Will Indonesia—and its turtles— thrive despite its government?by Elizabeth Pisani / May 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Halmahera, part of the Maluku Islands, Indonesia
Weda Bay is not a place you’ve ever heard of, so don’t pretend.
It was not a place I’d ever heard of until a couple of months ago, either, and I’ve been trailing around the outer reaches of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands on and off for over 20 years. I tripped into Weda at the start of this year, attracted by tales of phenomenal economic growth, galloping corruption and parties, lots of parties. In the seven years since I last lived in Indonesia full-time, the country has gone through a frenzy of democratisation.
Travelling around this enormous nation, you see the clash between this new world and the old traditions, such as whale-hunting, eating the eggs of now-endangered turtles, or the funeral ritual of taking tea alongside the body of the deceased. Though Indonesia’s government keeps a low profile, the economy is booming, partly thanks to its abundant resources—a point not lost on China. As the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, it could prove a model for others, if democracy can tame the more radical strains of Islam here. But government is splintering and shattering into local fragments, in a way that makes future success hard to take for granted.
This summer has seen a bit of hand-wringing because growth in the first quarter of 2012 slowed to 6.3 per cent—but the country is still growing nearly eight times faster than Britain. So what is the Indonesian government doing right? Actually, very little. But Indonesia continues to thrive, despite its leaders; the question is whether it can keep it up.
Weda Bay is in Halmahera, a misshapen octopus of an island top and right in the Indonesian chain that sprawls from just east of Malaysia to just north of Australia. It’s a neglected child of the Moluccas, the spice islands whose cloves and nutmegs first drew European adventurers to this part of the world in the 16th century. When I was last in Halmahera in 1989, there were no proper roads, no public transport. I hitched a ride through the jungle in an open-top army jeep (perhaps a relic of General Douglas MacArthur’s 1944 campaign to wrest the Pacific back from Japanese control). There was no electricity anywhere: fireflies twinkled in the jungle like Christmas fairy lights.