Protecting Sumatra’s Largest Rainforest
“Gunung Leuser National Park is the largest intact rainforest in Sumatra…and has one of the most diverse ecologies in the Southern Hemisphere. Due to expansion of commercial plantations and mismanagement of the park, the forest boundary is increasingly in danger of encroachment, and the forest itself is at risk of losing its ecosystem of diverse flora and fauna.” Alarmed by this destruction and lack of opportunity for the local population, Mohamad Tahar Jumaat co-founded the organization Nature for Change. Using a socially oriented conservation approach, he hopes to return the villagers to their previous role as guardians of the forest.
What inspired you to start Nature for Change, and what does your organization do?
I was working for a humanitarian NGO from 2004 to 2010. Then, I quit my position and started my own company, IUVA, which specializes in experiential learning for students from Singapore. The goal with that project was to rejuvenate the degraded forest of Gunung Leuser National Park, a UNESCO site rich with biodiversity and endangered animals in North Sumatra, Indonesia. After two years, I found that the project didn’t really benefit the communities living at the buffer zone, the area bordering the perimeter of the park. On top of that, the local NGO with which I partnered was manipulating the villagers for their own financial interest. I ended my company’s relationship with this organization, and decided to move forward in my own way.
I met Darma Pinem, a thoughtful and informed citizen in the village of Timbang Lawan and a manager of Leuser National Park. We analyzed the region’s historical and contemporary challenges—political, economic, and social—to explore avenues for affecting change, and I asked him if it was possible to plant fruit trees native to the park outside the park’s border. My goal was to provide an additional food and money source for the villagers, a substantial number of whom live in poverty, and to repopulate the buffer zone with native plants to reverse the degrading effects of commercial plantations in the area. This program prevents or alleviates the harmful effects of two threats to the forest—the illegal advancement of damaging commercial plantations into the forest, and the unlawful foraging for food by villagers into the forest.
Together, Darma and I co-founded Nature for Change, which was officially registered as an NGO in May 2015. We are a volunteer-based organization serving to maintain the health of the Gunung Leuser National Park ecosystem, and the health and economic development of the communities living directly outside it. The organization is operated largely by the villagers; Darma leads educational programming for the villagers and tourists, and I provide strategic and programmatic development support.
We realized that a socially oriented conservation approach was needed. The cooperation of local farmers was necessary, and we began educating them on how planting these fruit trees would benefit their community. Now, farmers can make a better choice—to join NFC’s farmers’ alliance which will make them more money and help protect the Gunung Leuser National Park’s ecosystem, which they rely on for food and clean water—or join a less lucrative partnership with the palm oil or rubber companies, which destroys their homeland. We want to empower the villagers to become guardians of the forests as they had been historically. After a few years, NFC now has many volunteers, an alliance of farmers covering 24 hectares of fruit tree land, and an additional 6 hectares of land owned by our organization. We developed other initiatives in diverse program areas including humanitarian relief, sanitation infrastructure, English education, student and youth educational programs, and eco-tourism.
Gunung Leuser National Park, the area that your organization aims to protect, is a UNESCO site and hosts a rich biodiversity. Can you describe the significance of this park, and its current environmental concerns?
Gunung Leuser National Park is the largest intact rainforest in Sumatra. The forest has one of the most diverse ecologies in the southern hemisphere. It is home to four of the world’s most endangered species of animals—the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, Sumatran elephant, and Sumatran orangutan—and provides a substantial amount of oxygen. Due to expansion of commercial plantations and mismanagement of the park, the forest boundary is increasingly in danger of encroachment, and the forest itself is at risk of losing its ecosystem of diverse flora and fauna.
Currently, the main environmental concern is loss of habitat, and animals intruding into the buffer zone. As critical wildlife continue to lose more of their hunting and foraging grounds, they start roaming into the farmlands of the buffer zone to search for food. This has led to further conflict between animals and people, and resulted in dwindling numbers of orangutan, tiger, and elephants. It is crucial that the people of the buffer zone are empowered with knowledge on how to coexist with their neighbors in the forest. Unfortunately, most of the farmlands are owned by corporations, and the way they handle this conflict is sadly violent and disgusting.
The forest also faces threats from government policies. Lack of staff, corruption, and inefficiency in combating issues like encroachment, make the fight to preserve biodiversity seem like an uphill battle. One recent policy has resulted in new roads being cut through the forest, promoting illegal logging and the poaching of animals. We recognize these challenges, and try our best to educate villagers. They can play a part in protecting the forest and thus leave a legacy for future generations. We have to make them realize that there is economic potential in protecting their environment. They are the key partner to all these programs.
How has recent political, economic, and social history impacted the environment?
The problems arose after ownership of the forest changed from the village communities to the government. Before Gunung Leuser National Park was established in 1982, village elders enforced strict rules for protecting the environment, and provided punishments to those who disobeyed them. If a community member needed timber for a house, they would have to seek approval from the council of elders. With central authority, those rules were cast aside.
The inequality of income for the population living in the buffer zone—more than 300,000 people—also plays a big part in the destruction of the environment. Much of the population is still living near the poverty borderline. The lack of employment options causes villagers to become poachers to make ends meet. Job opportunities are also created by the establishment of palm oil factories; in a way, this prevents them from encroaching upon the forest as their income is sustained. However, much more needs to be done to ensure that palm oil companies are regulated and monitored to prevent illegal expansion and unsustainable practices.
Another environmental threat is that certain tribes love to eat game animals. In a Batak village, for example, it is even hard to find monkeys, as they have grown to be such a delicacy. The village of Timbang Lawan is multi-cultural; peer pressure is used in the hope that people will not trespass into the forest area to hunt. The passing of information about illegal activity should be encouraged too.
Can you tell me a little bit about some of your core projects? What are some of your key achievements?
In order to make the solutions to these environmental challenges sustainable, NFC’s mission is centered on both the environment and the people in its ecosystem. Many other NGO’s focus on animals, which appeals more to international audiences, but neglects the needs of the people. By empowering poverty-level villagers with the creation of employment opportunities, they will feel more secure and not be tempted to disturb the forest. To encourage their participation in NFC’s efforts, we provide food, infrastructure enhancements, and other development opportunities to participants when they help build camping huts or work on other projects. I strongly believe that if a community know that their needs and life matters to us, they will be inspired and want to join in on the efforts.
We started Project Rice, which has already provided families collectively with several tons of rice. There is a need to help the poorest and most elderly in the village. The project covers the cost of buying rice for the family, and gives them disposable income to create small businesses, or even an opportunity for the kids to go to school.
Another life-enhancing project involves building toilets for the homes. Many families are without proper sanitation facilities, which provides a healthier environment and allows them to participate in a homestay program. We have to assist in the infrastructure development in the village so that they see progress. This will inspire them and motivate them to join in the program.
We are also creating an animal sanctuary area. We are procuring small parcels of land to create a sanctuary or animal safety zone; animals that are chased away from plantations are directed to this zone, where they can find food and security. The development of this initiative is ongoing due to lack of funds.
A recently completed project is the youth learning center in the village. It is called Rumah Baca Pintar Bersama (RBPB). This center provides free basic English lessons to children from 7-17 years old. I find this is necessary as the youth will be the next generation to take over the program, and they must be equipped with skills to interact and communicate with international visitors.
In addition to those initiatives mentioned above and the fruit tree initiative for the villagers, we have a campsite near the forest which serves to educate and inspire foreign visitors. Visiting groups stay at the camp, and help plant trees. It is also a vehicle to share information about the ecosystem and diversity of the forest. We promote tourism in the village, and encourage visiting groups to experience homestays as opposed to hotels. This provides additional income for the families.
What is ecotourism, and why is this an area of opportunity for you?
We are trying to create a viable ecotourism concept. It is difficult to emulate a perfect standard as the community is still not used to the usual practices of recycling items and aware of the impact of their routine on the environment. About 15 minutes away from the village is the famous Bukit Lawang tourist area. Unfortunately it has been spoiled by tourism and mismanagement of the site. Timbang Lawan provides another choice where the traditional values of the village are still preserved. The campsite and planting activities are different experiences that visitors will get if they were to come to the village. With the community functioning as guardian over the zone, visitors will have chance to view wild animals in their own habitat. The economic spillover from tourism is widespread too. It brings extra income to families and it gives avenues for the community to interact with international visitors, which will broaden their perspective and understanding of different cultures.
Funding seems like a major hurdle. Where does your funding come from? What are the opportunities and limitations?
In the initial stages, I funded the project. Specifically, income that I earned from my business was channeled to start the organization. As the project gained attention, a NFC fund was set up to fund small programs without my financial assistance. Through NFC’s programs, we have managed to put aside money into those accounts. If the organization can gain a wider international audience, it will become even more sustainable and provide considerable income for the community. Our next step is to register the organization at the national level. Once accomplished, it will allow NFC to reach donors, since we are not well known enough to accomplish that at this time.
What are your greatest challenges, and most exciting goals for the coming year?
Some of the greatest challenges include equipping the crew with necessary and new skills to make the project more systematic and efficient. We want to empower them with technology to make the monitoring and assessment of the plants and sites easier and more effective. Maintaining the villagers enthusiasm and motivation is key so that they will not feel tired of the routine. We also want to create new income opportunities for the community, and plant new crops with a better yield.
Currently, I am excited about a program that I am starting on the island of Lombok, Indonesia. It deals with mangrove replanting and coral propagation. As in Sumatra, the project is a long-term commitment. With so much destruction happening to the ocean, I feel that it is crucial for us to play a part in addressing the problem.
I am also looking at creating job opportunities for villagers on the mountain of Lombok, Mt. Rinjani, which is Indonesia’s third highest mountain. The village of Sembalun is one of two gateways to the mountain, where villagers work mostly as porters and guides. I hope to build a visitor accommodation area where local tourist services will be offered. From this site, health and sanitation awareness programs could be carried out, and less privileged villagers will be educated on different subjects. This project is a slow process, but it is my hope that it can be achieved in the future.