Last November I had the pleasure of traveling to Medan, Indonesia to partner with Orangutan Information Center, a local organization dedicated to the conservation of critically endangered Sumatran orangutans. During my work with OIC, I learned much about the palm oil industry and its impact on both local people and wildlife. I also had the opportunity to trek into Gunung Leuser National Park and lead a 4-day photography workshop for OIC staff.
Photo: Baby orangutan and mother in Gunung Leuser National Park.
The Leuser Ecosystem is a place of incredible biodiversity, home to over 500 different species and the last place on Earth where critically endangered Sumatran orangutans, tigers, rhinoceros, and elephants roam freely together. This unique ecosystem also provides vital resources and services for the local people living within and around it.
And while for many of us it seems far away, its forests and peat swamps play an important role in mitigating climate change on a global level. An article in the journal Science by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) called the Leuser Ecosystem one of the “World’s most irreplaceable protected areas.”
But every day we lose a little more of it.
Photo: Sumatran Elephant bathing at the Conservation Response Unit in Tangkahan, Indonesia.
Tragically, the Leuser is under immense and immediate threat from agricultural industries – including palm oil.
Palm oil is an edible and cheaply produced vegetable oil that comes from the African oil palm tree. And since it’s in nearly every household product you can imagine – from baked goods and confectionaries to shampoo, toothpaste, and cleaning products – there’s a good chance you own products that contain it.
The problem is that most palm oil isn’t sustainably produced, linking the industry to deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses.
This devastation is happening at an unprecedented rate. But it’s not too late to turn the tide, and organizations like OIC are leading the charge.
Photo: Founder of Orangutan Information Center, Panut Hidisiwoyo, while speaking to Photographer Without Borders group about deforestation.
During my time in Sumatra, I had the honor of working with Panut Hadisiswoyo, a conservationist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and the founder of Orangutan Information Centre.
"It’s this destruction of Sumatra’s rainforests that has pushed the Sumatran orangutan to be classified as critically endangered species,” he laments. “The main threat is conventional agriculture, including large palm plantations encroaching on the forest borders and smaller scale farms growing cocoa, palm, oranges, etc.”
But he notes that even bigger threats to the survival of Sumatra’s biodiversity exist, including hydroelectricity and geothermal plants that require large swaths of rainforest for energy production.
To ensure the survival of Sumatran orangutans and the hundreds of other species that call the rainforest home, we must preserve and reforest their native habitats. OIC is making progress by reclaiming and managing six restoration sites of damaged forest and degraded land inside Gunung Leuser National Park.
Cinta Raja Restoration site lll, one of six restorations sites being developed by the OIC restoration team.
Cinta Raja restoration site III, since the restoration project began, the OIC has planted about one million seedlings. “We plant twenty species on one hectare,” Panut says, “but then, because of natural regeneration, more than fifty species are actually recruited by the birds and mammals that disperse the seeds.”
Photo: Cinta Raja restoration site III.
Since the OIC’s restoration project began in 2007, about 500 hectares of land that was illegally planted by palm oil companies. More than 10,000 oil palms have been removed.
PHOTO: Local Farmer rises early to work on his farm in Lake Toba, Indonesia.
PHOTO: Local farmer working in her rice field, outside the Gunung Leuser National Park border.
OIC is walking the walk, doing more than just helping to restore the rainforest. With a deep understanding of the power of education, Panut and his organization work to teach communities about the importance of the forest and how to keep it productive and functioning.
Indeed, the millions of people rely on the Leuser Ecosystem for their livelihoods, food, and water supplies each day – supplies that are incredibly sensitive to disturbances.
PHOTO: Local community member standsoutside his home in the Gunung Leuser National Park.
Research helps back up Panut’s claims. Economic studies cited by Rainforest Action Network show that, when protected, the forests of the Leuser Ecosystem continually provide hundreds of millions of dollars in net benefits each year compared to limited, one-time profits from deforestation.
PHOTO: A student assembly during a teaching session by OIC communications officer Nurul Nayla Azmi Dalimunthe at an Islamic School in Medan, Indonesia. The lesson is about the Sumatran orangutan and other critically endangered wildlife. It’s taught through a new children’s book, Tersesat di Kebun, which tells the story of a baby orangutan and his mother who get trapped in a palm oil plantation and are rescued by OIC.
PHOTO: A student assembly during a teaching session by OIC communications officer Nurul Nayla Azmi Dalimunthe at an Islamic School in Medan, Indonesia.
OIC communications officer Nurul Nayla Azmi Dalimunthe highlights the importance of engaging those who live on the outskirts of the Leuser Ecosystem.
“No matter how many trees we plant, the [most important] element of successful rainforest restoration is the engagement of communities . . . in becoming protectors of the forest and defending its borders from future threats,” she says.
Their outreach efforts range from teaching children in remote communities to conducting specialist training in eco-agriculture.
“I believe that by educating the communities, we ensure the sustainability of nature for our future.”
PHOTO: Student holding a book named Tersesat di Kebun, a story about a baby orangutan and his mother who get trapped in a palm oil plantation and are rescued by the OIC. Tersesat di Kebun, was created by the OIC as a communication tool to teach school aged children about Sumatran orangutan and other critically endangered wildlife.
PHOTO: OIC staff photograph of Sabar, farm manager and designer of Gayo Permaculture Centre. Permaculture is a sustainable and self-sufficient way of farming that works with – not against – natural ecosystems.
Photo: Teaching OIC staff about the value of photography alongside CEO and Photographers Without Borders founder Danielle Da Silva was the perfect experience to round out my time in Sumatra.
Understanding how to create compelling images allows staff to document their organization’s efforts and communicate their own visual stories to potential donors. I can’t begin to convey my gratitude to OIC staff for sharing their love of conservation and wildlife with me!