Late afternoon in Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra, Indonesia

As the sun sets on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park tourists and locals alike listen to the sounds of the Bahorok river that runs through the village. In the morning groups of tourists and local guides will be on lookout for the rare and unique wildlife that inhabits the rainforest throughout the Leuser ecosystem which no doubt includes some of the most spectacular animals in the world. There is no resident as famous as the Sumatran orangutan, orangutans can be found on only two islands in the world; Borneo and Sumatra. Yet, it is also the only place in the world where elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, and apes roam side by side. The tourism industry has seen nascent growth in the past fifty years which has had both a positive and negative effect on the ecosystem but it has undeniably been beneficial to the local economy and community. As researchers, advocates, NGOs, tourists, and others flock to this dense, lush rainforest to clamor for more conservation, to rail against the palm oil plantations, construction, mining, and timber companies and to lobby the government to protect and save what is known as ‘The Last Place on Earth’ we are doing so while ignoring the immediate needs of these communities.

While Indonesia is one of the most diverse countries in the world with some 17,000 islands, a nation that spreads the same distance as Scotland to Iran, and some 350 local languages and dialects, the needs of the people often mirror those from communities a world apart. Take the United States for example where Donald Trump’s administration has decided to do more offshore drilling (All coasts save Florida), constructing a massive wall along its southern border, and even gone after protected wildlife areas in Utah, all to the dismay of wildlife activists, state governments, and the majority of people. This is all because of one thing; jobs. Indonesia is no different. The Gunung Leuser National Park’s rare flora and fauna is its blessing and its curse as the world over is drawn to the region to exploit, among other things, the palm oil, metals, timber, and oil to fill the insatiable consumption habits of the world’s inhabitants. These rare commodities offer opportunities but the wrong approach can keep the region mired in poverty. We cannot have a conversation about conservation unless we talk about poverty. Don’t take my word for it. World Growth, a large palm oil producer in Indonesia names poverty alleviation as its number one goal.

The palm oil industry provides jobs in the region. Last year it was the third largest export behind just coal and petroleum. In 2008, 80% of the palm oil production occurred on Sumatra with North Sumatra, Riau, and South Sumatra, the largest producing provinces in Sumatra. You can say what you want about palm oil plantations and production but they provide jobs, and that goes a long way. While mining and timber have been on the decline, they have largely been areas where one could traditionally find employment. Poaching is alive and well and the infamous animal markets in Medan provide a dark, seedy look into the global demand for ivory, furs, rare pets, and more. We can acknowledge that all of these are unfortunate, devastating, and damaging in the long term to the community but conserving and protecting the Leuser ecosystem and its species, as well as advocacy to make these trades illegal is insufficient when it comes to providing the right kind of solutions. People are not motivated to work in these industries merely because, but rather because there are opportunities out of poverty.

Here lies a grave for the Leuser ecosystem in front of a palm oil plantation.

These industries do one thing for these economies that other industries do not and that is provide jobs. Those jobs provide financial security and enable families to come out of poverty and provide for their families. While I am strongly opposed to further deforestation, and any investment that damages the rainforests on Sumatra, (in fact I think it is best for the long term of these communities to expand the national park and protect the nature and wildlife throughout), we cannot be naïve and think that these measures alone will benefit the communities. If we want to make serious, long lasting, and sustainable conservation efforts we have to focus on alternative avenues of income to compensate for the job losses in the cultivation of palm oil, mining, timber, and more. How do we do this?

We can start with what is known as the ‘Environmental Kuznets Curve’ where, Kuznets theorizes economies will exploit their resources in their community or country causing degradation, and pollution to a point. At some point when the income rises to a certain point people harness their collective power to improve the environment. Can it really all be so simple? We exploit and take from nature and then eventually restore it? This is a wonderful theory but it is short on guarantees. The threats to the mega-fauna and Sumatra in general are too severe to be left to chance. However, it does give us an interesting place to start and that is how only after achieving a certain level of comfort does one begin thinking of long-term harm to the environment. We need to put people’s needs at the center of development and that is exactly what social development is.

Social Development demands a multifaceted approach that addresses needs in the beginning while also providing more opportunities and growth in the long term. The one and only James Midgley would also say that any type of social development must be synced with the economy. Thus, we must suggest some alternatives to palm oil that take into account the immediate needs of the community, namely employment, and sync those new employment opportunities with the economy in a way that is environmentally friendly. In the long term, North Sumatra may wish to invest significantly more in education. You will frequently find villages without junior high or high schools, and Bukit Lawang is one of those villages. Addressing the needs of employment first, and then seeking a long term approach through education, conservation, and protection efforts is essential.

In the mean time the government needs to invest in more rangers for the national park to monitor sensitive areas. The loss of one female orangutan for example can be devastating for the species at this point. North Sumatra and the communities within can take the lead in bolstering a tourism sector which has incredible potential but could do with stronger leadership at the top to both educate and enforce responsible tourism. A number of tour companies in Bukit Lawang do this already but a board mandating proper behavior for tour companies throughout the Leuser ecosystem would set an important example and be an excellent way to link the current conservation efforts, NGOs, and to increase collaboration. The government should organize and monetize the precious ecosystem in a way that does not damage the future generation of the ecosystem or the people. They could then use that economic power to invest in these communities to not only promote eco-tourism but opportunities for research and requiring NGOs to hire locals.

There is a theory called asset-based community development (ABCD) where communities develop and grow from the skills, materials, and resources they already have. The natural wonder, the resilience of the communities, the diversity of not only the wildlife but the various ethnic groups native to Sumatra can be harnessed to usher in a new era of development. One that is conscious of the hardships of the region yet also aims to protect the wonderful resources throughout this majestic island.

An Eco-farm near Bukit Lawang run by Erna Wati and her husband. Eco-Farms have huge potential to create a more environmentally friendly region.

Orangutans used to live as far north as China and stretched as far south as Java. Today, Sumatra and Borneo are the only places they can be found in the wild. The elephants, rhinoceros, and tigers are all on track to be gone from Sumatra in the coming years. The Leuser ecosystem has been under attack for dozens of years. This is not due to greed, not due to ignorance, not due to some conspiracy, but by the commanding heights of the global economy. If we want to combat the damage and create a more environmentally conscious and sustainable community going forward then we have to attack poverty. We need to do this with economic investment in education, healthcare, Eco-friendly industries, in a way that is responsive to the needs of the community and the wildlife. While the tourism industry has seen growth the past 30 years driven by mega fauna such as rhinoceros, elephants, tigers, sun bears, and its most famous inhabitant the Sumatran orangutan, Sumatra has lost half of its rainforest since 1985 and that loss is almost entirely due to humans. If we don’t change our approach things will continue down the same path.

We know the best way out of poverty in the long term is for communities and governments to invest in education, schools, health centers, community centers and more. However we can not ignore the immediate needs of the communities and poverty alleviation is at or near the top. We can aim to alleviate poverty while protecting the environment and do so in a way that is sustainable and thus will also benefit future generations of North Sumatra, Indonesia, and the world.