Making Indonesia Clean from Waste with Dr Lukas Fort, John Legge Prize Winner 2023

Making Indonesia Clean from Waste with Dr Lukas Fort, John Legge Prize Winner 2023

Congratulations on being awarded the 2023 John Legge Prize for the Best Thesis in Asian Studies in Australia in 2022! Can you tell us a bit about your thesis?

Indonesia faces a major waste problem; its residents are habituated to littering, landfills are overflowing, and seas and rivers are clogged with plastic. Indeed, Indonesia is ranked as the world’s second-biggest contributor to marine plastic pollution. My thesis is an anthropological study of waste management infrastructure and the circular economy-inspired waste management policy in Indonesia. My thesis highlights how cultural standards regarding the “clean” are concerned predominantly with social environments, resulting in the decoupling of ecological concerns from waste management efforts.

While there are some bright spots regarding the potential of community-based waste recycling spaces and NGO-led public education campaigns on reducing waste leakage, it appears that the policy falls short of its social and environmental objectives by prioritising performative and aesthetic elements over the substantive implementation. In this context, newly constructed infrastructure often falls into disuse due to its inadequate integration with enduring social and cultural practices, coupled with a lack of financial resources for operation and maintenance.

How did you first become interested in this topic?

My exploration of this topic was sparked by two strands of interest. First is my earlier curiosity about Indonesian development in the broader context of urban anthropology and the anthropology of infrastructure, alongside my experience of living in Indonesian cities. Here, I become interested in complex infrastructural projects, including the inequalities that they often give rise to for those working in the informal sector, be it informal public transport providers, street vendors or informal waste collectors. Despite their crucial roles, these workers have often been perceived by policymakers as hindrances to development or, at worst, as the (social) waste of society. For instance, the new waste management policy in Indonesia is quite transparent in its effort to reappropriate practices of salvage and reuse from the highly stigmatised informal waste workers, who have historically made recycling in Indonesia possible by retrieving recyclables from curbsides and landfills.

The second strand is concerned not with the metaphorical, but with actual waste, specifically with the concerns and fascinations that the omnipresence of plastics in our environment and food chain attracts. Having first visited Indonesia in 2002, I have borne witness, over the years, to the effects of the country’s struggle to address its escalating waste issue. I felt compelled to understand the factors that support and hinder the efforts of the Indonesian government to make the country’s waste management systems more sustainable and effective overall.

What was the most challenging aspect of doing this research? 

The most significant challenge was the general attitude of indifference towards waste among the populace. This indifference inherently rendered my research project of little interest to many of my participants. However, not all participants were disinterested in the project. Those concerned with the issue of waste would often ask me, “What can I do?” hoping for quick solutions to the problem. All I could do was remind them that there are no magic solutions and that efforts to transform plastic waste into something of value, as is often promoted by various cottage industry initiatives in the country, can lead to pollution. Nevertheless, seven months into my fieldwork, questions regarding the most effective waste management practices gradually started to be replaced by inquiries about Covid-19. Conducting research at the dawn of a new pandemic brought about a new set of challenges, ultimately leading to my departure from Indonesia.

Do you have a favourite anecdote, moment or insight from doing your research?

People in Sumbawa weren’t eager to discuss their waste with me. This reluctance was particularly evident in the village of seaweed farmers where I lived and from where I conducted my fieldwork. Life in this community is intricately linked to the tides, with individuals either in the sea tending to seaweed or at their yards drying and cleaning their crops. While women are accustomed to maintaining cleanliness in their houses and yards, they have little time to discuss domestic waste. Due to cultural norms, men are considered “above” engaging in such conversations. However, I soon realised that there was another type of waste that they were all willing to talk about. This refers to a type of moss, an epiphytic organism that grows around the seaweed and needs to be removed from the crop both in the sea and after the harvest. So, I joined farmers in their daily aquacultural activities. This experience provided me with a rich insight into how the handling of waste materials intersects with social hierarchies (i.e. gender), religious beliefs, and ethnic relations. The moral of this anecdote is to persevere and participate in activities that truly matter to the people you are studying with.

What is the contribution of your work? 

In the realm of Indonesian Studies, the thesis tackles the lack of social studies on waste management in Indonesia. In terms of international fields, the thesis offers insight into how the acknowledged conflicts between economic growth and environmental sustainability in the circular economy are played out and negotiated in the field of waste management. Moreover, as an anthropologist, my aim is to showcase that socio-cultural patterns and structures significantly shape waste practices, emphasising the importance for policymakers to factor this understanding in to future planning.

Is there a particular scholar or scholars whose work you admire or shaped your academic trajectory?

I consider myself fortunate to have had an exceptional network of colleagues and mentors during my PhD. I want to express my gratitude to my supervisors, Lyn Parker and Greg Acciaioli, whose profound knowledge of the peoples and cultures of Indonesia proved invaluable for both my fieldwork and the subsequent analysis of my data. I would also like to mention Glenn Savage, who joined my supervisory team upon my return from fieldwork. He introduced me to the theoretical concept of a “policy assemblage” and the work of Sebastián Ureta, whose monograph on the development of a new transport system in Santiago (Chile) was highly influential to my study. I then integrated this theoretical concept with Bourdieu’s theory of practice – which allowed me to account for human agency while remaining aware of the complex and relational forms of power, politics, and agency that underpin the laborious process of assembling the policy in question. 

What are you working on now?

I am currently working as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, contributing to the Digital-Environment Nexus project funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark. Our research centres on how digital media in Indonesia and environmental issues are interconnected and on digital technologies’ potential to drive changes in environmental behaviour and policy. I am currently in Indonesia, conducting fieldwork that examines how individuals perceive and respond to media coverage of specific environmental issues in their local areas. Parallel to this, I am investigating how people use various digital platforms to get themselves and others involved with these issues, including how this media usage impacts on their environmental behaviour. I plan to seize the opportunity of being in Indonesia to travel to Sumbawa, particularly to the village of seaweed farmers where I resided during my doctoral fieldwork, and from where, thanks to the pandemic, I departed in rather an unceremonious manner.

Image: Supplied

Lukas Fort is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen. As a social and cultural anthropologist with a regional focus on Indonesia, he is interested in integrating cultural perspectives on the environment into conversation with questions of power, class, gender, ethnicity, economics, and materiality.

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