18 September 2017
Armed with a chainsaw and a copy of Indonesia’s environmental laws, biologist Rudi Putra and his team of eco-warriors have been identifying and cutting down illegal palm oil plantations and recovering the lost forests of the Leuser ecosystem.
For decades, the exuberance of the largest rainforest in Indonesia’s north Sumatra region, has succumbed to the rapid expansion of illegal palm oil plantations, threatening the habitats and endangering the lives of orangutans, rhinos, tigers and elephants.
Putra is trying to reverse the trend and, since 2007, has been identifying plantations encroaching into the Gunung Leuser National Park, an area marked out by the Indonesian government as a conservation forest, protected by law from land conversion, and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“This work is dangerous but we have a strategy”, says Putra. His team first identifies the owner of the illegal plantation and asks them to return the land to the authorities. “We inform them: ‘your plantation is illegal and the police can arrest you’”. Most of them release the land to avoid legal consequences, he says.
Once the land is secured, the team have to cut down each tree with a chainsaw. It is an arduous and slow process. Once the plantation has been cut down, Putra’s team lets nature take its course. “We have evidence that in five years forests can start recovering”, he says. During this time they monitor the area to protect young plants from dangers, including elephants and further encroachments.
Rudi Putra (centre) - with colleague Farwiza Farhan and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Photograph: Paul Hilton / Haka/EPA
So far they have restored 2,000 hectares in the Aceh Tamiang district, in the province of Aceh, according to Putra, and have started the reforestation of 2,000 more hectares.
In Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil producer, plantations are an old enemy of the rainforests. At least 56% of the palm oil plantations established in the country between 1990 and 2005 were opened at the expense of tropical forest, according to research by the ETH Zurich.
The Gunung Leuser National Park itself was put on UNESCO’s danger list in 2011 due to the “threats posed by poaching, illegal logging, agricultural encroachment, and plans to build roads through the site”.
Government actions also threaten the area. The Aceh government’s new Spatial Plan, a set of land laws governing development, includes further concessions in the region. Citizens in the province initiated a class action lawsuit last year challenging the legality of the government’s plans.
Activists point to the palm oil sector as a main culprit in the degradation of the protected areas. The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has released a series of reports, the most recent in July 2017, accusing palm oil companies of having links to deforestation in the Leuser Ecosystem.
Oil palms cover almost 11m hectares in Indonesia, while new plantations have been increasing at a rate of between 300,000-500,000 hectares per year for the past 10 years.
Putra, who was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2014, first picked up his chainsaw after his hometown in the district of Aceh Tamiang was razed by the floods in December 2006. A World Bank report linked the floods to the deforestation in the area and estimated the total losses at $210m
The biologist is not the only one working to recover the lush Sumatran rainforests. The Orangutan Information Center (OIC), an NGO working on the preservation of the habitat of these big mammals, has also claimed and restored 1,500 hectares inside the Gunung Leuser National Park, while the Aceh government and park’s officials at the Gunung Leuser have also claimed illegal plantations and recovered them.
“Forest is [a] life support system and [to] protect the forests means [to] protect the future of any form of life, including human population”, says Panut Hadisiswoyo, founder of the OIC.
Once the land is cleared from oil palms, the reforestation starts. “We make a (seedling) nursery, find the most suitable seeds and plant them. When seeds are germinated, we replant them in the ground”, says Rio Ardi, restoration coordinator at the OIC.
Replanting is difficult work. “The new sprouts can easily be burnt by the intense sunlight or be destroyed by elephants or other animals,” says Ardi. “Moreover, the success of the reforestation will ultimately depend on how we secure the land from encroachment and wildfires.”
Re-establishment of forest to its original levels typically requires 20–200 years, according to research published in Nature. Moreover, according to the study, recovery in Asia is slower than in other regions, such as Central America and Africa.
Despite the efforts, threats remain, says Putra, in a world where the demand for palm oil increases every year. Indonesia aims to raise production to 40m tons by 2020, up from almost 35m tons last year.
“People have to understand when they eat more from the palm oil product, that means we will be cutting down the remaining forests”, says Putra.