Yale University

Class News

Tom Walton '64 with the World Bank in Indonesia

(A letter from Tom Walton)

I have been working at the World Bank since 1988, based in Washington until 1995, and in Jakarta, Indonesia thereafter. That means my career at the Bank began just about the time the institution succumbed to a great deal of outside pressure (and some from idealists within) to take on the responsibility for trying to avoid adverse environmental impacts in projects supported by its lending to developing countries. In fact, my first task there was to work on The Environmental Program for the Mediterranean, an initiative proclaimed by then president Barber Conable to do something more proactive, environmentally, than just trying to avoid adverse impacts. My second task was more significant; it was to manage, edit, and write much of the Bank's Environmental Assessment Sourcebook, a guidance manual to Bank staff on how environmental impact analysis should be conducted in our most common types of project lending. It was published in 1990. After than, I was involved in revising the environmental assessment policy (1991) and in helping to oversee its implementation in Asian countries.

The chance to move to Jakarta was offered to me three times. I turned it down twice ― I was then a divorced parent of a high-school-age daughter, Margaretta ― but grabbed it the third time, reasoning that it might not come again. My second wife Irene, her adopted daughter Mariana (then age two) and I moved to Jakarta in September 1995. Irene is a brave soul ― she came sight unseen but was and still is happy to be here. Margaretta lives with her mother outside Philadelphia and was then a junior at the Baldwin School; she is now a senior at Skidmore. My assignment was to work in the Environmental and Social Impacts Unit in the Jakarta Resident Mission. After a number of of years and changes in organizational structure, I am now the Coordinator for Environment and Social Development in the World Bank Office, Jakarta. One of our main responsibilities is still assisting Bank staff and their Government of Indonesia counterparts in complying with World Bank "safeguards" policies, which by now have expanded far beyond environmental impact, to encompass involuntary resettlement, indigenous peoples, natural habitat conversion, international waterways, projects in disputed areas, and others. However, we also are involved with managing several environmental projects and with a variety of social safety net and community development programs, many of the latter having come into being during the Asian economic crisis that began to grip Indonesia in the latter half of 1997.

The World Bank had not been involved in forestry lending (except biodiversity conservation) since 1994, when a project to improve the Government's institutional capacity for forest management was canceled. I was not here at the time, but from all I have read and heard, the cancellation came about because the Government and the Bank had unresolvable differences about what needed to be done to achieve sustainable forest management in Indonesia. It was clear then, and continued to be until former president Soeharto was forced from office in 1998, that the Indonesian Government spoke of sustainable forest management but practiced export-oriented exploitation, with particular advantages given to Soeharto family members and business cronies and particular disadvantage to relatively powerless forest communities and, of course, the forest biodiversity. When the International Monetary Fund came to Indonesia in late 1997, it was looking for an environmental issue to include in its reform program. Forest fires were then raging in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and Sumatra, sufficiently badly to destroy about 5 million hectares of forest on those two islands, disrupt air traffic in Singapore, close schools and the tourist business in nearby parts of Malaysia, and make the cover of National Geographic. So, I suggested that IMF include some policy reforms related to forest management ― for example, establishing a moratorium on conversion of natural forest until new maps could be prepared to show how much forest remained, and a transparent forest land use planning process was in place. They did, and the World Bank followed up with additional reforms. I've been spending about half my time on what we've been calling forestry policy dialogue ever since.

I must admit, though, that not very much changed until two key events in addition to the fires. The first was the completion of the new forest maps I just mentioned. They showed that for the 12-year period ending in 1997, Indonesia had lost on average at least 1.7 million hectares of forest cover per year. This was about twice the deforestation rate that most people though likely when making estimates in the early 1990's. The second event was the inclusion of forestry as an agenda item for the first time ever at the annual meeting of the Consultative Group on Indonesia in Paris in July 1999. (This CGI, as familiarly known, is the group of multilateral and bilateral agencies that provide development assistance to Indonesia.) I wasn't present, but folks who were tell me that the only topic that received more attention was the terrible situation in East Timor. The Government representatives could not understand why the donors were so upset about the forest destruction but agreed, in order to move on to other agenda items, a high-level seminar on forestry to be held with donors and officials in Jakarta later on. After a three-month delay occasioned by Indonesia's first democratic elections and the installation of President Wahid's Government, we held the seminar on January 26, 2000.

I managed it, the World Bank sponsored it, and we had a great deal of assistance from staff of forestry projects supported by the European Union and the Governments of Germany, Japan, United Kingdom and United States as well as environmental organizations such as WWF-Indonesia and Environmental Investigations Agency (UK-US). We made headlines in the International Herald Tribune and cover stories in Far Eastern Economic Review, plus coverage on BBC and other networks. At an interim meeting of the CGI timed to give the new Government a chance to interact with the group, the Government presented a series of commitments to bring true, interagency efforts to bear on implementing improved forest management over the medium term and to attack some of the most urgent issues immediately ― illegal logging running at a rate exceeding the legal harvest, industrial overexpansion such that plymills, sawmills and papermills need two to three times as much timber as the natural forests can sustainably yield, and continuing clearing of natural forest for other uses without a rational, transparent or consultative planning process. Another output from that CGI meeting was a decision to set up a Donor Forum on Forestry, whereby the CGI donors can assist the Government and monitor progress on the commitments made. The World Bank coordinates that forum, and I therefore am the chair. Co-vice-chairs are JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) and the European Union Forest Liaison Bureau.

We just came back from the most recent CGI meeting, held in Tokyo October 17-18. The Government did not have much progress to report, but there is a new Minister of Agriculture and Forestry (they combined two ministries about a month ago) who acknowledged the lack of progress, committed himself to making improvements, and asked for the donor community to help him. I'll be working closely with him and his staff, plus other donor colleagues, and we'll see what we can do. We just extended our time here for at least one more year, until September 2001.

I might add, as a separate but related point, that having worked here on and off (as a commuter from Washington) since 1991, it was and is an amazing experience to have been present at the fall of Soeharto and to watch Indonesia stumble forward into whatever its future is going to be. During the waning years of Soeharto, about the only non-governmental groups that could speak negatively about government programs and get away with it were the environmental NGOs. They led the way, and now the amount of public discourse and the openness of society are quite amazing. Many in government are still not comfortable with it ― criticizing the press for printing negative news, for example ― and trying to give to the public the paternalistic answers so common before: "Don't ask us for information ― we'll tell you what you need to know when we think it's time, and if we don't tell you anything, that means there was nothing you needed to know" but is doesn't work anymore. Forestry among other things is a corrupt area ― police and military heavily involved in illegal logging, for example ― and only in the openness of public scrutiny are the problems going to be solved.

In closing, I continue to marvel, as people here struggle with a constitution filled with problems, laws and regulations that have perverse consequences, and civil service that has no concept of service to the public, at how much the founding fathers of the US got right the first time. It's amazing, and eventually that will bring us home if nothing else does.

All the best,

Tom Walton