One man's crusade to stop toxic sludge dumping in Indonesia

Prigi Arisandi has devoted years to calling out Indonesian factories for toxic discharge into waterways. Today, he was awarded the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize.

By , Correspondent

Fish net in hand, Prigi Arisandi kicks off his sandals and wades into a shallow stream. Behind him a gaggle of uniformed high school students bend to their task: identifying the plants and bugs scooped from the waterway. Water samples are decanted into ice-cube trays and the contents are matched with textbook drawings.

For Mr. Prigi, an environmental activist, these weekly classes are another way to tackle river pollution, which has afflicted vital waterways in Java, Indonesia’s most densely populated island. He wants to instill in his students the need to protect the biodiversity of the 13-mile Surabaya River where he once played as a child, before factories moved in and the waters ran black.

The stream is clear and healthy. The nearby fields are planted with sugar cane. But Prigi worries that factories and houses will soon replace the fields and pose a threat to the rivers. So he's teaching the kids to understand and cherish their environment.

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"More factories and houses will come here. I want [the children] to be prepared," he says.

Prigi’s efforts to check the dumping of toxic waste have become a personal crusade. “He never stops thinking about the river,” says Daru Setyorini, his wife and fellow activist, whom he met while studying biology at university.

In recognition of these efforts, Prigi is a recipient of the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize, announced Monday, April 11, in San Francisco. The award is worth $150,000 and is given to six worldwide recipients in various categories.

Together with Ms. Daru, with whom he has three children, Prigi runs Ecoton, an nongovernmental organization with a staff of nine people and an annual budget of around $57,000. The award represents a boost for its campaign against river pollution, which has led it to sue the provincial government in 2007 for failing to enforce water-quality regulations. In a landmark ruling, the court ordered the government to set maximum limits for toxic discharges by factories into the Surabaya River.

The government now monitors the discharges using river boat patrols. And the water quality has improved, according to official data. But Prigi says the government should do more.

Prigi plans to use part of his prize money to build a research and ecotourism site near the river’s pristine source, where it is known as the Brantas River. He worries that unchecked upstream development could pollute the Brantas and other waterways. His plan is to work with local villages to develop eco-friendly alternatives that generate income.

“We are rich in biodiversity, but we don’t know it,” he says.

Firsthand impact of rapid industrialization

Growing up in Gresik, outside the port city of Surabaya, Prigi saw firsthand the impact of rapid industrialization. As a student he led protests against factories that dumped untreated waste into the river. His passion for environmental causes and field research left little time for study, but with Daru's help he graduated and plunged into full-time activism.

He began running river tours for young people and encouraging schools to add environmental programs. Some looked askance at the bespectacled activist with his wildlife posters. “They thought I was a salesman. I said, no, I want to give this to you,” he laughs.

At the same time, Prigi tried to goad local authorities into tackling water pollution. After the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998, Indonesia’s media found its voice and Prigi became adept at courting publicity for his causes. But effluents from factories and houses continued to flow into the Surabaya River, which provides drinking water for the city’s 3 million residents.

“It was black, like coffee,” says Daru.

In October 2007, it got worse. Prigi got reports of dead fish floating in the river and set off to find the cause. His investigation led him to a state-owned sugar factory that had tried to cover up a leak in its treatment plant. After Prigi went to the local media with his findings, the factory admitted its error and agreed to upgrade its plant, a legacy of Dutch colonial rule.

Koesriharto, a factory official, says the new equipment has cut the amount of effluent discharged into the river. “We want to improve our waste-water treatment with new technology,” he says.

Indonesia passed a new environmental law in 2009 that stiffens penalties for polluters, including criminal charges for company owners. But Prigi knows that some factory bosses will shrug off the risk of prosecution. That’s why he keeps putting pressure on provincial authorities to monitor water quality and keep tabs on industrial zones.

Ongoing efforts

Factories aren't the only culprits. On a recent overcast morning, Prigi paddles his rubber boat past a swath of houses that back onto the river. Garbage floats past: plastic bags, bottles, tree branches, flip-flops, and lighters. Pipes protrude from brick outhouses, flushing waste directly into the river. Yet women still bend to wash clothes in the murky water.

After years of castigating factories for their toxic discharge, Prigi has begun to focus on the problem posed by household waste. Thousands of houses line the riverbank and there is little awareness of the health risks. “People don’t care about the river. They don’t know that the river [supplies] our drinking water,” he says.

As he scans the riverbanks, Daru scoops up water samples to test on her hand-held equipment. She shows the results to Prigi, who suspects that an upstream sluice gate has been opened, sending a cascade of waste into the river. He pulls out his mobile phone and calls the river regulatory agency, ready to do battle again.

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