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Bringing back the rainforest… one step at a time

Bringing back the rainforest… one step at a time

While it’s tempting to feel despair when we hear about the thousands of animals that have been lost to deforestation in recent years, there are many reasons to be hopeful. The Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), a small NGO in North Sumatra, is one reason. I met these extraordinary and inspiring people on a recent tour into the heart of the Sumatran rainforest, and it’s no exaggeration to say I’ve been changed forever by this experience.

The chance to meet this team was one of the reasons I chose this tour over others that offered a chance to see orangutans in the wild. I wanted to learn from Indonesians about how communities are adjusting and what they need from us. I wanted to see on-the-ground conservation work in action, and I was not disappointed. Hearing about OIC’s work during our trip, I became infected by their vision and hope for the future.

Orangutan Information Centre – Guardians of the Forest

Orangutan Information Centre: the name doesn’t adequately convey how much this organisation has achieved in little more than a decade. They don’t just provide information and they definitely don’t work in just one centre. OIC’s work takes its team from patrolling the jungle at night, to training communities on its permaculture farm, via rescuing orangutans from illegal palm oil plantations. The multi-pronged approach enables OIC to address the problem from all sides and achieve long-lasting change.

OIC was established not long after its founder, Panut Hadisiswoyo, met a female orangutan in the Leuser rainforest. He says the orangutan came so close to him that they were able to look deeply into each other’s eyes. As they stared at each other, Panut felt the orangutan was sending him a message. He became convinced she was begging him for help. Panut says that meeting in the jungle filled him with the desire to do everything in his power to save this iconic, endemic species. The drive to create OIC was born.

OIC has been working since 2005 to save the globally important Leuser Ecosystem, home to many critically endangered animals. As one of the largest intact tracts of forest on the planet, the ecosystem is globally important and has become known as ‘the last place on Earth’. There’s nowhere else where orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants still live together in the wild. Although this mighty, precious jungle is under threat from palm oil, the work of OIC and its partners is helping to turn the tide of deforestation.

OIC works within the fringes of the Gunung Leuser National Park (GLNP), where illegal deforestation has occurred to make way for oil palm plantations. This monoculture has been steadily tramping across the Indonesian landscape for decades. In many documented cases, illegal slashing and burning of the rainforest are the first steps before planting oil palm trees. All too often, the palm oil that turns up in the shampoo, chocolates and cleaning products we buy in Australia has sourced from land that used to be rainforest.

As demand for palm oil grows, demand for land increases, and rainforests become increasingly fragmented. Animals such as orangutans, tigers, elephants, rhinos, gibbons, laughing thrushes and hornbills become easy pickings for poachers or end up stranded in remnant patches of jungle. One startling statistic is that in Sumatra, there is more than four times as much land dedicated to oil palm as there is to orangutan habitat.

This reality was starkly visible on the drive from Medan Airport, on the east coast, to the Gunung Leuser National Park on the west. For five hours, we drove through villages and along rural roads, surrounded at all times by oil palm trees. It wasn’t until we reached the national park that we saw jungle. Five hours of nothing but palm trees.

One tree at a time

On the first night of our trek into the Gunung Leuser National Park, we stayed in a cabin at a place called Cinta Raja. This two-storey wooden building serves as accommodation, a meeting space, kitchen, shelter from torrential rains and much more. To one side of the cabin are oil palm trees and to the other a rainforest in the process of being replanted. Behind the cabin is a productive nursery of thousands of seedlings, all carefully tended by Rio Ardie, the head gardener and guardian of the trees. These trees will be planted, one by one, on the slopes and valleys surrounding the cabin.

The first step to bringing back the rainforest is to cut down illegal oil palm trees. Since 2008, OIC has restored 1500ha of rainforest within the GLNP, planting 1.7 million seedlings. In fact, this dynamic NGO is documented as being the first organisation in the world to successfully reforest an illegal oil palm plantation. Its success is not just good for the Earth, it’s good for everyone who wants to believe there’s another way.

The site at Cinta Raja is 100ha and, since September 2017, OIC has removed more than 10,000 oil palm trees. These areas were then revegetated with fast-growing habitat and food trees to entice animals and birds to return. The team has learned they only need to plant between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of the trees required, because the animals will do the rest. When animals and birds visit the site, they bring seeds in their droppings, which contributes the remaining 30 per cent to 50 per cent of plants needed for jungle biodiversity.

This approach means OIC doesn’t waste time and resources planting seedlings the animals will sow themselves. There was already evidence in Cinta Raja that this strategy was working. In a patch of new forest just below the cabin where we slept, Panut showed us signs that elephants and Thomas leaf monkeys had returned to this fledgling forest. That’s less than six months since the first palm tree was cut down.

For Panut and his team, replanting is not just a job, but a way of life, a constant undertaking. During our two-day jungle trek, Panut and Rio took cuttings from healthy, mature trees in the jungle. They carefully wrapped the cuttings, which came from food trees favoured by orangutans and gibbons, to take back to the nursery to create new seedlings. This was not just theory; it was conservation in action. The immediacy of their relationship with the jungle, the trees and the animals filled me with a sense of interconnectedness.

Before we set off on our two-day jungle trek into the Leuser, we had our turn at tree planting. There was something powerful and intimate about getting my hands in the North Sumatran soil, adding a tiny tree to the fragmented jungle, doing my tiny bit for the forest.

Panut says it takes less than a decade to bring back the rainforest once the oil palm is gone, one tree at a time.

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