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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.

One orangutan at a time

While the staff at OIC love trees and know the value of the jungle for healthy rivers, happy people and reducing climate change, their race against time is to save orangutans and other critically endangered species. At the cabin in Cinta Raja, Panut showed us images and videos of the Human and Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU), which rescue orangutans that have become stranded in plantations or fragmented forest. Without rescue, the animals would either be shot, poached for the illegal pet trade, or would starve to death.

These dramatic rescue operations involve dozens of people working for hours to find, tranquillise and capture the vulnerable orangutans. Rescue efforts are often hindered by the landscape, such as turbulent rivers or hilly terrain. On a recent operation, the team slogged through a raging river witha 90kg male orangutan on their shoulders. On average, the orangutans the team rescues weigh 50kg, so this was a particularly grueling operation.

Often, it’s members of the local community who call OIC to report a stranded animal. Through their community outreach, OIC is changing the face of human and orangutan interactions and increasing tolerance of local farmers to the presence of orangutans. Once OIC’s vets have ensured the rescued orangutans are well enough to be moved, they pass them on to a rehabilitation organisation such as the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project. These groups aim to release the animals into protected jungle as soon as possible.

During the past 10 years, OIC has rescued more than 140 stranded orangutans and returned them to the rainforest. Saving orangutans, one at a time.

One person at a time

There would be no orangutans without the rangers of the Forest and Wildlife Patrol Unit (ForWPU) team, who dedicate their lives to finding and capturing poachers and illegal loggers. Since 2013, OIC has taken 31 different cases of wildlife crime to the authorities, with many criminals incurring fines or jail terms. The work of the ForPWU is dangerous and usually carried out at night, with the team supported by armed guards and police. OIC works closely with the GLNP authority and the Indonesian wildlife law enforcement agency to ensure the patrolling leads to change. In confronting illegal loggers and poachers, rangers risk their lives every day.

OIC also works closely with local communities, which are a key part of the transformation from palm plantation to forest. It’s pointless trying to change the environment if the locals who live in an area don’t understand the benefit of the forest and are not interested in protecting it. While palm oil may still be enticing, thanks to OIC, communities living near the Leuser are becoming aware of the economic and environmental value of the rainforest.
“No forest, no life” is a favourite saying.

OIC is changing the conversation around palm oil in North Sumatra. It’s not just ‘ban palm oil’ and ‘palm-oil free’ that’s their focus. While that’s an approach we can take in Australia, in Indonesia it’s not possible to imagine a future without palm oil. It’s an integrated part of life everywhere. Villages are built in and around palm plantations. Millions of people have jobs in the palm oil industry and many small landholders rely on income from palm oil. To shut the industry down overnight would be both impossible and disastrous.

Instead, the emphasis must be on supporting communities to transition from a palm monoculture. Palm monoculture is both economically and environmentally disastrous, with price fluctuations, damaged soil and depleted water sources. Oil palms are very thirsty and suck up much of the groundwater needed for other crops, leading to an increased reliance on palm. Palm plantations also require the repeated use of expensive fertilisers, as the trees suck the goodness out of the land.

But there is a solution. Permaculture, or ecological farming, a return to the old ways of planting and growing, has been regaining popularity during the past few decades. In 2015, OIC developed a new project to help local farmers learn how to reduce their reliance on palm oil by creating the Gayo Permaculture Centre. The centre is run by new staff member Sabar, who trained in permaculture after losing his parents in the 2004 tsunami in Aceh. Sabar teaches permaculture to university and school students, and to local landholders, many of whom go home and adopt these techniques on their land.

Panut reiterates that mixed agroforestry can be fully productive within one or two years, whereas oil palm can take up to four years to be productive.

“Palm oil seems easy but it is a less financially stable income,” Panut says.He tells the story of one farmer who said his land was working better after just one year of transitioning. His soil was healthier, he had more food crops, and a higher income.

After transitioning fully from oil palm, landholders could triple or even quadruple their annual takings. Panut says it can take some work at the start, but if people are persistent, their soil can improve within a year and they can transition fully to other crops within two years.

While palm oil may be here to stay, OIC is showing another way for landholders to farm and earn money, transforming North Sumatra one person at a time.

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