Sonya Dewi begins tenure as new Asia Director

The Bogor, Indonesia-based landscape ecologist will oversee nine countries in her Asia directorate.
Photo by Riky M. Hilmansyah/CIFOR-ICRAF

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Scientists and detectives would appear to have little in common. Until you meet Sonya Dewi.

Just like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple searched for proof to solve crimes in Agatha Christie’s whodunnit novels, Dewi has dedicated her career to helping build the scientific evidence needed to take effective action on climate change and to make nations accountable for their sustainable development goals.

An avid fan of detective stories, the Indonesian-born scientist recently became Asia director at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and is the first woman to hold the post. Previously, Dewi spent more than two decades developing ground-breaking tools for evidence-based decision making and stakeholder support.

“Being a scientist in this particular area, you have to have a detective mind as well,” she says. “I am passionate about providing tools and information for people to make informed decisions and to give them the capacity to monitor and evaluate what happens after that. I think this has been my passion all along.”

As CIFOR-ICRAF strives to address five major global challenges, the Bogor, Indonesia-based landscape ecologist will oversee nine countries in her Asia directorate, with levels of engagement ranging from highly active – such as Indonesia and India – to only light commitments from Bangladesh, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan. The remaining states are China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. A new programme in Papua New Guinea is also slated to start soon.

CIFOR-ICRAF’s new Asia director will be dealing with countries whose physical geographies differ greatly, ranging from the mangroves of Indonesia, Bangladesh and India to the mountains of China and Nepal. The climatic conditions also vary from very dry to very humid, while their development stages and land sizes also diverge considerably.

“The diversity of context, challenges and opportunities are exciting to me,” Dewi says. “This means looking at where the dots can be connected and getting a bird’s eye view of the region so that we can learn across countries.”

Ironically, Dewi ended up in her chosen profession almost by chance. She had intended to study mathematics at a specialized institute in Indonesia, but when her sister picked up the wrong application form on her behalf, the young high-school graduate instead opted for the best faculty at the best local university. Her focus turned to agricultural science.

“Looking back, it was an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle,” she says. “My first degree broadened my perspective and is relevant today because I’m now working on multidisciplinary things such as agriculture, land uses, soil science and hydrology.”

After completing her first degree in agricultural science, Dewi pursued a master’s in computer science at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada. In 1997, she received her doctorate in theoretical ecology from the Australian National University.

Dewi then began work as an intern at CIFOR, which later hired her as a scientist. At CIFOR, she once worked in a remote area of Kalimantan, where she witnessed rampant deforestation in the early 2000s and resolved to focus her career on providing evidence so that “people know what their options are now and into the future,” she says.

In 2005, Dewi moved to ICRAF but remained in Indonesia. For another year, she continued to work on a CIFOR project in India at the same time.

“And now here I am at CIFOR-ICRAF. So, I came from both sides of the organization,” she says.

In her career, Dewi’s work on climate change mitigation has involved the development and analysis of national and subnational carbon accounting and monitoring; peatland strategy; the carbon footprint of palm oil production; and national-level REDD+ strategy.

One of her proudest achievements is a tool known as LUMENS (Land-Use Planning for Multiple Environmental Services), which empowers multi-stakeholder negotiations for planning sustainable landscapes for green growth that can support livelihoods and help restore environmental services. 

In 2012, the government of Indonesia began using this tool in all provinces to develop action plans for climate change mitigation and help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

“Once mainstreamed into medium-term development plans, the impacts are sustained for at least five years even after the projects are completed,” Dewi says. “And once this has been mainstreamed into the plan, the government is accountable for making that happen. This evidence-based planning has been quite effective.”

Dewi believes today’s young scientists hold the key to CIFOR-ICRAF’s future and enjoy a more level playing field compared with what she faced in her early career.

“The atmosphere now is much more open to different views, ethnicities and language differences,” she says. “People are more accepting and understanding now.”

Nevertheless, there are still impediments to upward mobility for women and young people in any organization, as Dewi acknowledges.

“My advice is to try and find a way around the challenges and look for other entry points if the direct path doesn’t work,” she says. “Being connected, resourceful and tactical can get you a long way.”

Tapping into CIFOR-ICRAF’s merged network consisting of more than 700 staff working in 60 countries across the Global South, Dewi aims to make a positive impact through “cross-fertilisation” within her region in order to help countries benefit from each other by sharing resources, experience and expertise.

“To me, one of the biggest contributions that applied scientists at places like CIFOR-ICRAF can make is to empower people to make informed decisions with evidence,” she says.

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Topic(s) :   Climate change