importance of the course in his work, Prigi stated:

IDLO’s training gave me the confidence and drive to undertake the legal action against the Governor. From IDLO’s training I understood how transparency and community participation are essential to achieve good governance, effective policies and sustainable integrated management of the Surabaya River. If ECOTON is progressively having an impact on the legal framework of East Java, this is partly attributable to the course I attended at IDLO.

Prigi is now recognized as one of the most respected advocates of environmental protection in Indonesia. When asked if he was satisfied with ECOTON’s achievements, he clarified: “We are just at the beginning of a long journey. But it has to be done for the sake of the people in East Java”.


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