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Irendra Radjawali: Of Drones and Indigenous People



4 February 2016 07:26 WIB

Indonesian Researcher who lives in Germany, Irendra Radjawali, during an interview with Tempo on, 28 Januari 2016. TEMPO/Frannoto

TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Irendra Radjawali, 39, came to a coffee shop in Central Jakarta wearing a blue t-shirt and a pair of khaki shorts. "I'm not a suit-and-tie type of person," said Radja, as he is known by family and friends, apologizing for his informal clothing. He looked energetic despite having flown to Jakarta that morning from Pontianak, West Kalimantan. Radja explained that he had just spent four days in Kalimantan to operate drones used to assist in spatial mapping in the area.

The drones are all designed by Irendra, who currently works as a researcher at Bonn University in Germany. He consulted what he called the best university on earth YouTube videos to learn how to make his own drone three years ago. And this came about after his research work, collecting data from the Kapuas River in West Kalimantan.

Radja noticed that it was easier to do aerial spatial mapping with a drone, but to buy one would cost him 5,000 Euro. "I asked for a discount from my friends at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), but even then it still cost 3,500 Euro," he said. So, he decided to build his own and attach it with a pocket camera. The entire cost came to no more than 500 Euro, one-tenth the price of a ready-made drone.

But after collecting data in the vicinity, he discovered that many residents had lost their land for being converted into oil palm plantations or bauxite mines. So, he began to use the drones to map the areas around the Kapuas river to help people to identify and protect their property.

Radja said that he got the idea from a previous project on reef management. He had attached a small camera to a kite to take aerial photos of the reef. 

Radja's work in Kalimantan is with the Swandiri Institute, an organization involved in environmental issues. This pet project requires Radja to go back to Indonesia from Germany at least once a year. 

This month, Radja was awarded Rp500 million for winning the Wismilak Diplomat Success Challenge, a competition for innovative entrepreneurs. He said that he would continue to expand his data collecting project and help indigenous peoples around Indonesia to map and protect their land from deforestation.

Radja was born in Malang, East Java. He spent part of his childhood in Papua when his parents were stationed there, before moving back to Bogor. He said that he had always been interested in connecting people and learning about the interconnection of life on earth. After high school, he decided to go to the ITB to study civil engineering.

It was not something he was passionate about, so Radja joined the People's Democratic Party (PRD) during the mid-1990s and started to fight for people's rights. "It brought me to what I'm doing now, dealing with labor and people in their everyday lives," he said.

Radja enjoyed his activism outside the campus. He had never agreed with other students who said they wanted to do something but only protested inside the campus. But his extracurricular activity took a toll on his grades, he barely passed his courses and with a considerably low grade point average (GPA) he just managed to graduate with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering.

He was then offered to continue his graduate studies at the same institute, this time on urban planning. It was then that he learned the social aspects of planning a city, but he found the approach was slightly off. "We do our planning by using a big map, like a god deciding on the lives of hundreds and millions," he said, complaining about the lack of humanitarian elements in his courses.

After getting his master's degree, Radja applied for and got a scholarship to study in France, grabbing this opportunity to study for a year at Sorbonne University in Paris. He recalled it was a struggle for him at the beginning, so he took an intensive course in French a couple of months before he moved back to Paris.

Radja felt confident with his mastery of French when he started his class in Sorbonne. It was small, with only eight students, and he was the only foreigner. "When the professor came in, he said 'bonjour' and I told myself: Alright I understand this. But when he spoke, I was at a total loss and just sat there in confusion," he recalled.

He said that he was able to survive by immersing himself in the culture of the local Parisians, and learned new words from the migrants in the city. Radja recounted how he used to enter local restaurants owned by Moroccans and Algerians. 

The store owners, who considered Radja to be their brother in faith, often chatted with him and gave him extra food. "That's how I survived with my 640 stipend per month," he said.

He learned about interacting with people while in France. His experience in Sorbonne also exposed him to a different approach in debating one's viewpoint. He realized it was important to observe and argue armed with relevant data. It was not just about rhetoric and baseless arguments. "That's what science is about: you can't just say you don't like this, you have to provide the data," he said.

After a year in Paris, Radja was offered another scholarship to pursue his doctorate at Bremen University in Germany, from where he was given a research project on reef conservation and management. His dissertation, titled the Political Ecology of Reef Fishery, argued that while it was imperative to protect the reef, conservationists must also take into account the livelihood of the people in the area and provide them with alternatives before banning them from catching fish, their source of income.

As he became better known as 'the reef guy', Radja often gave talks about ecological management at different campuses all over Europe, such as during the European Association for Southeast Asian Studies (EuroSEAS) event in Vienna, Austria, as well as other events in Neuchatel in Switzerland and Freiburg in Germany in 2015. 

In 2012, he was offered an opening as a researcher at Bonn University. It was during this time he started to get involved in a project to study the Kapuas river. For Radja, again, understanding the river meant one needed to understand the people around it, and how they used their land.

This project brought him to the creation of the drones and his new nickname as the 'drone guy'. Radja called his approach in research as 'action research', where he got involved with the people and the surroundings of his subject matter. He said this methodology went beyond the old-fashioned research system, whereby scientists distanced themselves from their subjects in their endeavour to capture the big picture.

In Germany, Radja felt more at home because of the country's straight-forward culture. "I was always the weird one in Indonesia, because of my frank views. But in Germany, they believe in honesty," he said. Radja noted that people may disagree with each other, but conflicts are often resolved over a tall glass of beer.

This year, he plans to expand his research to Central America. Radja will start a project in early 2016, using his drones and carrying out spatial mapping in the depths of the Amazon forest. He said that he wanted to support the indigenous people there with the help of the technology that he has designed.

"Our indigenous brothers and sisters have their own knowledge system, passed down from their forefathers," he said, adding that they needed to be recognized.

"We can't put ourselves above the indigenous people, they are important; we are all important."

Amanda Siddharta, Nadine Kamarwan

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