The Leuser National Park, which covers 862,975 hectares, is a forested area in the Leuser Ecosystem in North Sumatra. This park is recognised as one of the most biodiverse forest areas in the world. There are 8,500 plant species found in the Leuser Ecosystem, and around 4,000 of those inside the Leuser National Park.
The Leuser National Park is also the very last natural place on Earth where four key animals can be found together: the Sumatran rhino, the Sumatran orangutan, the Sumatran tiger and the Sumatran elephant.
The Leuser Forest is important too for the lives of more than five million people who live around it, and who are spread across the North Sumatra Province and the Aceh Province. Leuser provides clean water and agricultural irrigation resources, helps prevent erosion, floods and landslides; regulates the local and global climate, provides clean air and stores carbon.
However, this world heritage forest continues to be threatened by encroachment for agriculture, palm plantations, illegal logging, and the hunting of animals. According to data released by the Leuser National Park Office, encroachment for plantations has now reached 35,000 hectares and is mostly concentrated in Langkat Regency, North Sumatra.
“We need many strategies in order to save the parts of Leuser that are facing the threat of deforestation,” says Fransisca Ariantingsih, Director of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC).
OIC has been developing strategies to help the Indonesian Government save Leuser. Some of these include restoring parts of the forest which have been encroached upon and turned to palm plantations; and strengthening security at the forest border.
A campaign to save the forest
“With support from the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) and Lush, we are strengthening security at the Leuser forest border to avoid further encroachment by the community,” Fransisca says.
Using funds raised through the joint Lush and SOS European and Asian campaigns, OIC purchased 100 hectares of ex-palm plantation in Bukit Mas Village, in North Sumatra. The oil palm trees in that area have now been cut down, and the area reforested again. In total, around 13,000 trees were felled across 100 hectares, to make way for more biodiversity.
"The 50 hectares directly adjacent to the Leuser National Park will be reforested with plants from the Leuser forest, while the other 50 hectares will be managed as environmentally-friendly agricultural land using a permaculture system. We call it the Bukit Mas Permaculture Center (BPC)," Fransisca says.
She says that the process of carrying out restoration both inside the Leuser National Park and in the area which is directly adjacent to the Leuser forest is not easy, and there are many obstacles from the encroachers.
“During the first stage, not all the people living around the Leuser Forest accepted this restoration plan, and OIC needed time to explain it to the community. But they accept it now, and many people are even actively involved now in the restoration and permaculture programmes," Fransisca says, explaining that those 50 hectares of the land purchased thanks to the campaign in Asia, will now be developed as a permaculture farming area with the planting of high-value crops such as patchouli, citronella, coffee, and cocoa.
"The agricultural land will be managed organically without using chemical fertilisers or pesticides. We hope the community can learn lessons in how to farm in an environmentally-friendly way," she adds.
Managing this new farming area will also become an income stream to support OIC in continuing conservation activities related to saving the Leuser forest.
"Lush is buying ingredients from our permaculture farm for its products, which will greatly help OIC’s activities in the future," Fransisca says.
The location around the area, which is managed by OIC through BPC, is also ideal for development as an ecotourism destination site. It has a very good river and if managed well, will help develop the community’s economy so that local people will no longer be under so much pressure to carry out illegal forestry activities.
"We also plan to help local communities develop ecotourism, but this takes time," Fransisca says.
Lessons in permaculture
OIC has also established a senior High School to educate future generations to care about and help protect the Leuser forest. The students come from around the restoration area and further afield, so they can easily understand the importance of maintaining the Leuser forest which they know well.
"We have prepared a hectare of land to build this school," Fransisca says, explaining that they will build six bamboo school buildings in total.
Rio Ardi, the Manager of Restoration at OIC, says that alongside restoration activities he and his colleagues have also carried out vegetation analysis and biodiversity surveys.
"We have found many animals are still here, and we are hoping that after the restoration the forest will return to become a safe habitat for the endangered animals too," Rio says.
In addition, six hectares of the restoration land will be used to create mini Leuser forests, where around 3,000 indigenous plants species will be planted.
Rio says that it took more than two years to get people involved in the restoration activities. They have faced many challenges, including the restoration huts being burned by encroachers.
"We have restored about 10 hectares and have planted 11,000 seeds so far; our target is to plant around 100,000 seeds," he says.
OIC Permaculture Manager Sabaruddin explains that the permaculture land will be managed using an agroforestry concept. It will produce several export commodities such as patchouli, lemongrass, vanilla, and pepper.
"One of BPC’s goals is to become an education centre for the community, teaching people how to manage gardens or farms to create sustainable incomes in an environmentally friendly-way," Sabaruddin adds.
Working with the local community
OIC also invites the community to partner in developing high economic value crops through this programme. As a permaculture centre, BPC will employ local people as permanent workers, as well as day laborers, to manage the land, and to help communities around the Gunung Leuser National Park area.
"Currently, we employ 15 people to help work in agricultural areas. They are not only employed, but also trained in how to manage sustainable and environmentally-friendly agriculture," Sabaruddin explains.
BPC will also work with local communities to meet export needs. Those communities need to be willing to follow BPC rules, such as not using open forest for farming, stopping slash and burn practices, and putting an end to the use of chemical fertilisers.
"On the BPC land, we have planted around 15 hectares and we are preparing the plan for the remaining area gradually,” Sabaruddin says.
Siti Jaina Beru Tarigan, a resident of Pante Buaya in the Langkat District, has worked on the OIC restoration since last year. She says, as a widow and now sole parent to six children, she has been greatly helped by the restoration activities in her village.
"Working here is not as hard-going as working at an oil palm plantation, and the salary is also better. At oil palm plantations, we are only paid for a half day, but we work all day here and if there is no work, we can maintain our own gardens."
Siti adds that since working on the OIC restoration site, she has also learned a lot about how to manage agricultural land in an environmentally-friendly way, without using chemical fertilisers.
"I learned that forests are important for our lives. I also learned that farming in an organic way is more interesting than farming using chemical fertilisers," she says, while planting durian trees at the restoration site.
In several meetings, Hotmauli Sianturi, an official at the Great Leuser National Park, says that pressure on the Leuser forest has caused extensive degradation of the ecosystem.
He warns: "These pressures include encroachment activities, illegal logging, hunting, and forest fires. The National Park needs many partners to assist in its management, including safeguarding and educating the community about how important it is to protect this forest.”
Restoring the Leuser forest and opening an environmentally friendly agriculture centre is setting a very good example for repairing the rest of the forest. But in addition to benefiting the environment, this project also greatly benefits communities around the forest, which need activities to fulfill their daily needs. These people are no longer encroaching on forests for plantations, practicing illegal logging, or hunting wildlife, as they now have the option of managing sustainable agriculture.
This visit to Bukit Mas proves that the damaged environment can still be repaired by directly involving people living around the forest, and can act as inspiration for similar work elsewhere in the Leuser Ecosystem.
Find out more about regenerative work in Sumatra.
Words and photographs by Junaidi Hanafiah, a journalist from Sumatra.