How one creature is the key to saving one of the world’s largest rainforests

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The Leuser eco-system is the only place in the world where 4 critically endangered Sumatran species live together: the elephant, the rhinoceros, the tiger and the orangutan. With over 200 species of mammals, 1 species in every 32 is represented in the 2.6 million hectares of tropical forest.

The Sumatran rainforest has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status, in recognition of the “exceptional” biodiversity of the area. However, the Leuser eco-system is still at significant risk from deforestation. The exact rate of attack upon the rainforest is unclear, due to what a senior figure at the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry termed “technical and bureaucratic problems”.

In 2012, an estimated 860,000 hectares of rainforest were lost in Indonesia. To contextualise this figure, The Guardian points out that in the same era 460,000 hectares were lost in Brazil. This discrepancy is emphasised further by the fact that the Sumatran rainforest is less than a quarter of the size of that in Amazon basin.

In addition to the animals, 4 million people live in and around the Leuser area, and depend on the rainforest for their livelihoods. Panut Hadisiswoyo is one of those people. Hadisiswoyo, Ashoka Fellow and Whitley Prize awardee, is the founder of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC). The OIC was originally established in order to protect the Sumatran orangutan. The Leuser eco-system is the home of an estimated 85% of the remaining population.

The OIC estimates that only 6,624 orangutans remain in the rainforest, and the numbers are declining. In an interview at the Ashoka offices, Hadisiswoyo pointed out that concern for the orangutan was not only about the survival of a single species. He referred to orangutans as “an umbrella species”. This means that protecting the home range and habitat of the orangutan also protects the broader eco-system within their territory.

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By recognising the symbiotic relationship between orangutans and the forest eco-system they inhabit, Panut Hadisiswoyo is developing conservation projects that serve both parties. Having grown up in a small rural village, an hour outside of Medan in Northern Sumatra, Hadisiswoyo is deeply connected with the land he protects. An understanding of the challenges that local people face in terms of poverty, agriculture and access to education, fundamentally informs Hadisiswoyo’s approach.

Community Agro-Forestry, Reforestation and Education (CARE) is programme at the core of Hadisiswoyo’s work. At present, subsistence agriculture in the Sumatran rainforest is a primary driver of deforestation, yet it provides a desperately needed income for many Sumatran people. CARE encourages local farmers to plant timber trees in farmland. With as few as 300 trees planted per hectare, the quality of the soil, and consequently the health of the local eco-system, is dramatically improved. Most importantly the studies conducted by OIC have proven that this is at no detriment to the farmers; the increase in the health of the farmland serves to increase agricultural profits.

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Over the last 5 years the impact of CARE has been significant. The programme has reached over 1000 farmers directly, with an indirect impact on 10,000 more people. The consequence of this has been that the projects have facilitated the planting of more than 1 million trees, and almost 1000 hectares of forest have been restored.

What makes Panut Hadisiswoyo and the Orangutan Information Centre remarkable is the integration of local people within conservation planning. CARE’s success relies on the voluntary engagement of subsistence farmers. The case for the adoption of agro-forestry methods lies in the record of success for communities. OIC has neatly created a system of community based conservators. As Hadisiswoyo puts it, “I am not helping people to avoid destroying the forest, but giving them opportunities that will sustain it.”

By Meera Patel, Communications Associate at Ashoka UK. Panut Hadisiswayo is the founder of the Orangutan Information Centre and he was elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2013.

This article was originally published on here on Virgin.com

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