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A red dragonfly alights on a leaf in the Harapan Rainforest, Sumatra, Indonesia.

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Hope hangs in the balance in Sumatra.

by Clare Kendall

19th December 2012

Clare Kendall revisits a rainforest conservation project that had initially filled her with hope, and finds to her dismay that the outlook for this unique initiative may now be bleak....

If the Harapan Rainforest Project fails, the impact could be global

Sumatra has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Between 1985 and 2007 nearly half of its pristine natural forests disappeared, resulting in the loss of thousands of plant and animal species.

Back in 2008 I was sitting in an office at the RSPB’s Bedfordshire headquarters looking at a satellite image of a large area of Indonesian jungle. An expert was patiently explaining what the various patches of light and dark greens meant.

We studied an area outlined in red which seemed to have a noticeably higher percentage of dark green patches, (as opposed to pale green or brown), than the surrounding area, especially at its heart. This, I was told, was one of the best and last pieces of dry lowland rainforest in Indonesia. 

“What we want,“ explained RSPB press officer, Grahame Madge “is to preserve and restore this area of rainforest until it is all dark green.” And actually I have yet to hear a better description of the primary aim of the Harapan Rainforest project.

The RSPB, I learnt, had been doing considerably more than making appearances on the BBC's ‘Springwatch’ programme. With partner organisations it had patiently and persistently campaigned for three years to change the law in Indonesia, to enable the charity to acquire the license to a vast logging concession on Sumatra (Indonesia’s largest island). This license then allowed the RSPB to not log it, but rather restore and preserve it.

The Harapan Rainforest Project then, aimed to preserve a part of this ancient ecosystem and give Indonesia something to be proud of at a time when it ranked third in the world for greenhouse gas emissions after China and the US.

It would be the largest-ever project of its kind in the world (now 1000 sq km, one fifth of Sumatra’s remaining dry lowland forest) and it had attracted international notoriety. Sir Nicholas Stern, The Prince of Wales and teams of international scientists had all beaten a path to the semi-derelict former logging camp used as Harapan head quarters, deep in the upper section of the concession.

So imagine how depressing it was now, just four years later, to be looking at another satellite image apparently showing the complete reverse of the earlier one - the dark green patches now giving way to pale. Images from 2011 show an illegal encroachment of 9 sq km over a period of nine months. That’s one sq km per month. Estimates for the first part of 2012 put this rate now at 2.5 sq km a month.

Despite all their efforts, the legal endorsement of the Indonesian government, the backing of the Sumatran police force, the weight of international approval and even the enthusiastic support of the Indigenous people, the RSPB’s concession is being swallowed by human activity.

“Truth is, we’re quite simply losing the battle,” says Madge now.

The word Harapan means “hope” in Indonesian and some months after my initial meeting - having visited the project in person - I would have said there was good reason to be optimistic.

Illegal logging had been virtually eliminated. Squatters moved on or were employed. Projects were underway to develop sustainable practices for the Indigenous Bathin Sembilan people and integrate them into the project, planting nurseries and working as rangers.

Abandoned logging trucks lay by the roadside providing a home now for nesting passerines and there was much excitement as rare species were spotted - Rhinoceros hornbills, Pig-tailed macaques,  a pair of Storm’s storks. Life was returning to the degraded forest at a pace.

Ian Rowland, tropical forest conservation manager at the RSPB, told me what has been happening since: “We know our bird species count is now over 300 including many which are threatened and animal populations are thriving. We have about 550 Sunbears, eight to ten thousand Agile gibbons and we have just confirmed a population of 11 to 17 elephants.”

A new species of butterfly was recently added to the list and the critically endangered Sumatran tiger population is believed to be between 15 and 20.

“More pertinently,” explains Rowland. “We know it’s a breeding population as we have pictures from our camera traps showing a mother with her cubs.”

The camera traps have also caught images of Malayan tapirs, porcupines, Lesser Mouse deer, Binturongs, Bearded pigs & Short-tailed mongooses.

The species list increases by the month, demonstrating that without damaging human interference nature can repair itself with surprising speed.

Rowland explains too why Harapan’s flora is just as significant: “Because of the logging in the past, three of the four critically endangered species on site are actually trees (the other being the Sumatran tiger). The forests of Harapan represent some of the last pure stands of ironwood. These trees, once widespread, have now largely been logged out by demand from the furniture industry.

“Furthermore,“ says Rowland, “much of Harapan’s flora is totally unknown. In all the years of Dutch colonial rule, and subsequent Indonesian governments, there have been no significant collections made of the dry lowland forest flora. 

“We collaborate with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and they’re absolutely delighted to be able to make collections here due to their lack of specimens. We hope to start a comprehensive floristic study this year, but on just a brief foray from the main camp the Kew scientists were able to find an endemic plant that hadn’t been collected for 80 years. 

“They’re confident that they’ll find things new to science. Of course, the tragedy is that the forest is disappearing before they can even get to it.”

The Indigenous Bathin Sembalin people, eager to protect their traditional forest lifestyles, have been instrumental in the success of the project so far.

“The Bathin have responded incredibly well,” says Rowland. “We’re working with them to develop a number of sustainable practices such as wild honey and rubber (dumar) harvesting. We even have a scheme domesticating a small stingless bee with a view to honey production.”

In the last few years the ground staff at base camp has grown from 60 to 210, increasing the project's capacity for meaningful patrols. A health centre has just been built. There are now two nurses and a four wheel drive ambulance for mobile medical care. There are also four teachers and two mobile school units.

However impressive, these facts and figures belie the difficulties overcome in the last few years. Although permission was granted to operate within the concession in 2007, the former logging company refused to hand over the license for another three years which meant that full ownership didn’t commence until 2010. 

This had left a management vacuum allowing migrant workers and squatters to start drifting in. The damage done even on this small scale is not to be underestimated. Three men and a chainsaw can clear 20 hectares a day.

Harapan was being slowly eroded from within before the project was even officially underway.

Dr. Deiter Hoffmann, head of global programmes for the RSPB says: “Between 2007 and 2010 we had no power to stop people moving in. We had patrols but it’s impossible to police such a large area and people were coming from other parts of Indonesia, mainly subsistence farmers, some who had been scammed and sold phoney land concessions. 

“So we started working with these groups and came to an understanding. We said they could stay and harvest their crops but then they would have to move to other areas on the fringe of the forest – a buffer zone, within the concession where their activities were not so damaging.”

This approach seemed to work well. 

“People can be surprisingly reasonable if you explain what you’re trying to achieve. We managed to stop further encroachment and generally got the situation under control. ‘Now’, we thought,’ we can really move forward.’”

However, in the spring of 2011 satellite images revealed that large areas of encroachment were occurring in an eastern section of the concession which was now showing up as areas with suspiciously angular edges.

Small squares of logged forest were growing and then joining up.  This wasn’t just subsistence farming by squatters. This was large scale and organised encroachment.

Something was going very badly wrong.

Hoffmann returned to the site at the beginning of 2012. Taking off-road trucks, a number of rangers and armed with machetes they hacked their way into the logged areas.

“We found substantial areas of investment-backed encroachment,’’ he says. “Several hundred cubic meters of timber stacked away, large areas with recently built houses and these were being supported by a small farmers’ association.”

It seemed that a mixture of illegal loggers, developers and palm oil speculators were clearing areas within the concession under the guise of being there as established small farmers.

“Once an area has been cleared of timber,” explains Hoffmann, “it becomes very easy for investors living outside the area to come in and plant it up with palm oil. Then they move away and wait for the crop to mature.”

The situation became quite heated after a number of articles appeared in the local press supporting the incomers. Peasant farmers, who had been farming the land for generations, were now being thrown off by an overbearing foreign organisation, they implied.

“We can prove that this isn’t true from the satellite images,” says Hoffmann. “But try explaining that to an angry mob of 60 bearing down on your patrol shouting and waving machetes.”

Harapan patrols were finding an increasingly aggressive resistance to their policing. One ranger was even kidnapped, although released shortly afterwards.

“The farmers’ association is demanding that the Indonesian Forest Ministry creates ‘enclaves’ for them,” continues Hoffmann. “This can’t possibly work for us. The Ministry for Forestry, whom we met with recently, are outraged by what is happening and have promised us support but this is going on all over Indonesia. There simply aren’t the resources to effectively deal with it and all these incidents have to be dealt with by the legal process which takes time.“

Amazingly, this farmers’ association is a national organisation supported by a number of foreign NGOs. This is not a straightforward issue.

To make matters worse, a commercial pulp paper plantation which borders the concession has ‘accidentally’ encroached one square km of rainforest over the Harapan boundary.

The RSPB finds itself in a difficult position. Obliged now under Indonesian law to restore this region but without the legal right to law enforcement, only to monitor and report.

Could this be a fatal flaw in the model?

Rowland, who visited the site this spring explains what is needed on the ground.

“What we urgently need is a ceasefire.  We need the current encroachment to stop so we can get the situation under control. What we have achieved this far has generally been through patience and discussion. But, whilst we argue, the forest is disappearing."

“Harapan was the first of this kind of restoration project and already there are many other conservation organisations wanting to follow this model. There are currently 40 other applications from conservation organisations and private individuals for eco-system restoration licenses throughout Indonesia. If all these come to fruition several million hectares of rain forest would be saved.”

Much is at stake. If Harapan fails, the implications could be global.

“Failure isn’t an option,” insists Rowland. “We have to succeed here or where is the hope for rainforests all over the world?”

Clare Kendall is a multi award-winning photojournalist based in Wiltshire. Her work focuses heavily on ecotourism, environmental and social justice issues. For more visit:



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