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Indonesia remembers Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, rare policymaker who stood for nature

Mongabay - December 23, 2023

Junaidi Hanafiah, Richardo Hariandja, Jakarta – Kuntoro Mangkusubroto was a rare breed of Indonesian bureaucrat: a visionary policy leader with a love for nature, someone who for decades built bridges between environmentalists and Indigenous rights activists, on one hand, and a development-focused government on the other. Kuntoro died at a hospital in Jakarta on Dec. 17 at the age of 76.

What he leaves behind is a legacy of constant dedication and a straight-shooting approach, say those in civil society and government who knew him and worked with him.

Born March 14, 1947, Kuntoro studied industrial engineering in university, gaining a master's degree at Stanford. In Indonesia, he worked in the mining sector for several years before moving into the public sector, taking on posts with increasingly greater responsibility. This culminated in his appointment as head of the Aceh Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR) following the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and later as head of the Presidential Working Unit for Development Monitoring and Control (UKP4) in 2009, both under the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

His leadership style emerged during the recovery efforts in Aceh province, the area worst hit by the tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people across several countries. Taking into account the ongoing armed separatist conflict being waged in Aceh at the time, Kuntoro made it a point to hold discussions with the leaders of the insurgent Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to ensure the uninterrupted progress of reconstruction.

Heru Prasetyo, who also worked in the BRR, said Kuntoro exhibited high integrity in assembling a non-political team that was also critical of the government, noting that for Kuntoro, the most important thing was to work toward a clear outcome.

Heru, who later also served as Kuntoro's deputy at the UKP4, noted Kuntoro's wide-ranging expertise and attention. He said Kuntoro had three key characteristics that set him apart from other state officials: integrity, compassion, and decision-making. He described Kuntoro as a leader, guide, mentor and friend, emphasizing the alignment of principles between them.

"When we were in Aceh, we made a movement not to allow housing construction in Aceh to use wood that was illegally sourced," Heru said.

Kuntoro's impact reached beyond Indonesia. He gained global recognition for his work in the Aceh recovery efforts and his commitment to environmental sustainability. The BRR's success also earned Kuntoro the trust of managing climate funds from Norway for Indonesia. It was Kuntoro who insisted that the $1 billion fund not be absorbed into the state budget, to ensure it would be used only for the purposes it was intended for, according to Heru.

Advocating for Indigenous and environmental rights

Kuntoro's lifelong dedication to environmental causes goes back to his early years as a member of Wanadri, a nature club for youths with branches all across Indonesia. Later on, as minister of mines and energy, he made it a point to balance economic interests with nature protection, demonstrating a commitment beyond rhetoric. For instance, as minister, Kuntoro urged his staff to audit forestry practices to prevent forest fires.

Badrul Irfan, an environmental activist and secretary of the HaKA Foundation that works on conservation in Aceh, highlighted Kuntoro's support for environmental conservation during his tenure at the BRR. "He was very supportive of the work of environmental activists," he said, noting Kuntoro's emphasis on treating the environment just as highly as infrastructure development.

Others remembered Kuntoro's openness and empathy toward diverse perspectives. Bustar Maitar, the CEO of EcoNusa Foundation and previously a campaign leader at Greenpeace Indonesia, said Kuntoro took an egalitarian approach and was willing to engage in discussions, even during protests.

"I still remember when Greenpeace would stage its actions," he said. "I was the campaign leader at that time and he invited me to have a chat."

Abdon Nababan, the head of Indonesia's largest Indigenous alliance, AMAN, during the time Kuntoro was head of the UKP4, said Kuntoro was very skilled at listening and building empathy for issues raised by various stakeholders, including civil society. Abdon said Kuntoro's educational background in technology aligned well with a strong social spirit.

Kuntoro's decisions, according to Abdon, often integrated social science, as seen in his push for the "One Map" policy during the Yudhoyono administration. The initiative aimed to unify the maps for various land uses – mining, plantations, logging – which were scattered across different government agencies. Kuntoro advocated for the inclusion of customary territories in the map, showcasing his openness to ideas that were considered antidevelopment by some.

"He had the ability to communicate across interests, across disciplines, and across sciences," Abdon said.

Abdon highlighted other ways that Kuntoro continued to support Indigenous interests, noting his efforts to include Indigenous territories in the One Map policy and his advocacy for Indigenous rights at international platforms.

Kuntoro's historic receipt of a map of Indigenous territories from the Geospatial Information Agency marked a milestone in Indonesia's recognition of Indigenous lands. He also played the lead role in ensuring the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in Indonesia's climate negotiations and REDD+ implementation.

"Also in various climate negotiations, he raised Indigenous peoples' issues and ensured that they were a concern in the negotiations," said Rukka Sombolinggi, the current head of AMAN.

It was thanks to this level of support that AMAN was appointed among the Indonesian delegations to international negotiations, Rukka added. Domestically, Kuntoro was also the one who ensured that Indigenous peoples were one of the safeguards in REDD+ implementation, she said.

This siding with the Indigenous cause, Rukka said, likely traces back to Kuntoro's experience from a young age of direct contact and interaction with the Indigenous Orang Rimba people of southern Sumatra. It was a bond that would last the rest of his life, Rukka said.

Longgena Ginting, the Greenpeace Indonesia director from 2013-2016, recalled collaborating with Kuntoro on forest and peatland issues. He first met Kuntoro in 2013 at the UKP4 office, and despite the latter's high-ranking position, Longgena was struck by his warmth and friendliness. "Even though we had just met, I felt like I had known him for a long time because of his friendliness in welcoming us," he said.

During their meeting, Kuntoro demonstrated his understanding of both policy and implementation, particularly in Indonesia's forest and environmental policy reform. His involvement as the head of the REDD+ Institutional Preparation Task Force earned him praise as a reliable conceptor and expert implementor, Longgena said.

A practical leader with lasting impact

Avi Mahaningtyas, a former member of Kuntoro's team at the UKP4, expressed deep sadness at his death, describing him as a father figure, mentor, super leader, discussion partner, teacher, and even a housemate.

Avi highlighted Kuntoro's valuable lesson about adaptability in a constantly changing world. According to Avi, Kuntoro emphasized the importance of keeping an open mind to new information, technology, and understanding the evolving meaning of resilience. Kuntoro's approach, Avi said, recognized the dynamic nature of global and national structures and the need for continuous adaptation.

In managing the UKP4 team, Kuntoro employed a strategic approach by involving numerous individuals and external parties to reinforce the core team. Avi said this was a strategic decision to enhance efficiency and effectiveness amid limited resources. "Involving people and parties with strategic networks and resources helps streamline and make the team's resources more effective under the state budget," he said.

Despite the diverse interests and goals of those involved, Avi acknowledged Kuntoro's expertise in finding common ground for shared objectives. Kuntoro's ability to bring together individuals and parties with differing perspectives for a common, positive goal is recognized as a hallmark of his leadership style, he said.

Avi also shed light on Kuntoro's special stance regarding the well-being and survival of Indigenous tribes and traditional communities closely tied to nature. Avi highlighted an example of Kuntoro's influence in the moratorium on issuing permits to clear primary forest and peatland, announced jointly by the Indonesian and Norwegian governments in 2011.

According to Avi, one key consideration during the formulation of the moratorium policy was the tenure position of Indigenous communities and forest and peatland management rights holders. Avi said that while the legal framework existed, having a state official formally address these considerations opened a path for people to voice their interests more actively.

Reflecting on their time working together, Nirarta Samadhi, a former deputy at the UKP4 and now the Indonesia country director of the World Resources Institute, highlighted Kuntoro's invaluable lessons in addressing challenges with innovative, out-of-the-box solutions. Nirarta recalled Kuntoro's succinct directive – "We need one map" – in response to forest management issues under the REDD+ framework initiated by the Norwegian and Indonesian governments.

This directive, according to Nirarta, evolved into the comprehensive One Map policy, showcasing Kuntoro's ability to inspire practical solutions from concise ideas.

Mas Achmad Santosa, another former UKP4 deputy and now CEO of the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative (IOJI), commended Kuntoro's decision-making and managerial skills. He emphasized Kuntoro's charisma, prompting dedication from colleagues who willingly invested extra time to achieve shared goals.

He also noted Kuntoro's commitment to the environmental sector, strengthening collaborative efforts, including on legal matters and enforcing the law. Throughout it all, he said, Kuntoro remained antidiscriminatory, urging action against powerful entities when violations occurred.

As Indonesia reflects on Kuntoro Mangkusubroto's legacy, these perspectives highlight his practical leadership style, commitment to environmental causes, and enduring impact on those who had the privilege of working alongside him.

– Translated by Basten Gokkon

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2023/12/kuntoro-mangkusubroto-indonesia-environmentalist-indigenous-rights-obituary