During this year’s winter break, a group of students from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, and other universities in the area, traveled to Indonesia for three weeks to explore the complex, systemic interconnection between environmental policy, sustainable development and socio-ecological systems in the diverse and dynamic country. Led by Associate Research Professor Thomas Hilde, the students journeyed through cities, rainforests, farms and plantations to meet with a range of stakeholders and learn about the environmental issues Indonesia faces.
Beginning with a countryside bike ride in Bali, students visited Balinese households, subaks and temples. They spoke with subak and permaculture experts along the way. Experiences like these, “being able to talk directly to people doing on-the-ground work and research and ask them pointed questions,” were some of SPP student Ariana Scurti’s favorite aspects of the trip. She reflected, “Directly addressing people in their space allowed us to take in different perspectives and weigh all of them.”
The next stop was North Sulawesi, where students snorkeled in Bunaken, a national protected coral reef area. They also met with the executive director of an intergovernmental organization managing the coral triangle region. The students proceeded to North Sumatra and visited agroforestry projects and oil palm plantations. In Sumatra they hiked and camped through tropical rainforests and observed orangutans and other wildlife. For SPP student Noah Maghsadi, these excursions, “raised a lot of issues and development questions like the ethics of ecotourism and development.” Annisah Smith, a master’s student researching Indonesia and forestry at American University, noted that because the local population was, “inherently dependent on the area for tourism and food, it was interesting to see the connection between tourism and conservation work.”
Following Sumatra was Bogor, Java, where students learned about and discussed oil palm and deforestation; peatland fires and carbon emissions; and social forestry with lead scientists and a government official.
Jakarta was the last stop on the students’ educational adventure. There they met with a wide variety of stakeholders. Adriane Michaelis, a PhD student studying anthropology, says she valued the experience immensely. She remarked, “Being able to see things in person and be on the ground offers a broader perspective for students and trip leaders alike. We got to talk to people and see how the issues impact them directly, rather than sitting in a room and just reading about it.”
For Hilde, who has led this study abroad trip for several years, Indonesia is a very intentional destination because, “it’s a microcosm of larger global issues, including mitigation, adaptation, indigenous rights and more. It also raises the question of how to govern, making it a microcosm of the world in a sense as well.”
By engaging with leading government officials; top research experts; nongovernmental and international governmental organizations; and local farmers and fishermen, students directly examined the multitude of Indonesian environmental challenges and corresponding development strategies.
Michaelis believes this course can be valuable for all students. She said, “It’s focused on environmental policy issues, but we cover so much ground that there’s room for anyone to find something related to what they’re interested in.”
Beyond the academic and professional utility of the trip, the participants also greatly enjoyed each other's company, appreciating the diverse perspectives, bonding experiences and strong friendships formed in a way that is not always possible in traditional classroom settings.
“I was fortunate enough to be from Indonesia, but I’ve never seen it through this lens,” Smith said, adding that they, “had the opportunity to put everything you learned and experienced into the policy perspective.” Scurti strongly recommends the Indonesia course to others and attests, “If you can do it, do it. This perspective at the graduate level is invaluable, and it will be a shining moment for years to come.”