An interview with Basten Gokkon
Our guest this week is Basten Gokkon, a full-time journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Basten writes with fierce passion about environmental issues, but his beats also include human rights, renewable energy efforts, Indigenous peoples’ empowerment, public health, and their intersections. Basten started his journalism career in 2014 at an English-language Indonesian news publication where he developed an interest in story-telling from his fascinating home country to the rest of the world. Basten is also an avid traveler who enjoys trekking and scuba diving. The latter has subsequently strengthened his respect for marine ecosystems and his awareness of the importance of sustainable fisheries and ocean conservation. Basten currently writes for the award-winning environmental news agency Mongabay. His latest articles include “From penguins to sharks to whales, swimming in circles is a surprisingly common trait,” “Never mind the mercury: Indonesia says coal ash isn’t hazardous,” and “When seas turn rough, gleaning keeps the fish on the table for some communities.”
Hello, Basten, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in human-environment relations in Indonesia, personally and professionally?
My interest in the intersectional relation between humans and the environment actually came after I started my professional journey as a journalist. For the longest time, I had only focused on the importance of protecting the natural environment, i.e. the non-human components of the environment. I had been romanticizing the idea of, for instance, a forest without any human interference whatsoever, and that was kind of the general theme in news articles I read growing up — which was my introduction to environmental journalism. Becoming a journalist has allowed me to listen to a lot of people tell me about their fascinating relations with their environment. Understanding the perspectives of people whose livelihoods have depended on the environment for generations has helped expand my stories to include as many nuances as possible - especially when writing about Indonesia, which is rich in biodiversity and complex social structures. Human-environment relations are beautifully complicated. To be able to capture that in my articles, and hopefully allow readers to relate, are personally my ultimate goals.
Your expertise lies primarily in marine ecosystems, sustainable fisheries, and ocean conservation. What, in your experience, are the challenges in reconciling the health of the ocean with the wellbeing of ocean-dependent human communities in Indonesia?
I have to say that I’m not yet an expert in these issues. I’ve been particularly interested in
writing about marine issues because the ocean connects everyone in the world. The fact
that plastic debris produced by one country could end up washed ashore on another
country’s coast, or transported through the migration of tuna fish, means that protecting
the ocean is truly a global effort. One country’s effort to protect its seas would be in vain
if the other countries aren’t doing the same. The conversation around ocean conservation
and sustainable fisheries is still heavily focused on protecting the marine ecosystem.
While this is very important, not enough attention is being given to the empowerment
of coastal communities, fishers, and seafarers. Mongabay’s recent investigation has helped
put a spotlight on the devastating impacts of egregious practices happening aboard
international distant water fishing boats. Many of the recruited deckhands on these boats
come from Indonesia. One of the key drivers of the harrowing working conditions on board these boats is the fact that coastal fish stock have been depleted due to unsustainable practices occurring many years prior, and so fishers are going further out to sea to capture the fish. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, not enough opportunities and economic benefits exist for Indonesians who seek to make a living from fisheries. So, in my opinion, ensuring the health of the ocean also means ensuring the health of humanity.
Basten as a panelist at the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
As a journalist, you deploy the tools of story-telling to bring to life changing human-environment relations to global audiences. What, in your view, are the strengths of a journalistic approach to environmental issues and who do you have in mind as your reader when writing?
In journalism, there’s a style called "feature writing" which emphasizes narrating skills over reporting. This, I think, gives a lot more room for the human aspect of an environmental story to grab people’s attention, which can then hopefully turn into action. Quantitative information and numbers don’t necessarily lie, but I think they’re almost meaningless without understanding the social nuance of these data. Such quantitative data also often represent the majority, but the most captivating stories I’ve ever read are the ones about the marginalized. Mainstream media have done a great job at capturing the majority’s voice, and writing for such an extraordinary platform like Mongabay has provided me with ample opportunities to share stories of people who are rarely given any platform to voice their experiences or opinions.
Your articles do an incredible job of interweaving human knowledge and practices with non-human ways of life. In one of your recent articles, for instance, you explored how understanding the circling movements of sea animals can benefit effective conservation of the marine ecosystem at large. This to me speaks strongly to your interdisciplinary approach to journalism. What opportunities or limitations have you encountered in bringing different systems or forms of knowledge into conversation with one another – for instance, marine science, economics, sociology, or others?
The opportunities are almost endless because human-environment relations are complex
and as a journalist, I think, you try to capture as much as possible of that complexity in a
cohesive story. And that is arguably the most exciting part about it. The limitation is simply
time! Not enough time for a journalist to do interdisciplinary reading, field reporting,
fact-checking, writing, and just as importantly, self-care. I think journalistic work can give
a signal to the academic community that there is an appetite in interdisciplinary scientific
research as it can enrich our reporting as well. At the end of the day, a good journalistic
work is one that’s able to show the big picture clearly.
Basten field-reporting on public health in Indonesian Papua.
Finally, Basten, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying human-environment relations?
I have very limited knowledge about, and experience in, the scholarly community, so I have to say that I don't feel I have authority to give solid advice in this regard. That being said, it would be cool to allow more journalists into the scholarly environment. By this, I don't mean merely a transactional relationship of promoting studies and writing content, but rather a relationship of mutual development that would allow us to expand one another's skills. I’m not saying this has never been done before, but rather that more of it needs to happen.
Basten field-reporting at the Sumatran rhino sanctuary in Sumatra's Way Kambas National Park.
"The conversation around ocean conservation and sustainable fisheries is still heavily focused on protecting the marine ecosystem. While this is very important, not enough attention is being given to the empowerment of coastal communities, fishers, and seafarers."
"Human-environment relations are complex. As a journalist, you try to capture as much as possible of that complexity in a cohesive story."