The Many Lives of Erna Witoelar, APRIL Stakeholder Advisory Committee Member
The multi-tasking civil society leader talks about her life fighting for justice for people and the environment
Erna Witoelar is best described as a force of nature. Her energy, passion, commitment to causes, her sense of justice – all compete to be heard. Her career would have exhausted most people long ago. Activist, NGO founder, environmentalist, consumer and women’s rights campaigner, government minister, fighter for social justice, a leader on national and international stages.
Ironically, parental influence meant she was originally destined to become a chemical engineer – which she did, by completing her studies at the Bandung Institute of Technology. “But undergraduate life almost immediately steered me into activism,” she says. “I joined many groups and led anti-government demonstrations, becoming the first female chair of the students’ association. I think I knew then that my mission in life was in engendering solidarity, trying to get people to resolve conflicts, fighting for rights and equality.”
And it was her non-academic student life that spurred her subsequent multiple career in civil society. Immediately after university, Erna began work for The Indonesian Consumers Foundation, moving swiftly to its international organization.
It would be easy to assume this energy and multiplicity of interests indicated a more than forceful personality. Unusually though, while certainly assertive and articulate in her views, she refers to dealing with challenge in a different way. “I have often encountered conflict – sometimes in the form of patronage, sometimes as discrimination. When I was younger, my instinct was to respond confrontationally, but over time, I learned that friendship, persuasion and understanding are far better ways of defusing aggression and disagreement.”
This was especially valuable on the world stage, her first role on which was as President of Consumers International. It was in 1983 that her sense of place as an Indonesian, her role as a leader in civil society, and environmentalism came together, with the creation of the Brundtland Commission. This was the UN’s reaction to the realization that the human environment and natural resources were in danger of severe degradation. It was the beginning of the global sustainable development movement. “This was my awakening,” she says. “I was profoundly aware of environmental issues in general because of my background, and I had access, contacts, networks and leverage so I saw it as my mission to bring Indonesian issues onto the world stage, as well as to bring the tenets of sustainable development back to Indonesia.”
“The first meeting was in Indonesia, when the then Minister asked me to gather a group of NGOs to listen to the Commission,” continues Erna. “I explained that no-one wanted to listen to a lecture. What they wanted was a voice. The voice of ordinary people. And we made that happen, exposing all sort of issues around sustainability including gender, the environment, workers’ rights, campaigners’ issues. The Commission itself was curious and then inspired because of the questions people asked. I like to think that this set the precedent for the Commission’s work all over the world which led to the publication of ‘Our Common Future’ in which the seminal term ‘sustainable development’ was coined, and which gave the underlying and still relevant definition – the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Erna was then spurred to take a post graduate course in Human Ecology, and after a four year stint in Russia, during her husband’s tenure as Ambassador, she returned to a different political environment. In spite of being apolitical for her entire life, she became a member of the General Assembly, and when Indonesia’s 4th President, Abdurrachman Wahid took office, he asked her to take on the role of Minister of Human Settlement and Regional Development. “This had been called The Ministry of Public Works,” Erna points out. “But I wanted people at the centre of development, so I changed the name. My goal was the environment, the alleviation of poverty, and gender equality. I saw it as one job, framed by social justice, and embedded in the creation and improvement of infrastructure.”
This was indeed the only time Erna ever had just one job. Having founded a number of still vibrant NGOs – among them The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), Friends of the Environment Fund (DML) the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation (KEHATI), the Clean Ciliwung River Movement (GCB), the Partnership for Governance Reform Indonesia (PGRI), and the Foundation for Local Governance Initiative (YIPD) she could be forgiven for deciding to take a rest and enjoy travelling with her family or just spending time together. Predictably, she didn’t. Erna takes up the story. “In 2003, Kofi Annan asked me, through his head of The Millennium Campaign Eveline Herfkens, to become the Asia-Pacific Special Ambassador for the UN Millennium Development Goals, a role I continued until 2007. This deepened yet further my understanding of the global-local interconnectedness of sustainability.” Overlapping with this by a year (unsurprisingly), she also became a member of the UN Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, until 2009.
Asked about her relatively new role as a member of APRIL’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee, she is clear that it is another departure for her. “It’s an unusual move for me,” she says. “I have never worked in a business position before, and perhaps it is risky too. But my understanding of sustainable development tells me society cannot achieve its objectives alone. It needs partnerships. The private sector has to be a large part of the solution. And the bigger a business’ legacy of damaging activity, and the bigger its footprint, the more it needs to be willing to contribute commensurately to improvement and restoration. Individuals can do their bit – recycle, consume sustainably – and governments can set frameworks. But it is in the gift of big business to make the biggest difference. And it has to think about empowering and building, and not just about charity. I am passionate about helping people work together so I thought I might be able to make a difference by plunging into an unfamiliar environment. Yes, it’s a challenge, and I hope I can make a difference.”
Never shy of a challenge, Erna continues to sit on several NGO boards, including chairing KEHATI and co-chairing Filantropi Indonesia. And she sees no reason to stop. “I do see hope for the future,” she remarks. “My whole life has been devoted to encouraging women and young people to take the lead. I was never happier than when my efforts to nurture this came to fruition. Now there are so many more of them taking up the challenges of the future, I believe there is good reason for hope. Our children are so much better than us. Their thinking is so completely different to previous generations. And our children’s children will carry this on. They care, they are passionate, they are articulate, they communicate, and they are increasingly influential. Yes, I have hope.”