Yuyun Ismawati DrwiegaBattling for the next generation’s future

by Johanna Poblete

Yuyun is not afraid of taking risks, not if there is something much bigger at stake. When it comes to ensuring a sustainable future for her grandson, Yuyun will not hesitate to do whatever it takes. “I have nothing to lose,” deadpanned the Ashoka Fellow (2002) and Goldman Environmental Prize awardee (2009). Her fearlessness has led to everything from stalking then educating waste collectors, to being nabbed from a protest rally by shady plainclothesmen, to suing the Indonesian government—and winning. 

Initial skirmish: Bali’s waste problem

While residing in Bali in the late ’90s, Yuyun was compelled to tackle an often ignored but persistent problem: island sanitation and waste management. “I was supposed to enjoy Bali, but I started seeing all the bad stuff behind the tourist areas,” said Yuyun. 

An environmental engineer who had designed water supply systems, Yuyun was appalled at the untreated sewage polluting the waters and the garbage being openly dumped among the mangroves. “I realized that the social aspect is very, very crucial in implementing any engineering or technical solutions,” she rued.

Yuyun volunteered at a non-government organization (NGO), became director, and was tasked to work with Bali’s hotel industry on waste management. Gaining the cooperation of the hotels had an unorthodox start: Yuyun followed the garbage trucks from a posh hotel to their dumpsite in a mangrove area, took pictures, and showed them to the hotel’s general manager (GM), insisting on the “polluter pays” principle. After taking his Chief Engineer to task for the mishap, the GM warily asked if Yuyun planned to disclose it to the media. Yuyun warned, “If you are not going to improve your practices, I will.” 

For three years, Yuyun applied herself to NGO-business environment partnerships. First, she labored to transform a group of pig farmers who moonlighted as waste collectors—they purchased hotel food waste to create pig slop—into professional waste managers. They eventually became the go-to waste management company in Bali. “I saw the opportunity to intervene and the only way I could get this guy to listen to me was to become his business partner… But I decided to pull my share after they had established all their systems.” Following that successful pilot, she approached other pig farmers to convert their business models. The hotels tapped these improved services, and waste was significantly reduced on-island.

Yuyun also developed a standardized eco-hotel rating system that incentivized ecological practices locally. “Many hotels in Bali were promoting green tourism, but who’s going to verify it? There should be a way to evaluate you. So I talked to the General Managers Association,” said Yuyun. 

The 32-member association, which included such brands as the Hilton, Sheraton, Hyatt, InterContinental, and The Four Seasons, agreed to be evaluated under the new rating system. It took a year and a half of painstaking work, but the experience built Yuyun’s confidence in engaging with the private sector. “Everything can be improved if you speak their language,” said Yuyun. 

Building a foundation for the future

In 2000, Yuyun established the BaliFokus Foundation (now Nexus3) with the intention to build “a just, toxic-free, and sustainable future.” The foundation initially partnered with a local Rotary Club to create a viable community-operated waste management program to minimize household waste. The project was adopted by 500 participating households and later expanded to other villages. Proponents included youth and women’s groups. Housewives in particular were keen on being change-makers, said Yuyun, but needed help with execution. She devised an illustrated “informed choices catalog” demonstrating how to properly manage waste collection, composting, and recycling. “You have to simplify it without compromising the quality and the technical standards,” said Yuyun. 

BaliFokus was invited to replicate the process on a national scale (and thus renamed Nexus3 Foundation in 2018). They joined an alliance of NGOs, initially funded by the World Bank, in the development of SANIMAS (“Community-Based Sanitation” in Bahasa Indonesia), which provided waste and sanitation management options for poor urban settlements. Incidentally, Yuyun was the only female director, and the only person with an environmental engineering background, who joined the network: “Some men are not familiar with working with women. Especially if the women are very strong—sometimes they feel offended. But I know what I’m talking about…it is just a matter of explaining to them in a way they can accept.”

The SANIMAS pilot project was implemented across 64 cities in Indonesia within a five-year period. Yuyun not only helped coordinate a stakeholders’ forum but also co-developed training modules for facilitators to deliver the community-based sanitation programs. Depending on the locality’s needs, she and her partners also provided capacity building. At her instigation, technical and institutional assistance was provided to the communities. SANIMAS was eventually mainstreamed into the national program and state budget. “The challenging part is to recognize the crucial actors and how we include them in the system… For solid waste, you always need champions. And who will be the best champions in the neighborhood? Women!” said Yuyun.

An ongoing battle

Despite her contributions to national waste management programs, Yuyun’s relationship with the Indonesian government has been fraught. In 2007, she organized a peaceful protest against the entry of an incinerator project (referred to as a waste-to-energy plant) in Bandung, West Java and ran afoul of local policemen who, as it turned out, had a vested interest in breaking up the rally. “That project is located only 200 meters next to a residential area where a lot of young families with children live. It’s dangerous,” said Yuyun, explaining that the rally was meant to educate the community on the hazards of incineration, linking it to climate change, and the availability of healthier alternatives. “But the mayor already got bribed by the proponent of the incinerator. To gain public support, he built a football stadium next to the incinerator.”

Although the rally was staged with permission in a private area, plainclothes policemen apprehended the proponents, including Yuyun as the coordinator. Fellow activists from GAIA who briefly spoke at the event — GAIA policy director Neil Tangri from the United States, and GAIA coordinators Shibu Nair from India and Ma. Virginia “Gigie” Cruz from the Philippines — were also detained for three days and then deported. The latter three had stopped by Bandung on their way to Bali to host a forum titled “Zero Waste for Zero Warming” at the United Nations Climate Conference (COP 13). They not only missed the conference but were also barred from entering Indonesia for a year.

Nonetheless, the activists refused to pay to be freed. They also refused to sign the police interrogation reports, untranslated from the original Bahasa Indonesia. Yuyun feels vindicated that, years after the incident, the mayor was imprisoned for corruption. Moreover, their detention caught the attention of other groups — including the Viking hooligans, local supporters of the Bandung Football Club — and together they were able to successfully campaign against the incinerator project. “Until now, that project in Bandung, they keep trying to enter again, but nope, the community already protested.”

Yuyun was included in the consultation process for Indonesia’s waste management bill and managed to strike the word “incinerator” from the draft. The next fight is to clarify what lawmakers mean by “environmentally friendly technology” and to ensure that it is not a euphemism for damaging practices. “Within the 30 years of my career, I have already witnessed the evolution of words: waste-to-energy, RDF (refuse-derived fuel), resource efficiency. It’s the same thing. You are burning garbage,” Yuyun pointed out. Together with Walhi (Indonesian Forum for the Environment) and AZWI (Aliansi Zero Waste Indonesia) colleagues, Yuyun is also scrutinizing the units used in protective standards, which they consider very lax.

Yuyun was one of 32 plaintiffs in a class action suit against Indonesian President Joko Widodo, three cabinet ministers, the Jakarta governor, and two provincial leaders for violating environmental protection standards on air quality. Jakarta’s air pollution, the plaintiffs argued, violates both the standards set by the World Health Organization and the national safety standard. “If we don’t sue them, they will not change the regulations and set a strict protective standard,” cautioned Yuyun. After a two-year fight, in 2021, a Jakarta court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor — a verdict that the government has appealed.

Apart from her advocacies on waste and toxic substances (she established Indonesia’s Toxics-Free Network in 2008), not to mention refining plant-based soil remediation to generate biogas through her startup company Terra Power, Yuyun is currently campaigning on children’s environmental rights, calling for stricter standards and enforcement, and working with the youth to raise awareness. 

“I have a grandson now, four years old. I keep thinking about his future. Everything I do now is for his future,” said the firebrand. “How can I secure his clean air? If the government won’t do anything to protect their future citizens, then we have to remind them. So I joined the citizen lawsuit and sued them.”