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On 28 June 2004, Indonesia’s environment minister Nabiel Makarim opened the Indonesian parliament (DPR) public hearing by holding up a copy of national newspaper KOMPAS, saying that he hoped the other senators had read the morning’s opinion piece. The article, penned by an Indonesian forester, proffered the many reasons why Indonesia should ratify the Kyoto Protocol and was the final cherry atop a heap of academic papers this scientist had also compiled to support the case. The Protocol was ratified later that day.

In the 30-plus years of his work, said forester Daniel Murdiyarso has listened to “climate change” grow from a nebulous term to a global crisis and seen the giant of his country wake up from its isolated slumber to become an integral player in international climate negotiations. In fact, he was a primary reason for this awakening, and has since been a perpetual muscle moving Indonesia to keep up with the global pace.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, he organized an exchange on peatlands at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), where he has served as Principal Scientist for the past 15 years. His research on these ecosystems has paved the way in getting them recognized by policymakers, so much so that the Indonesian government is now in the process of establishing an international peatlands center on the CIFOR campus in partnership with other governments – a topic of the exchange. Afterward, an attendee from the U.S. commented that he’d never seen government members speak so freely in such a setting before.

In other words, everything (for his country) has changed, because nothing (for his role in it) has changed. “My passion is to link science and policy,” he says coolly.

And while passions can often burn uncontrollably, or burn out, Murdiyarso’s mantra has kept his from doing so. It’s also the foremost reason why he was recently awarded the 2018 LIPI Sarwono Award, the highest honor given by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI): consistency and accountability, particularly in his tireless work on wetlands, including peatlands and mangroves.

   Murdiyarso (right) at the Forests Indonesia Conference in 2011. CIFOR Photo/Aulia Erlangga
   Murdiyarso explains how to place a dendrometer on trees to measure growth at a research site in Riau. CIFOR Photo/Deanna Ramsay


While Murdiyarso’s passion might seem a heady pursuit now, it used to render him a renegade. After receiving his doctorate in meteorology from the University of Reading in the UK, he returned to Indonesia to serve on the faculty of his undergraduate alma mater Bogor Agricultural University (IPB) and soon began shoring up funding for research projects. This attracted the attention of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which chose him to help conduct Indonesia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

But it wasn’t the boon for his career one might expect.

“It was mainly me from Indonesia, and it was seen as something dangerous,” he recalls. “You should not reveal what is going on in the ecosystem. So I was kind of a lonely ranger, just working with students on climate change. Climate change was still a very vague term for many of us.”

Indonesia then had the third-highest emissions from rice production after China and India – a ranking Daniel couldn’t help but question in validity. So he reached out to the University of Portland, and convinced them to detour down to Indonesia on their annual trip to China and lend him their cutting-edge equipment. “My students hand-carried it through customs,” he laughs.

He and his team ended up publishing a pivotal article based on his measured emissions from three different rice varieties farmed in three different water management systems, estimating Indonesia’s wetland rice emissions to be approximately 4 Teragrams (Tg) of methane per year rather than the formerly estimated 12 Tg.

It was mainly me from Indonesia, and it was seen as something dangerous

Daniel Murdiyarso, CIFOR Principal Scientist

People nonetheless threatened to have him reported to official authorities, saying that universities should not be doing this kind of research, but, “I was much more concerned to have the right numbers, and with that be able to confidently say that this is the number that we have. Whether it is dangerous or not, that’s up to you.”

Young Murdiyarso never imagined that his future self would be traipsing out into paddy fields to measure gases and muse about their elusive effects. Growing up in the Central Java town of Cepu, his native landscape was one of dry, chalky soil that gave way to state-owned teak plantations managed by overseers on high payrolls. It was the dollar signs he initially followed into forestry; and besides, wetlands and other archipelagic ecosystems were “full of muck and mosquitos.”

After forestry school at IPB, he wasn’t ready to commit to the job market. He applied for and received a government scholarship to do a master’s at IPB and then went to the UK for his doctorate. It was there that he became enamored with the research community. “There were contrasting views about forests and water,” he recalls of the main debate of the time. “Some people said forests are good because they produce water, others said they are bad because they consume. So I was in the middle of this big question, and when I looked at the issue in tropical forests, both were correct in different contexts.”

During his master’s, he was assigned the tutor of climatologist Ruth Chambers, who quickly grew into a mentor in shaping his scientific temper. “She taught me how important it is to know something properly and correctly rather than learning everything, but superficially. She inspired a lot in principle, integrity and discipline.”

Case in point: Murdiyarso continues to examine the water question, and in July was one of 50 scientists that contributed to a consequential report on forests and water security, presented at the UN High-Level Forum on Sustainable Development.

   Murdiyarso inspects blue carbon-rich soil in North Sumatra. CIFOR Photo/Mokhamad Edliadi


In 1995, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, a prestigious academic group that shuttered in 2015, tapped Murdiyarso to serve as director for a new research center in Bogor backed by a USD 2.1 million grant from Australia to expand land-use climate change research across Southeast Asia. He hit the ground running, designing curriculums of technical training courses and flying in experts to speak from around the world. In 1997, when the double-catastrophe of the Asian financial crisis and forest fires sent the country into a state of high emergency, an article ran on the cover of Science magazine spotlighting the center and Murdiyarso.

This was, of course, enormous testament to Murdiyarso’s work (and pleased the center’s donors immensely). But for Murdiyarso, it cemented the importance of outside aid and partnership that would later substantiate his plea for the Kyoto Protocol ratification.

“In the economic crisis, this is how science survived,” he recalls. “Global collaboration is necessary, and donors finding topics and issues to invest in.”

Part of his directorship’s mandate was also to make the center a platform for science-policy dialogues, beginning with the hottest topic of the time: fire. This saw him extend invitations to governments from around the region for group discussions; it also prompted him to become better acquainted with the other research centers in Bogor – the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and CIFOR, which had jointly set up shop nearby in 1993. “I met the CIFOR DG [Jeffrey Sayer] and got to know what the neighborhood was doing. We were all learning how to identify issues and the right people to talk to and interact with.”

On the first day of appointment, I told the minister that this is not my habitat, so if I think it’s time to go, I will let you know I’m going

Daniel Murdiyarso

His center quickly became the Bogor research community’s hangout spot of sorts. “It was the only place in Bogor to have desktop computers sitting in a lab,” he laughs – and 28 of them, no less. “CIFOR and ICRAF didn’t have that kind of luxury and would ask us to use the labs for trainings.” The center, which was meant to expire in 1998, was exceeding expectations and given more funding to continue until 2000. “Three years turned out to be so quick.”

Then, without warning, his career turned a sharp corner. “It turned out our dialogues had brought us and climate change to the attention to the new environment minister who wanted to develop that kind of thinking for Indonesia.” And the minister, Sonny Keraf, wanted Murdiyarso to serve as his deputy.

“On the first day of appointment, I told the minister that this is not my habitat, so if I think it’s time to go, I will let you know I’m going. He raised his eyebrows, ‘Why? People ask to have your position.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think I’ll survive here forever.’ ”

He spent nearly three years as deputy minister before his self-awareness became prophetic, and a change in minister felt to Murdiyarso his cue to leave, despite the new minister (Makarim) begging him to stay.

Shortly thereafter the Kyoto Protocol was ratified, which Murdiyarso said demonstrated his increased efficacy as a scientist outside policy rather than within. He returned to Bogor and the following year joined CIFOR as a Senior Scientist.

   In field with a research team (back right). CIFOR Photo/Daniel Murdiyarso
   Presenting at the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatlands Matter event in Jakarta, 2017. CIFOR Photo
   Murdiyarso (seated) briefs a group of University of Riau professors and students at a project research site on measuring and monitoring degraded peatlands undergoing restoration. CIFOR Photo/Deanna Ramsay


Contrary to the expectations from CIFOR’s moniker, Murdyarso was one of the few foresters at the organization when he began his time there. Most of his colleagues came from other disciplines such as political science and anthropology, and he wondered if he had made the right choice in joining. But, the still-nascent topic of climate change was the glue that held them together as they figured out how it should be applied. And so he stayed.

During his time with the organization, he’s published nearly 200 articles on biogeochemical cycles, fire and haze, climate change adaptation and mitigation across all manner of tropical landscapes, soil properties and microbial processes, atmospheric emissions, greenhouse gas fluxes and poverty alleviation. His name is found in reputable journals including Science, Nature and PNAS.

His accolades are numerous as well. He won the Achmad Bakrie Award in 2010. His long-time authorship for the Nobel Peace Prize winning IPCC makes him one of just a handful of Indonesians who hang the prize’s diploma on their wall. He’s served as the Indonesian focal point for the UNFCCC and a mentor to countless students. He’s among the few lifetime members of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI) – a position received by nomination only – meaning he will never retire from the institution.

Murdiyarso was key to CIFOR securing a USD 16 million grant from Norway to begin the Global Comparative Study on REDD+ in 2008. The same year, the U.S. Forest Service proposed a project for CIFOR to research peatlands. Murdiyarso – ever one to take an opportunity and stretch its possibilities – recommended they include mangroves too. “I don’t know why I proposed that,” he says. At the time wetland ecosystems were near invisible in the international climate change agenda, let alone Indonesia’s, despite its 100,000-plus kilometers of coastline. “But I figured if Indonesia has both, why miss the opportunity for research?”

The project’s first year received USD 75,000, but a paper led by a post-doc working with Murdiyarso published in result made such a splash that the following year’s funding from USAID jumped tenfold annually. UNFCC’s heads were turned, which quickly organized a workshop on these ecosystems, with the IPCC developing a guideline for wetlands pulling them onto the global stage in leading role. The project is currently in its sixth year.

Now, wetlands take up most of Murdiyarso’s time, and this year has been a culmination – yet another in his career – of this focus. The biannual Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit focused heavily on coastal ecosystems, followed by the Blue Carbon Summit and aforementioned Tropical Peatlands Exchange, both of which resulted in him writing a series of white papers that will feed directly into the hands of policymakers, advising the current administration on how to sustainably manage these fragile landscapes and their enormous carbon stocks – and with expediency.

With a special issue of Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change on peatlands he edited published recently and a book he co-wrote on fires that he will present at the World Bank Annual Meeting in Bali in October, then another presentation on wetlands at the Global Landscapes Forum Bonn in December, he doesn’t seem to slow down, despite colleagues lauding his ability to sail off into retirement with all the acclaim a scientist could ever want, at any time he wants.

But Murdiyarso doesn’t seem to see it that way. When LIPI tried to schedule a call with him, planning to inform Murdiyarso of his award, Murdiyarso asked for a rain check. “I thought it was about blue carbon or something… When they called me back and the director got on the phone, I was so surprised. I was so embarrassed.”

The reason for his postponing the call was a field trip with his students out into the peatlands of Kalimantan, trudging through the muck to take measurements and sleeping under a sky filled with more mosquitos than stars. After everything, this is his preferred consistency.

   Murdiyarso and Qatar-based scientist Mohamad Khawlie explore Qatar's most important ecosystem: mangroves. CIFOR/CIAT Photo/Neil Palmer
For more information on this topic, please contact Daniel Murdiyarso at
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