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Restoring Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem, one small farm at a time

Pembibitan pohon untuk ditanami di lahan hutan kemitraan di Kecamatan Tenggulun, Kabupaten Aceh Tamiang. Foto: Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia

  • An initiative in Indonesia’s Aceh province is engaging local farmers in restoring parts of the biodiverse Leuser Ecosystem by allowing them to farm and reforest tracts of land previously used for illegal oil palm plantations.
  • The forest is the last place on Earth where critically endangered elephants, orangutans, rhinos and tigers all still exist in the wild, but is being lost to encroachment for illegal plantations.
  • Under the initiative, farmers are trained to plant tropical hardwoods as well as fruit and vegetable crops from which they can make a sustainable living.
  • Only long-degraded land from past encroachment qualifies, removing any incentive for someone to damage land then apply for a management license.

TENGGULUN, Indonesia — Around 20 Acehnese men sit cross-legged while smoking clove cigarettes on the terrace of a simple wooden building in this village on the island of Sumatra. The lodge in Tenggulun was established as a planning and meeting point in 2015, shortly after authorities began repossessing illegal oil palm plantations here in the Leuser ecosystem.

Ngatimin, one of the elders here at the lodge, doesn’t hide the fact that he used to be an illegal logger one of the world’s most precious forests. But today, the 56-year-old father of three is reforesting a small patch of damaged land here on the fringes of Leuser.

Since 2016 the local government has given Ngatimin a permit to manage 3 hectares (7 acres) of public forest previously destroyed by illegal encroachment. Threaded between a variety of newly rooted hardwoods and rattan palms, Ngatimin has planted durian, jackfruit, lemon and other fruit trees from which he can earn around 3 million to 4 million rupiah ($210 to $280) every month.

“The results aren’t bad,” Ngatimin told Mongabay near his home in Tenggulun. “It meets the needs of my family.”

The lodge is 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the nearest cluster of small houses in Tenggulun, located in the semi-autonomous province of Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra.

Illegal logging here in Leuser carries additional significance because the ecosystem is the world’s last remaining rainforest where critically endangered elephants, orangutans, rhinos and tigers all still exist in the wild. Data show that populations of these animals are declining rapidly in Leuser. Recent cases have included orangutans being shot with air rifles by farmers, and elephants poisoned by poachers.

But Leuser is an expanse of 23,000 square kilometers (8,880 square miles), around which 4 million people live. This has endangered tree cover as communities look to cut timber and plant oil palms to lift families out of poverty in the absence of other forms of employment.

The Leuser forest is protected by law, but today only 18,000 square kilometers (6,950 square miles) of the total ecosystem is still forested due to illegal encroachment, according to data from the NGO Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (HAKA). More than 4,500 square kilometers (1,740 square miles) have been destroyed, mostly by oil palm cultivation and illegal logging, the organization says.

A worker takes a chainsaw to an oil palm on an illegal plantation in Tenggulun. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah for Mongabay.

Ngatimin is one of 174 farmers taking part in a nascent community forestry program bringing together environmental NGOs, local communities and governments in a bid to drive restoration in Leuser from the grassroots.

The Leuser Conservation Forum, an NGO, has partnered with the Aceh government’s forestry office to train farmers to get up and running with small restoration schemes. The scheme hews partly to successful charitable initiatives that provide individuals with the know-how and capacity to generate a sustainable income.

“We want the land to continue to function as a forest — and communities know that this is state-owned forest,” Syahrial, the head of the Aceh Environment and Forestry Office (DLHK), told Mongabay. “These communities are given the legal certainty to be able to manage the forest.”

The program in Aceh Tamiang district, where Tenggulun is located, is fairly new and modest in scope, but early results offer cause for some optimism. By the end of 2018, a total of 28 square kilometers (11 square miles) of critical forest had been restored under the community forestry scheme, according to data from the Leuser Ecosystem Management Agency (BPKEL) and the Leuser Conservation Forum.

“After the illegal palm oil was destroyed, all the former palm plantations could be turned into forest again,” Leuser Conservation Forum director Rudi Putra told Mongabay. “But we think the community should be able to benefit and prosper from the forest.”

Sumatran elephants in Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem, one of the region’s last great swaths of intact rainforest. Rapid oil palm expansion is eating away at the creatures’ habitat and driving them into increased conflict with humans. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Farmers are given incentives to play by the rules. Management licenses expire after 10 years, and farmers like Ngatimin want the government to extend this to a 25-year right-of-use permit. Using fire to clear land is forbidden, as is the growing of cocoa, oil palm, and rubber trees.

“There’s no way [the palm oil companies] can give work to everyone,” Sakirin, a Tenggulun farmer, told Mongabay. “The wages a freelancer receives are low and you’ll just be a laborer forever.”

Everyone Mongabay spoke to in Tenggulun said they preferred managing the land to working on oil palm plantations, where a laborer earns between 50,000 to 70,000 rupiah per day ($3.60 to $5). Among the former plantation workers in Muhammad Suryadi, 35, who today farms his own half-hectare (1.2-acre) patch of land, with the guidance of the Leuser Conservation Forum.

That guidance, he said, “helps us gain more knowledge of sustainable land management, as well as better yields.”

“Here we are given the freedom to manage the land, as long as we don’t break the rules,” Sakirin said.

There are limits to what land can be zoned for community restoration. Only long-degraded land from past encroachment qualifies, removing any incentive for someone to damage land then apply for a management license.

“If any new illegal activity is found within the [Leuser National Park] area, they will still be prosecuted and the evidence as well as the perpetrators will be handed over to law enforcement,” said Adhil Nurul Hadi, an official at the Mount Leuser National Park Center (BB-TNGL).

Not far from Ngatimin’s smallholding of fruit trees and hardwoods, another Tenggulun farmer, Legiman, watches over a 2-hectare (5-acre) plot filled with a range of fruit including jengkol and mangosteen.

“I’ve managed 2 hectares of restoration land since 2016,” Legiman told Monagaby. “There are 80 durian trees as well as lemon trees and vegetables.”

A Sumatran orangutan in the Leuser Ecosystem, which is home to roughly 85 percent of the species’ remaining population. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

There have been sightings of elephants near the community forestry land, but Legiman and others have told the farmers in areas frequented by the animals not to grow plants that the elephants eat.

After the illegal oil palm plantations were cleared, the land outside the Tenggulun lodge was turned into a tree nursery. The same scheme has been rolled out to neighboring areas in South Aceh, Southeast Aceh districts and the town of Subulussalam. Around 400 households in total are involved in the community forestry pilot. For farmers like Legiman, Ngatimin and Suryadi, the scheme has solved their problems — and more besides.

“Every day my friends and I spend time here taking care of the land,” Suryadi told Mongabay. “This was part of my dream from way back — having my own garden.”

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here and here on our Indonesian site on April 23 and 24, 2019.

Banner: A man tends to seedlings as part of the program in Tenggulun. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah for Mongabay.

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