URI environmental initiatives in Indonesia provide faculty expertise, student exchanges, sustainability research

When John Kirby was hired as dean of the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences in 2010, he made it clear that he wanted to establish long-term relationships with several developing nations around the world where the college could lend its expertise.

The first one he chose was Indonesia, and the relationship has spawned a dual degree program, faculty-led classes abroad, and numerous research projects to support the country’s fishery industries and sustainable development. These activities build on more than 40 years of previous work in the country by faculty of the College and the URI Coastal Resources Center.

“I was looking for a place we could go where we had access to a population we could really work with, where we could create opportunities, and where there wasn’t already a lot of Western presence,” Kirby said. “Indonesia is a place where we can develop some important programs.”

Mount Ijen crater lake in East Java, Indonesia

Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world, and it has one of the world’s largest economies. Its 18,000 islands straddle the equator and span 3,000 miles.

With the help of Nancy Stricklin, URI assistant to the provost for global strategies, and two URI alumni – Brook Ross, founder of Indonesia Education Partnerships, and Gellwynn Jusuf, former secretary-general of the Indonesia Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries – Kirby, URI President David M. Dooley, and other URI faculty and administrators have traveled to Indonesia several times since 2013 to meet with governmental officials and university leaders.

As a result, 25 Ministry staff members have enrolled at URI in the last four years to earn graduate degrees in marine affairs, environmental management, ocean engineering and natural resources science. More are expected to enroll in the coming years to improve their skills in managing coral reefs, fisheries, aquaculture and sustainable development.

Productive partnerships have also been developed with a dozen universities in Indonesia. At one of them, Bogor Agricultural University, a dual degree program has been formalized in which graduate students will complete half of their requirements at URI and half at Bogor.

“Our goal is to keep Indonesian students coming here to Kingston,” Kirby said, “but we also want to send our students there. I’d love to have American students go there to become immersed in that culture.”

URI undergraduate students can already enroll in two-week courses in Indonesia during its J Term each January. For the fifth year in a row, a dozen students will travel to Bali in January to study Indonesian culture, biodiversity and geology in a course called Balinese Temples, Komodo Dragons and Liquid Hot Magma. Another class will study health care in the island nation.

While these student exchange opportunities are providing tremendous learning experiences for URI and Indonesian students, it may be URI’s faculty who are having the greatest immediate impact.

More than a dozen faculty from URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences have spent time in Indonesia in recent years, sharing their expertise in a wide variety of settings. Many have led workshops or spoken at symposiums to provide guidance and insights to Indonesian faculty and students. Others have taught scientific writing workshops or summer school classes to graduate students as part of an Indonesian plan to expose its students to scientific concepts in English.

Thomas Boving, a URI professor of hydrology, is collaborating with two Indonesian universities to promote unique technologies aimed at cleaning up local waterways and encouraging the recycling of garbage. He is advising Indonesian students on the construction of artificial “floating wetlands” that are planted with native vegetation to absorb nutrients, filter out particulates, and attract contaminants.

“The mayor of Banjarmasin wants the city to become greener, and part of his strategy is to address uncontrolled sewage using our floating wetlands in the main channel through town,” Boving said. “He has offered us a mile-long stretch of the canal to show how it works.”

Boving is also demonstrating an inexpensive riverbank filtration system that will clean polluted drinking water in rural communities.

Dr. Amelia Moore, Marine Affairs PhD student Jessica Vandenberg, and social science undergraduates from Hasanuddin University in Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia

Amelia Moore, assistant professor of marine affairs, studies sustainability on small island communities, and she recently began a project to monitor the impacts of a coral reef restoration effort sponsored by the Mars candy company on an island community in the Spermonde archipelago.

“The tendency is to think that small island communities are homogenous and simple, and they are anything but,” said Moore, who is working with several other researchers at URI and at Indonesia’s Hasanuddin University. “So we’re trying to understand how external interventions like this can get entangled in community dynamics and relationships. Interventions are never as simple as you think they’re going to be, and they have consequences you can’t necessarily predict.”…[Read more]