Five years ago, there were likely very few people outside of Indonesia who’d ever heard of a place called the Leuser ecosystem. Today, this enormous and besieged tropical rainforest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra is on its way to becoming as well known as the Amazon in terms of its unique wildlife and its worldwide conservation significance.
Leuser has received visits from countless international media crews, been the focus of major global NGO campaigns, and, most recently, was the backdrop of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Instagram and Twitter photos.
Orangutans have, arguably, continued to generate much of this attention. Leuser is one of the last refuges of these Critically Endangered primates, found only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and the “last place on earth” — as Leuser has been billed in media campaigns — where they exist alongside tigers, elephants and rhinos.
But while these charismatic megafauna have aroused massive global attention, the preservation of their habitat, and their fate, likely rests not just with international NGOs, but is also in the hands of the people who live there. And the locals have a very different perspective and very different priorities.
A growing grassroots environmental movement in Sumatra has made real gains in protecting the Leuser ecosystem. But they’ve achieved their successes not by appealing to their citizens’ love of great apes, but by attending first to the bigger concerns of local people: addressing their desires for clean air, fresh water and a variety of other invaluable ecosystem services provided by undisturbed tropical rainforests.
International and local disconnect
When I travelled to Sumatra in late 2014, it was initially to write a story about this burgeoning grassroots environmental movement. But my editors weren’t having it: all they wanted were stories covering the plight of orangutans.
So I reported on the excellent work being done by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP), and the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU) — rescue and rehabilitation organizations on the front lines of habitat destruction and orangutan protection.
At SOCP, I met wildlife lovers like Asril Abdullah, who spent nights away from his wife and children to keep 24-hour watch over infant orangutan orphans; and veterinarians Yenny and Ricko Jaya, a husband-and-wife team who made arduous 12-hour treks from their home to remote villages to treat orangutans in desperate need of medical attention.
As I wrote, I continued to see that the critical grassroots story still wasn’t getting told: rural Sumatrans weren’t obsessed with orangutan rescue — it being hard to care about these big primates after seeing them repeatedly ravage their gardens and food supply.
Average citizens I met in cafes or on the street buttonholed me and would demand to know: “Why do you North Americans care so much about orangutans,” which many people viewed as pests.
Meanwhile, the local NGOs in Aceh wanted to talk to me not about great apes but about spatial planning — a topic far less captivating, perhaps, but far more relevant to local people’s lives and the future of their homeland.
Orangutan Eden under assault
The Leuser ecosystem, which straddles the northern half of the island of Sumatra, covers nearly 2.6 million hectares (10,038 square miles) within Aceh (a special, semi-autonomous territory) and the province of North Sumatra. Encompassing two mountain ranges, three lakes, nine river systems and three national parks, its ecological value cannot be understated. Here live an estimated 10,000 species of plant and 200 species of mammal — dozens found nowhere else on earth. Of the mere 6,000 orangutans left in Sumatra, an estimated 90 percent live within the Leuser ecosystem.
For decades, beginning in the mid-1970s, this region had been somewhat protected from the more intense development occurring across the rest of Sumatra by civil strife — violence erupted regularly between Indonesia’s central government and an independence movement known as the Free Aceh Movement (Gerekan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM).
In 2005, as part of a peace agreement, Aceh received a special territorial status and retained control over its natural resources and land use decisions. In 2007, after the Leuser ecosystem was granted official protected status by the national government, Aceh’s first post-war governor, Irwandi Yusuf responded with the BPKEL (Badan Pengelola Kawasan Ekosistem Leuse, or Leuser Ecosystem Management Authority) a government-sanctioned authority that paid rangers to patrol Leuser and prevent illegal hunting and logging.
In 2012, when Free Aceh Movement leader Zaini Abdullah was elected governor of Aceh, that changed. Within a year, the BPKEL was disbanded and its rangers fired. The following year, Abdullah’s government released a new spatial plan for the province of Aceh. The Leuser ecosystem was left completely off the map, and the future of its forests and wildlife was at grave risk.
A homegrown response
The effort to save Leuser now kicked into high gear — internationally, but also locally.
Aceh-based NGOs and dedicated volunteers rapidly filled the vacuum left by the disbanded BPKEL. Rudi Putra, an Acehnese wildlife biologist and one of the rangers laid off by the government, helped found two groups: the Leuser Conservation Forum (Forum Konservasi Lesuer, or FLK), and Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (Hutan, Alam dan Lingkungan Aceh, or HaKa).
In the absence of government protection of Leuser’s borders, Putra and his organizations served as citizen enforcers: they compared GPS data with concession zone maps to determine which palm oil companies were encroaching across park boundaries. And where they found encroachment they cooperated with local leaders and police officers to cut down and destroy illegally-planted palms.
By 2014, Putra’s organizations had eliminated an estimated 1,200 acres of illegal oil palm plantation in Leuser, and had begun earning a reputation for unorthodox but effective tactics. That year, Putra was featured in a VICE documentary about palm oil development in Sumatra and won a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.
Despite this success and recognition, the organization was living hand-to-mouth. Some of Putra’s field operatives hadn’t collected a salary in months. But things have improved. Today, the organizational budget has increased by about 400 percent, Putra told Mongabay. That’s thanks to a significant donation from the Leo DiCaprio Foundation, which pledged money to help HaKa and other organizations fight ecological battles in Leuser. (On a visit to Sumatra, DiCaprio met with Putra and the two of them posed, along with HaKa co-founder Farwiza Farhan, beside a Sumatran elephant.)
“We work very slowly, increasing our capacity and our work with the small funding,” Putra told me. “This a very significant work and [it has been aided by the] fundraising effort we got in the last two years.”
Winning in court
Sumatra’s environmental movement has focused on a simple objective: not wildlife, but the enforcement of existing laws. One of its first big tests came in 2011, when Governor Yusuf issued an oil palm plantation concession permit within the Tripa forest. This lowland peat swamp inside the Leuser ecosystem is home to the densest orangutan population in Sumatra and is an important carbon sink, helping to curb global warming.
Local environmental activists responded immediately, asserting that the Aceh governor was breaking the law by ignoring nationally authorized park boundaries.
T.M. Zulfikar, head of the Foundation for Sustainable Ecosystems (Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari, or YEL), brought the first legal challenge against the concession permit. Other regional, national and international NGOs — including the the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indoneisa, or WALHI ), one of the oldest environmental NGOs in the country — offered support and publicized the case.
Last year, after a protracted three-year lawsuit and an investigation by the national police and forestry ministry, PT Kallista Alam, the oil palm company, was ordered to pay more than US $26 million in fines and forest restoration costs, an unprecedented amount for an environmental case in Indonesia.
In a press release announcing the victory, Zulfikar wrote that the decision should serve as a “strong warning to other companies that illegal clearing of forests in the protected Leuser Ecosystem will not be tolerated.”
Michael Griffiths, a consultant involved in the protection of Leuser for more than three decades, notes that although the conservation movement in Sumatra and greater Indonesia is just emerging, it has been able to exact real compromises from both government and industry.
The local NGOs “are smart. They know how to generate good support for cases in local circles,” Griffiths told Mongabay. “They’ve been very skilled politically, and strategic in terms of campaigning. They’ve done so much, not only protecting the forest but also telling the story of what’s being lost. And that’s a totally new approach.”
The message espoused: what’s being lost, to the people of Aceh and of Indonesia, is something far more valuable than orangutans and wildlife habitat. The Leuser ecosystem controls the flow and distribution of fresh water for four million Sumatrans.
The economic value of an intact Leuser ecosystem — in terms of flood and fire prevention, water supply, agro-ecology, tourism, carbon sequestration, and a host of other ecological services — has been estimated at US $22.3 billion dollars. That’s value that local people understand.
Acting locally and globally
Farwiza Farhan, the 30-year-old Acehnese native who co-founded HaKa, told me that a romantic attitude towards orangutans does exist on a national level in Indonesia, especially among city-dwellers who live far from tropical rainforests and have no contact with the animals. But on a local level, she points out, “there are not many community members [who] would see orangutans as a treasure, as wildlife that is super intelligent [or whose] habitat needs to be protected.”
She explains that, “Often, I see local people seeing orangutans as something bad, without much [kind] feeling into it. It’s a bit like a rabbit in your garden, [a pest] that just happens to be there.”
In addition to pursuing her PhD, Farhan now does much of the campaigning and communications work for HaKa, and she is one of nine plaintiffs in a new civil lawsuit calling on Indonesia’s national government to cancel Aceh’s unconstitutional, and environmentally destructive, spatial plan.
Farhan notes that while such legal actions are very important, it is also vital that rural Sumatran people be educated as to precisely why the Leuser lawsuits are going forward. Indonesia largely follows a system of client and patronage, she explains. When people are upset about land use decisions, they typically go to their district leader, who has virtually no jurisdiction over such matters, so that approach rarely works.
Instead, she and the HaKa network are educating people to report a crime when they experience land use violations. Go to the police, file a report, she says. Go to the courts, if necessary. Push the legal system, she urges “in order to protect [your] homeland.” And also, says Farhan, HaKa lets rural people know “that they are not alone.”
This kind of work, Farhan says, is different than talking to people about big issues like climate change or the protection of endangered species, in that there’s less awareness building required. Rural Sumatrans already know that deforestation is a huge problem. They regularly see the destructive results of clear cutting in their daily lives.
“The threat is very real. No one needs to tell them that [deforestation] is a bad idea.” In fact, she says, local people will be happy to tell anyone who will listen that it’s wrong to illegally log the rainforest. “Sometimes, they need to be listened to.”
If Sumatra’s rural populace is heard and empowered — say the local NGOs — it may be that the Leuser ecosystem, and the world’s last remaining wild orangutans along with it, can be saved.