How one Indonesian community is using ecotourism income to fight deforestation and climate change
Climate change is impacting the world in significant ways. We know this. But it’s impacting the beautiful islands of Indonesia, in particular, by causing devastating hydrometeorology disasters and disrupting tourism activities that bring much-needed income into the communities.
As of April 2021—just four months into the year—about 4.3 million people have been forced to leave their homes as a result of 1,045 natural disasters. An astounding 98% of these are hydrometeorology disasters, according to data from the Indonesian Disaster Management Agency.
It’s a serious threat to the sustainability of our own species.
The climate crisis is the main suspect behind all of this. Humans continue to exploit and erode nature, and these unsustainable activities drive climate change. Let’s use Sumatra as an example. Here, we typically have a dry season from February to August. But rainfall during this time has increased significantly alongside temperature increases on the planet. We now experience two extreme seasons. Unfortunately, most Sumatrans don’t realize the seriousness of this—or the cause.
The need for climate justice
There’s no doubt that climate change is a threat to people around the world in countless ways. But in reality, the impact doesn’t threaten each life equally. From extreme weather to rising sea levels, the effects of climate change are seen disproportionately in marginalized communities.
In Indonesia, we have a lot of coastal lowland. And many Indonesians rely on natural resources that are sensitive to climate change for their livelihoods, including agriculture and fisheries. These people are the most unfortunate ones—the ones who suffer most from this disaster.
With weather patterns becoming less reliable for seasonal planting in Sumatra, farming communities have experienced struggles with their farming activities. So when we talk about climate justice, we must include communities like these in our discussions and decision making.
Tree planting, Indigenous people, and the role of tourism
Planting trees is fast emerging as one of the simplest, cheapest ways to tackle carbon emissions, a major cause of global warming. With deforestation increasing in Indonesia, it’s no longer possible to deny that the loss of our forests is impacting climate change in big ways. These forests deliver important goods and services to the ecosystem, including regulating the climate and reducing the effects of flooding.
Reforestation is an urgent need for us to achieve our climate goals.
As it happens, tree planting is an important tradition among Indigenous people in Sumatra. In Batak culture, people plant Hariara (Ficus Bejamina) to define a good area to build their home. And when one tree is removed, they plant four in its place.
In November 2020, the overflowing Landak River caused a flash flood in Bukit Lawang, where many foreigners go to take part in orangutan-viewing treks. It destroyed a suspension bridge and swept away tourist facilities. The regional disaster management agency estimated the losses to run into the billions of rupiah.
The flood brought all-too-recent memories back for the village community of Timbang Lawang, where a similar flash flood killed 250 people in 2003. The village is home to Darma Budi Pinem, former ranger in Gunung Leuser National Park, current senior guide in Bukit Lawang, and leader of the community group Nature for Change (NFC).
NFC is comprised of Indigenous Malay and Batak people, who live side by side with the Leuser ecosystem from generation to generation. They are some of the most vulnerable people to forest loss and are severely impacted by climate change disasters, like flash flooding.
The organization is self-funded through ecotourism activities and works with 22 local landowners adjacent to the national park to maintain tree growth and create an economically valuable buffer zone that can help mitigate human-wildlife conflict. Since its inception in 2012, NFC has planted over 50 hectares of fruit trees. Their goal? To encourage tolerance from the landowners towards wildlife.
“We do all of the work, from planting to ensuring the growth of these fruit trees,” Darma explains. “Later, when the trees are fruiting, we ask them to share with wildlife. The animals won’t eat everything, so there is still much that we can harvest.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic has hit the tourism sector in Bukit Lawang hard, which has affected funding for NFC. Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) stepped up to help, allowing NFC to surpass 13,630 trees planted in total. The organization is currently focused on planting 1,000 trees to restore the Landak River area, which they believe is critical for mitigating worse disasters.
“Our goal for this project is not only to tackle climate change, but also to … support food sources for wildlife living in the Leuser ecosystem,” Darma continues. “With this tolerance to share space with wildlife, we will live in harmony, side by side with nature.”
Making choices that help tackle our climate crisis
NFC is an inspiring initiative from local people to protect their environment. We need these kinds of initiatives everywhere around the world. We’re all conservationists, and it’s our responsibility to take care of our planet and ourselves.
When you travel, choose wisely. Look for opportunities to support small initiatives led by local people. Support ecotourism activities that give back to the community. Whether it’s NFC or another grassroots organization, your support is what keeps them going—what allows them to continue their important work.
Together, we can create a huge difference for Mother Nature.
Nayla Azmi is an Indigenous Batak storyteller and conservationist based in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia. She has worked in the field for more than a decade and is passionate about conservation, decolonization, and the empowerment of women. Nayla lives with seven cats that she rescued from the street. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.