Empowered rangers

A new female ranger team is fighting to protect Sumatra's Leuser Ecosystem, which may contain future miracle drugs
By Irham Hudaya Yunardi from HAkA

Imagine The Jungle Book. The Leuser Ecosystem is more or less like that, only it’s real. It’s the last place on Earth where four key species of orangutan, tigers, rhinos, and elephants live together in the wild.

The vast expanse of forest spans two provinces, Aceh and North Sumatra, in the northern corner of Sumatra, Indonesia, 2.6 million hectares of diverse habitat ranging from lowland forest with massive trees to perpetually wet peat swamps rich with unique Nepentes to montane forests with old stunted trees whose branches twist and twirl. The area’s three times greater than Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Part of the Leuser Ecosystem includes the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Photo by Paul Hilton

Although it’s important to the wildlife and biodiversity that depends on the Leuser Ecosystem for its survival, it also serves a vitally important role that we often take for granted: clean air that we breathe, clean water that flows through the river into our homes and factories, climate regulation and disaster prevention that we often fail to value until we are faced with the impact. The protection of the Leuser Ecosystem is crucial, as it provides ecosystem services for more than four million people living within and around it.

The Leuser Ecosystem is not only home to the four key species, but a massive biodiversity of wildlife and plant species, some endemic. It includes approximately 8,500 plant species, 105 species of mammals, and 382 species of birds. For some of us, these are just numbers. Yet each species, big and small, play an important role that makes up an ecosystem. Losing some of them could lead to a cascade of species loss and put us all in jeopardy.

Leuser Mountain National Park. Photo Junaidi Hanafiah/HAkA

Take, for example, our beloved Cavendish banana, which was cultivated from a single strain of banana. So many banana plantation around the world grow this single type of popular fruit, but scientists have warned that there are three types of fungal disease that could wipe out an entire population. The only way to prevent this from happening is by diversifying the genetic mix of bananas. The Leuser Ecosystem is home to at least five different species of bananas that could be used to increase the genetic diversity of commercial plants.

It’s also very likely there’s more species diversity in the Leuser Ecosystem than we’ve already recorded. There might be the next miracle drugs. There might be a potent elixir compound yet to be found. There might be answers to humanities’ greatest questions. Yet without protection today, we might never have these discoveries tomorrow.

Like many still-pristine places around the world, the lure of immediate economic return from direct exploitation is very appealing for many people. By building roads that cut through the ecosystems, areas that were previously inaccessible become open for all. On one hand, that’s important for short-term economic development and opportunities, but it’s also detrimental for ecosystem health as it creates fragmentation and ‘island biogeography’, which causes the degradation of ecosystems and puts species in greater danger of local extinction. Once there are roads, every other threat can follow, such as encroachments, open-pit mining, large-scale palm oil plantations, logging, poaching, and much more.

Photo by Junaidi Hanafiah / HAkA

Luckily, many of these threats are not irreversible. We’ve had success in restoring plantations back to forest, reconnecting fragmented habitats and increasing population sizes of certain species by simply protecting it from poaching, protecting the animal’s prey and protecting its habitat. It can be done. It just requires strong collaboration between NGOs, government, law enforcement officials, the community and the public.

The Leuser Ecosystem now has a new female-led led ranger team, Mpu Uteun, which started patrolling in February 2020. Initially, we came across this group of women when we conducted paralegal training for communities across the Leuser Ecosystem.

In the village of Damaran Baru in Bener Meriah district, we noticed the female participants were very active and engaged, which is exciting, given the Aceh region has strict Shariah law. Somehow, we tie conservative societies together in our minds with diminishing the role of women in the public sphere. The women of Damaran Baru challenged that perception, so we continued to work with them and designed the protection and management of forest near their village. Eventually, we decided to equip them with the necessary knowledge, tools, access and networks.

Photo by HAkA

This group of women decided to call themselves Mpu Uteun, meaning ‘forest protector’. For us and many others, they’re rangers.

When we use the word ‘rangers’, we often imagine a group of people, often armed and looking somewhat scary. Yet the female rangers of Bener Meriah are dominated by mums: soft, yet strong; provider, as well as caretaker of the families. They’re entrepreneurs and they’ve never carried arms, yet they carry an aura that commands respect.

The female-led led ranger team currently has 30 people, with 18 females and 12 males within the team. One team of 10 people alternate to patrol within the 251 hectares of forest for five days a month. They mostly patrol crucial areas that are prone to illegal forestry activities and collect data on wildlife activities, such as birds, sun bears and other key biodiversity and plant species.

Photo by Junaidi Hanafiah/HAkA

The benefit of having a female-led ranger team is that they maintain a sense of responsibility to protect the landscape for the local communities and provide resources for the family. So much research has shown that when you involve women in decision-making and looking after natural resources, you get better outcomes both for nature and people. In communities, males and females tend to use resources differently. Especially in rural areas, women are often impacted most as a result of environmental destruction.

Environmental destruction leads to a decrease in water supply for the communities, and water’s crucial for women, as they’re responsible for cooking, providing drinking water, washing clothes, and other household duties. Increasing inclusivity and diversity in the governance of natural resources in turn provides a wide array of perspectives on decisions about what’s important for the broader communities. Women are the ones who are most motivated to guarantee a better livelihood for the community and family.

The work of rangers in general is quite dangerous. However, the area the female-led ranger team is patrolling is not that dangerous. Most illegal activities that happen in the area involve encroachment by local communities for agriculture and illegal logging. They also patrol with one forest police officer, who’s also from the local community.

Photo from HAkA

The female rangers of Damaran Baru are also highly motivated to protect the forest areas from encroachment and illegal logging because that resulted in flash floods in their village in 2015. The trauma caused by the flooding sparked them to take an active role to better manage the forest and land, as well as to restore parts of the forest to make sure incidents like that never happen again.

Enforcing laws on the protection of the Leuser Ecosystem is vital for the protection of the area and it’s wildlife. Whilst there are many laws on the protection of the Leuser Ecosystem and protected forest, this is often compromised for mega-infrastructure projects in the name of investment and economic progress.

We’d also like to see more local communities taking an active role on ground-protection of the Leuser Ecosystem, on activities such as destruction due to encroachment, illegal logging, infrastructure projects and palm oil expansion. To achieve this would require the strong collaboration of all stakeholders, including government, NGOs, communities, and the private sector. The protection of the Leuser Ecosystem will bring Aceh and Indonesia far more benefit than harm. This is the message we want to be heard.

Forest, Nature & Environment Aceh (HAkA) is a homegrown Acehnese NGO, working in Aceh, Indonesia, to protect the Leuser Ecosystem. See:

Instagram: @haka_sumatra.

HAkA has teamed up with Google Earth to promote the Leuser Ecosystem as a tourist destination. Find out more: Google Earth Voyager.

Lead picture by Manuel Bergmann

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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