Indonesian Coal + Food For Soul

This week on Sea Change Radio, we dig into the archives and listen to two very different stories about consumption. First, we speak to global journalist Nithin Coca who has written a series of pieces for about Indonesia’s alarming headfirst dive into the coal industry. We discuss the high-level corruption that allowed coal to take off in Indonesia, examine the lax regulatory standards that imperil workers while allowing the country to keep export prices low and learn about the environmental degradation that the Indonesian coal boom is causing. Then we revisit our conversation with Lara Gilmore, who along with her husband, chef and restaurateur Massimo Bottura, run the world-renowned Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. In addition to running a three-star Michelin restaurant, Bottura and Gilmore have created a unique template for feeding the needy through their nonprofit, Food For Soul. Based on the concept of the Italian refettorio, a place where monks gathered together to share their meals, Food For Soul has elevated the soup kitchen to a whole new level, cooking and serving delicious meals in warm, elegant environments.

00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:17 Lara Gilmore – I think that the most important thing is we realized that food for soul was not only a platform and a refettorio to be able to give a meal to someone in need, but also a teaching platform for people to understand how to cook better at home and waste less food.

00:36 Narrator – This week on Sea Change Radio, we dig into the archives and listen to two very different stories about consumption. First, we speak to global journalist Nithin Coca who has written a series of pieces for about Indonesia’s alarming headfirst dive into the coal industry. We discuss the high-level corruption that allowed coal to take off in Indonesia, examine the lax regulatory standards that imperil workers while allowing the country to keep export prices low and learn about the environmental degradation that the Indonesian coal boom is causing. Then we revisit our conversation with Lara Gilmore, who along with her husband, chef and restaurateur Massimo Bottura, run the world-renowned Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. In addition to running a three-star Michelin restaurant, Bottura and Gilmore have created a unique template for feeding the needy through their nonprofit, Food For Soul. Based on the concept of the Italian refettorio, a place where monks gathered together to share their meals, Food For Soul has elevated the soup kitchen to a whole new level, cooking and serving delicious meals in warm, elegant environments.

2:09 Alex Wise – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by global journalist Nithin Coca. Nithin, welcome to Sea change Radio.

2:15 Nithin Coca – Oh great, great to be here.

2:16 Alex Wise So you have a few pieces in Mongabay that are quite interesting that I wanted to discuss with you about Indonesia and its coal industry. I was kind of surprised that Indonesia has flung itself with such force into coal, which so many of us think of as just a dying fuel. Why don’t you first kind of give us a thumbnail sketch of of how this started? How did Indonesia kind of decide to go to what you call fossil fuels final frontier?

2:46 Nithin Coca – Yeah, I’d be happy to. So I think Indonesia has always been, I guess since independence and even before it got independence from the Dutch in the 1940s and 50s. Like always, a resource export country. And you know previous waves of exports were focused on like timber, spices, palm oil in the 90s, and then I guess around the turn of the century, Indonesia really started ramping up its production of coal. Basically, he went from being like almost a non player in global exports to being last year the number one exporter of thermal coal and it’s been driven. Driven by the massive surge in demand in coal power generation in China, India and Indonesia, being geographically close to those countries, being a key, having easy access compared to the United States or South Africa. And the fact that the lax environmental controls and lax environmental standards in many of the regions that produce coal meant that Indonesian coal could be a lot cheaper than other countries that wanted to export it so. It created the situation today where Indonesia, you know, it’s one of the one or #1 or #2 export and in a in a time where COVID-19 has created like an economic turmoil. The country is really trying to maintain its standing and maintain the kind of the the presence of coal, even as kind of the headwinds are getting stronger and stronger around the world.

4:08 Alex Wise – Where are things in the Indonesian government? It’s no longer a dictatorship, but there’s a lot of corruption and it manifests itself in some pretty head scratching decisions like this, doesn’t it?

4:21 Nithin Coca – Yeah, so it’s true. Indonesia is not a dictatorship, so the Suharto dictatorship and slaughter regime fell in 1998. 1999 after more than three decades, but Indonesia never had this kind of big sweep, and getting rid of all the people from the dictatorial era to today. So you have a lot of the same military generals and rulers and same oligarchs that have stayed in power despite this transition to democracy, and I think that’s been one of the key factors. So a lot of the same people control the different ministries. A lot of the richest people in the country. These are the people who made their wealth during the Suharto era and coal is very, very closely connected. Several of I think the person who ran for president against current President Joko Widodo his opponent, Prabowo Subianto has significant holdings in coal – another former presidential candidate who is also from coal wealth. Some of several key ministers in the current president cabinet have a lot of a lot of holdings in coal or a lot of interest in coal, as do many Members of Parliament. So there’s a lot of oligarchical entrenchment in the Indonesian government. Despite this transition, I don’t think the transition to democracy. He meant a transition away from oligarchy, and a lot of the crony business dealings that Indonesia has seen since for several decades now.

5:39 Alex Wise – And in an archipelago like Indonesia, there it’s so fragmented from island to island. We’ve had other journalists who’ve contributed to Mongabay writing about some of the feel good stories in terms of conservation in the country. And so that’s one of the reasons I was surprised is to read your exposé about the Indonesian coal industry.  Because when I think of Indonesia, I like to think of it on a positive trajectory like it’s starting to realize that it can’t just cut, it can’t destroy its rainforest forever and that there is some kind of a an important environmental movement in the country as well. Does that environmental movement. Stand a chance against big coal in Indonesia?

6:24 Nithin Coca – Yeah, I, I think we often forget like how big Indonesia is. It’s the fourth biggest country in the world. It’s 280 million people, 10,000 islands. So just like in the United States, you can have states like West Virginia and Wyoming. You know really pushing coal and you can have states like California or you know Washington going 100% clean energy so you can have those two things happening in Indonesia as well. I think the challenge like I think. In several of the major big islands such as Java, which is more than half the population includes the capital Jakarta, you’re seeing significant amounts of coal-fired power plant development, and I think in Sumatra and Kalimantan on Borneo. In the Indian side of Borneo, is where you’re seeing a lot of the mining take place and you’re seeing a lot of environmental destruction there. But one thing that does. That I did find when I was doing the reporting for these projects is that a lot of these smaller coal-fired power plant developments on outlying islands in Indonesia. On smaller plants, less than 100 megawatts, 10 megawatts, apparently are being cancelled, and there seems to be some shift in those regions towards using geothermal or solar or title. Even in one project. So I really want to see if the trends we’re seeing on smaller islands with less people where renewables make a lot more financial sense. If that can kind of impact what’s happening on the larger islands where you really have this entrenchment of coal mining and coal electricity generation. So these two things are happening at the same time. Unfortunately, the power in Indonesia definitely lies in, even though it’s a geographically. Diverse country or geographically dispersed country. It’s very centralized politically, and the power is still in the hands of a few, and those people those few in Jakarta and in the upper you know business eco lawns are really promoting and pushing for government regulations to favor coal. And that’s a big problem.

8:15 Alex Wise – What percentage of Indonesia’s coal is domestically consumed and how much of it is exported? Do you know that, offhand?

8:24 Nithin Coca – Yeah, I don’t think Zack figures. I know I believe it’s 20% of Indonesian coal that’s consumed domestically and about 80%. That’s exported. And I think the key export markets are China, India. And then other Southeast Asian nations. China, India, Japan, South Korea and then Southeast Asian nations at a smaller percentage and the government has plans to increase domestic consumption quite significantly in the coming decade. One of them is through what I mentioned.

8:53 Alex Wise – I was surprised to see that Indonesia is actually building coal-fired plants fairly rapidly. Yeah, I think at this current moment, Indonesia has more than 10,000 megawatts either currently in various stage of construction or planned, so it’s one of the largest coal, coal or electricity pipelines anywhere in the world. And it’s coming at the same time you’re seeing neighboring countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and India. Kind of really shift and kind of clamp down on their existing plans Indonesia is still moving forward quite a bit, so it is an outlier in that in that sense very much in the developing world and it was interesting to read that the Japanese banks have been the traditional financiers of coal-fired plants in Southeast Asia along with South Korean financial institutions, but they’re starting to look a little bit more closely before throwing money at financing coal in countries like Indonesia, how do you think that may impact Indonesia’s plans for expansion in this?

10:02 Nithin Coca – Yeah, so that’s going to be really something worth watching. So last year, there were several financial institutions in Japan and South Korea, both announced that they are no longer going to be funding coal-fired power plants going forward. One of the problems is that that doesn’t impact existing plans, so any plants that already have financial commitments from Japan or South Korean banks are not affected. And that’s unfortunately most of the 10,000 megawatts. Mentioned is already financed, so it doesn’t have an immediate impact and doesn’t have a short term impact. But it’s definitely. Going to have, I think, a longer term impact. It’s just uncertain what that impact will be. I think people are still waiting to see how those commitments actually play out, and I think around the world we’ve always seen you know commitments made by banks. Can often sound good, but they’re not necessarily. Good when you actually look at like the impacts on the ground and then China has kind of been a holdout, so China finances more coal-fired power plants Indonesia than Japan or South Korea. So if China continues doing that then it might negate the impact of those other two countries moves.

11:11 (music break)

11:40 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to global journalist Nithin Coca. He has a piece in Mongabay about coal in Indonesia. So Nithin, the Indonesian population must not be thrilled about air quality. Just looking at Purple Air, just in Sumatra, there’s a lot of red and yellow and orange monitors showing very poor air quality. What is the Indonesian government plan doing as it’s choking its population under the coal-fired plant emissions?

12:20 Nithin Coca – Yeah, so that’s something really. I think it’s super interesting. The main grassroots opposition that I’ve seen to a lot of the coal-fired power plants. But also like growing in cities like Jakarta, which is becoming one of the most polluted cities in the world in terms of air quality, regularly in the top 10 most polluted cities in the world. I think one or two years ago like there was a citizen lawsuit filed in Jakarta that directly said the president is failing to protect the public health of Jakarta. Citizens and I thought that that kind of like grassroots opposition that could put a lot of pressure on the coal industry and on the Indonesian government in a way that climate concerns. For example, may not, because public health and air pollution are kind of things that Indonesia will experience daily. So far I don’t think the government hasn’t responded yet there are, I think in process of updating the coal emission standards and it’s going to be interesting if those emission standards are improved. Right now they’re very weak, far weaker than the United States or Europe or China or India, so they don’t require these qualifier power facilities to use very even kind of the simplest modern technologies not. And even though they’re not even not even considering like the expensive kind of high high emissions reductions technologies. Because I think the air pollution concerns, I think they’re going to keep on growing. I think people are becoming more aware of the connection between coal-fired power and air quality in urban areas and in across the across Indonesia, and I think it’s going to be more and more difficult for the government to ignore those concerns going forward. So it’ll be interesting to see how they respond. And if those actually do affect future coal plants as well.

14:08 Alex Wise – Well, it’s a terrific series that you continue to contribute to on We’ll link to it via Nithin Coca, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

14:20 Nithin Coca – Yeah, thank you so much for having me my pleasure.


Alex Wise 14:37 – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by my friend Lara Gilmore. She is the co-founder and President of Food for Soul. She’s a partner in life and business with restauranteur Massimo Bottura. Their flagship restaurant is Osteria Francescana, one of the finest restaurants in the world in Modena, Italy. Lara, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Lara Gilmore –  Hi, how are you, Alex?

Alex Wise – It’s so good to have you on this is a real treat. I only wish we could eat some of your delicious food together. Lara is right now in your new restaurant with a lot of Ferrari artwork behind you explain a little bit about that.

Lara Gilmore – Well, I’m in I’m in Maranello, which is a town that is about 20 minute drive from Modena. We’re in the Emilia Romagna area of Italy, which is northern Central Italy. And in Maranello, there is one thing and one thing only. And that is Ferrari. Ferrari Enzo Ferrari moved his company from Madena to Maranello when he bought land here in 1943. And on this piece of land, which he then created all his factories and in the whole beautiful Ferrari car business. There was a farmhouse and he decided that that farmhouse was not going to be torn down. But it was going to become the Ferrari canteen for all the new workers who were coming to his business. And then in the 1950s the canteen was such a success it got turned into a restaurant for the public. And from the 1950s on it’s been a roaring place to celebrate Italian and Emilian food culture Lambrusco on ice, and also car culture. So when I, when my son when I talked about Madonna, we often describe it as the place of slow food and fast cars, slow food being parmesan reggiano cheese that needs to be aged for at least 24 months for it to be officially sold as Parmigiano Reggiano or prosciutto or any of the salumi that have their aging process as well all the way up to a Chitose amico, which really doesn’t get put in a bottle until it’s about 20 years old. So that’s the slow food. And then on the other side, we’re in the land of Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, you know, incredible car companies that began at the turn of the century and have been innovative in Italy and engineering cavallino open this summer, and it’s a place to celebrate the slow food and the fast cars that defines this region.

Alex Wise –  So I want to learn more about Food For Soul. But first, tell our listeners a little bit about your story of coming to Italy and falling in love and becoming restauranteur extraordinare.

Lara Gilmore – All right, well, I’m going to try to make a long story very short. When I did move to New York, I was a struggling artist and struggling to find any job at an art magazine. And I worked for a magazine called Aperture and I walked into a little cafe on the corner of grand and Mercer, called Cafe Nona. And it was run by a third generation Calabrian, who was looking for someone to be behind the bar, who knew how to make a cup of Chino, who could talk about wine, who could talk about Italy. And I had those that vocabulary, and I had that language, and I knew about Italy, and I could speak it. And in walked my husband, pretty much the day I started working, and he was taking a sabbatical year from, from his restaurant in Montana, that he had opened nine years earlier back in 1986. And we met and we spoke and he told me that my cappuccinos were terrible every day and but he helped me make them better. And we joked around in Italian, and somehow that place became a place to make new friends and create a whole new community around Italian culture and life. And somehow in between that we fell in love. And he convinced me to move to Montana when he had to move back to Montana himself. And so I’ve been in Moderna ever since.

Alex Wise  – And one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you not only because I can almost taste the delicious food that you and your husband present to people from all over the world, is that you have a different perspective about food than a lot of fine restaurants would I mean, it’s pretty all consuming to try to get one Michelin star as you mentioned, and now your three Michelin stars and routinely ranked the number one or two best restaurant in the world. But you were able to find the time to carve out this nonprofit Food For Soul. When we think of the sumptuousness of an of Osteria Francescana. The other end of the spectrum is food scarcity. And you and your husband did not turn a blind eye to that reality want to explain the mission of your organization?

Lara Gilmore – I will Alex, I just want to take one step back and mentioned that, like anything, we can always find time for anything in our lives we fit in time. But more important, I think was for us that we discovered this calling and this mission through our process. So are the 17 years that it took from when we opened our restaurant in 1995. To when we were able to be awarded those three star Michelin those three Michelin stars in 2012. Our whole obsession during those 17 years was about quality was about small producers was about communicating, you know the beauty of Italy and its stories through food. But we were completely focused on getting our Michelin stars. And once we got those stars, something so interesting happened. We realize that those stars really only had value because they had given us a voice and that people were listening to us and whether we were talking about a heroic farmer or butcher or cheese producer. We were making a difference. And six months into our three Michelin stars. There was an earthquake here in Emilia Romagna may 2012. And in May 2012. I’m not going to say it damaged our business as a restaurant. It damaged the town, economically, tourism emilia-romagna. But more than anything within days of the first earthquake, we found out that 450,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano had been destroyed, they had literally fallen off the shelves because of this earthquake. And at that moment, Massimo and I looked at each other and we said this is an opportunity for us to use our voice to use these three Michelin stars, to use our culinary skills to use our the quality of our ideas to create something that will create more awareness about this problem and to help these cheese makers survive to communicate that anywhere from around the world. If you buy Parmesan cheese in this moment, you’re supporting an industry that is in great difficulty. And so we did this through creating a recipe a recipe which Massimo took classic spaghetti ketchup paper and he transformed it into a result of ketchup paper. And instead of using pepper in Reno cheese, he used parmigiano and he shared this recipe virtually with Low food, and basically communicated this message. And the reaction was incredible. And no dairy farmer closed a no cheese maker had to, you know, shut its doors. And we realized that we a recipe can be a social gesture, and can be an act of solidarity. And from that moment on, we started looking at the world from a different point of view and started realizing that we could have a great impact of things that happened outside a restaurant, not only inside a restaurant. And so when Expo came along in 2015, and the theme was Feed the Planet Energy for Life. And lots of people were asking Massimo for a pop up restaurant, or to do some special dinner or this or that, and no one was asking him what he thought or what his ideas were about this theme, he realized that he needed to do something and act on his own accord. And that’s when we started this project, and this little seed of an idea was planted.

(music break)

Alex Wise  – This is Alex Wise and Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Lara Gilmore. She is a partner in life and business with Massimo Bottura, their restaurant’s, Osteria Francescana, among others, and she’s the co founder and president of Food for Soul. So what exactly is the idea behind the refettorio concept? Why don’t you break that down for our listeners?

Lara Gilmore  – So instead of doing an intervention in 2015, in a, you know, Expo fair, awesome, I wanted to leave a signature, a mark behind that had a little bit more lasting presence. And so he wanted to open up a soup kitchen, a community kitchen, with the inevitable waste that was going to be produced because of a fare like Expo, and the waste that we have in all of our cities coming out of supermarket surplus. And he wanted to do this with the chefs that were passing through from Expo chefs from all over the world. And the place that he would do this was in a refettorio. A refettorio is where monks would gather at the end of the day to have their meal together, and they would commune and then we’ll commute over breaking bread. Refettorio is an idea of a place where you are safe, where you can share what you’ve learned over the day, or the difficulties you’ve had, and you share it at the table with other people. And that meal is not just nourishing, because you need your calories and your energy to be brought back. But it’s nourishing because you break bread together. And so we based this soup kitchen on an idea that a soup kitchen should be a place where people can come that safe and beautiful and inspiring, and have a meal together and be served a meal. They don’t have to stand in line. They don’t have to be at a self service. And that those meals could be created during Expo by visiting chefs who are cooking surplus food that would come in from expo or from supermarkets surplus everyday wouldn’t wouldn’t know what kind of food would have in or who the chef would be. But the idea was to create a three course meal for people in need. And we immediately started working with an Italian association called Caritas, Ambrosiano, the Caritas based in Milan, we found an incredible space that was a theater from the 1920s in a 15 adjacent to a 15 century church, in a neighborhood just outside the periphery of Milan, that was kind of surrounded by train tracks, and it seemed to represent, you know, lives passing and going. And it was a neighborhood that was a little bit neglected a lot of immigrants a lot of poverty. And in the beginning, this neighborhood did not want absolutely a soup kitchen there. But by the end of six months, when we had been running this program, it was the volunteers and it was the neighborhood and the community around this project that actually convinced us that this small refettorio had legs and could become a model for future projects to come. And that’s when we founded Food For Soul

Alex Wise – It seems like such a great idea, Lara, that shouldn’t just be limited to your organization’s limited bandwidth. Have you been able to convince any, or, have you seen any uptake of a similar model in other parts of the of Italy or around the world where the refettorio model is being played out for the needy?

Lara Gilmore  –  Well, I think we’ve had a big influence in the dialogue that goes around how we feed people. We don’t feed 1000s and 1000s of people a day. We feed about 100 people a day. And we try to feed them with a certain kind of attention to detail and to communication and hospitality and building trust. And I think that really important.

Alex Wise  –  Lara Gilmore, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Lara Gilmore –  Thank you, Alex. I love being on Sea Change Radio!

Narrator  –  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Uncle Tupelo and Jerry Vale. Check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.