Making Distant Voices Heard
By Dorothy Wright
Stephanie Fried ’82 lived in a remote forest village in East Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) as a Fulbright fellow in 1990-91. She designed her doctoral dissertation to help the indigenous Bentian people prove ownership of their ancestral lands, documenting their 23-generation oral history of sustainable forestry practices. The Bentian had been struggling to protect their territory for a decade after Georgia-Pacific, the Atlanta-based multinational paper products corporation, began building roads and logging camps and damming streams in the region. In 1993, an Indonesian timber tycoon with close ties to then-President Suharto sent in armed chainsaw and bulldozer crews to clear-cut the forest.
“That’s how I became involved in environmental work,” Fried recalls. “I was on an academic track when my Bentian family asked for help. So I returned to the United States and, with a student from Kalimantan, visited human rights and environmental groups in New York and Washington, D.C. At Environmental Defense, Bruce Rich offered to try to help the Bentian people and, a year later, ended up hiring me.”
With degrees from Bryn Mawr (A.B., biology) and Cornell (M.S., agronomy; Ph.D., rural sociology), today Fried is a senior scientist and policy analyst for Environmental Defense, a nonprofit organization representing more than 300,000 members, operating the Asia/Pacific Islands Field Office in Kailua, Hawaii.
Putting the Pieces Together
Through Environmental Defense’s International Program, Fried traces and analyzes the environmental and human rights impacts of public funds that flow through international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and export credit agencies. “We respond to requests by communities in the Asia-Pacific region that have been negatively impacted by these projects,” Fried explains. “We try to put the pieces together to see whether taxpayer dollars are supporting projects that, for example, displace indigenous communities or lead to the destruction of forest, river or ocean ecosystems.”
Recently, Fried and her colleagues published a report analyzing 22 projects funded by ADB over 30 years, which can be accessed on the Web at www.environmentaldefense.org/go/adb. “The shocking conclusion is that at least 70 percent of ADB’s projects, according to its own audit documents, will fail to bring any kind of lasting economic or social benefits to these countries,” she says. “This is a disaster for heavily indebted countries such as Indonesia, which has over $18 billion in loans from ADB.”
Environmental Defense hopes the report will prompt countries that contribute to ADB to consider suspending funding until the bank meets the demands of local communities impacted by its projects and changes its operations. “We try to make the voices of impoverished, isolated, resource-dependent communities heard in the corridors of power,” Fried explains.
For example, “In the late 1990s the World Bank was planning to fund an expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia, which are often established by clear-cutting, bulldozing and burning forested areas owned by indigenous people,” Fried continues. “Working with activists from East Kalimantan, we brought this plan to the public eye, resulting in the cancellation of plans for the loan. There are many other examples where tremendous potential damage has been prevented.”
Struggles and Breakthroughs
Over the past few years, Fried’s work for the Oceans Program has focused on helping to protect the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). “In 2000 we convinced the White House to listen to indigenous Hawaiian cultural practitioners, fishers, scientists and ordinary citizens and to create the nation’s largest protected area, the 84-million-acre NWHI Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. This vast, fragile, uninhabited region is home to the earth’s remaining 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles, millions of sea birds and reef species that are in deep decline in the heavily populated main Hawaiian Islands," she explains.
Fried also worked to convince Bush administration officials to support the executive orders that established the reserve. “It is astonishing that we have succeeded this far. Things like that keep me going. Unfortunately, the reserve appears to be under an all-out attack by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.”
Citizens of the World
Fried says her Bryn Mawr education prepared her well for her work. “Bryn Mawr’s rigorous education and the assumption that we were citizens of the world provided a very strong basis for what I do today,” she says. “We had to think and write very clearly. We had to read vast amounts of information, process it, understand it and explain it — and that is what my job requires.”
“You never entirely win battles against environmental and human rights abuses,” she says. “A decade ago we ensured a lot of publicity so that the Indonesian government was not able to threaten the freedom or lives of the main proponents of Bentian rights and forest protection. We were able to help prevent plans for 100,000 hectares to be clear-cut for a paper and pulp mill.
“Since the Suharto government has fallen, however, a regional decentralization program has led to local strongmen pillaging forest resources,” Fried continues. “But a few months ago, the local people impounded logs that had been illegally harvested from their land. It sent a strong message.
“So where there is life, there is hope.”
Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.