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

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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.

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