Rudi Putra, a biologist by training, is dismantling illegal palm oil plantations that are causing massive deforestation in northern Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem, protecting the habitat of the critically endangered Sumatran rhino. As part of his efforts In 2013 he set up a petition that asked the Indonesian government to enforce better conservation laws. The petition received more than 1.4 million signatures, increasing awareness of environmental issues in Indonesia and attracting widespread international condemnation and support. Rudi received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2014 for his efforts to combat illegal logging, forest encroachment for palm oil production, and policies that open endangered ecosystems to mining and plantation industries. AsianThinkers caught up with Rudi Putra in Indonesia to better understand the man behind the vision of saving Sumatra’s Leuser ecosystem and what it means to him personally
Can you tell me more about your role as an activists and biologist in Indonesia? What inspired you to be a leading environmentalists in Indonesia?
I started being active as a conservation or environmental activist in 2000 after completing my study in the University of Syiah Kuala, Banda Aceh (majoring in Biology). My activities focus to protect the Leuser Ecosystem Area in Aceh Province, an area that is very rich in biodiversity with its ecological function to protect the Aceh community especially being the function to provide water and also important for global community. Firstly, I worked to protect the Sumatran rhinoceros in the Leuser Ecosystem Area, as well as to protect other animals (wildlife). The Sumatran rhinoceros become the most important thing to us because of their small population and their near extinction status. Today, my activities are not only protecting rhinoceros and other wildlife, but also to manage the research station in Leuser, to monitor the damage of forest, to encourage law enforcement, to conduct restoration and forest rehabilitation, and to conduct intensive communication with the local community, NGOs and the local government to protect Leuser.
My interest in conservation started when I was child when saw millions of cubic meters of woods cut in our forest and were transported by large vessels. Almost every week, timber logs passed through our river and dozens of trucks passed by the roads each day. Flooding occurred every year, even though at the time flooding became an enjoyable moment for us as children, where we were freely swimming, playing all day, and having school holidays because our schools were full of water.
When I was in High School, I began to realize that flooding was not considered enjoyable but rather made most of the community miserable. This was because most of them could not go to work and some of them had to evacuate from their homes. This certainly led to an increase in the poverty level.
I continued my study in the University, I chose Biology with the focus in Environmental Ecology in order to explore my conservation knowledge with the hope to be able to contribute for the conservation area in Aceh and Indonesia.
What have you done so far to dismantle illegal palm oil plantations? Has the local government been supportive of your plans?
The dismantling of oil palms began from the massive floodings that occurred in 2006, where over 200,000 people had to evacuate and ten thousands people were made homeless. We concluded that the floods were caused by the deforestation several decades in the past.
One of the biggest causes is the conversion into illegal oil palm plantations. Since then we tried to close such illegal plantations, until we successfully closed 26 illegal plantations on an area of 3,000 hectares. This number is still very little compared with the total damage of Leuser, but we still keep trying to close other illegal plantations. The government eventually supported our activities, although previously some of them were against us.
Tell us more about the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra and the efforts to protect the endangered Sumatran rhino, Sumatran Tiger and other endangered species and fauna?
The Leuser Ecosystem is a very important area for the biological unity of world. There are no less than 105 species of mammals, 382 species of birds, 95 species of reptiles, 4,500 species of flowering plants found in a region that is approximately 2.6 million hectares. Around 80% of this area is in the province of Aceh while another 20% of this region is found in North Sumatra.
Leuser Ecosystem is also the only place in the world where four key species co-exists together. Namely the Sumatran rhino, Sumatran tigers, Sumatran elephants and Sumatran orangutans. They all live together in the same natural habitat.
Leuser also as a source of clean water for 4 million people in Aceh and parts of North Sumatra. Around 200,000 billion cubic litres of water is produced from the Leuser Ecosystem every year that is used for personal consumption and as clean water for the needs of the agricultural industry and other industries. Without Leuser we will lose the natural resource of water.
We protect these animals by forming a team of 4- 5 people that are trained to conduct routine patrols in areas that are important to these animals. They serve at least 15 days each month. They move camp every day by preventing the entry of hunters, damaging wildlife traps and hunters. They also stop activities that damage the habitat of these animals.
Currently we have 11 patrol team, which is actually very small compared to the size of the Leuser area. We also operate 12 teams monitoring the activities of hunters and monitoring the damage of forests. They work with a network of existing informants who are familiar with the area. We also build cooperation with law enforcement agencies and other NGOs that work for the conservation of wildlife species.
How do you combat illegal palm oil plantations and their slash and burn methods used to expand even the legal palm oil plantations in Sumatra?
In principle we are not totally against the oil palm plantations. We are only against those that destroy our forests. We combat them by doing some personal approach. We try to provide some form of understanding to the owners. For difficult cases we do take legal action when required.
What are some of your initiatives to raise the awareness of the international community as to the danger of burning down valuable rainforests in Sumatra? How have you been reaching out to them? What more can be done by both the international community and the local government in Indonesia?
Our initiative was mainly by campaigning markets in developed countries, that they should be concerned and ask from which source do they eat their palm oil (or component containing palm oil)? Is it from a responsible palm oil manufacturing company or not. We then encourage the international community to impose strict certification for the palm oil industry around the world.
To carry out these activities, we contact several institutions both in Indonesia and abroad, some even of those who contacted us for this this specific mission. The international community needs to require certification of sustainable palm oil plantations called RSPO. But the standards for sustainable palm oil plantations that adhere to RSPO standards is still considered as voluntary and not mandatory.
The Indonesian government also needs to reinforce and strengthen the rule of ISPO called the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil standard. The ISPO standard should be in effect since January 1, 2014, but was delayed until October 2015. By delaying the ISPO standard it will provide opportunities for oil palm plantations to perform operations that are not suistanable. This is something that should be addressed quickly by the Indonesian government.
What do you plan to do so in the next few years? Who are you working with and how are you reaching out to the NGOs as well as environmentalists? What are some of your personal sacrifices in order to get the message across to the public?
We will keep combating until the Leuser Ecosystem Area is completely protected. We will contact anyone and any institution that can assist us or play the strategically role on acheiving our objectives. The European countries and America certainly have the big influence in the world. So we will keep delivering messages to them that protecting Leuser is not only important for the local people, but also the responsibility of the world.
There is no sacrifice as you put it. What we did is not called sacrifice, but rather it is our obligation to protect the environment. This is our contribution to the world.
You managed to get a petition signed by almost 1.4 million people to support your cause that is against deforestation and the preservation of the ecosystem in Sumatra and as a result of your actions you were rightfully recognized by your efforts when you won the Nobel Prize for environmental justice called the Goldman Environmental Prize last year? Because of the award do you see your job getting easier?
In some cases the rollout of the plan to save Leuser conservation campaign and to establish relationships with external parties was much easier as compared to dealing internally with the government. In an effort to save the Leuser landscape we faced major obstacles, namely the rate of forest destruction that continually occurs. We are quite aware that in order to stop the damage in the Leuser it is not just enough to gain international support and the support from the government. The most important thing is to protect Leuser in real time efforts. We cannot sit and wait but have to work hard to keep up with the destruction of the rainforests. The government does have a role that adds to the damage of the Leuser but the damage by other parties is also significant. With a team that is still very limited it is an uphill struggle for us to keep Leuser intact. But we will continue to fight. Continue the struggle for what we believe in matters a great deal to us.
What is your advice to other NGOs and environmentalists that wish to follow in your footsteps How can others help you and support a similar cause back in their own countries?
I think I am not the best person for others to follow or to be looked upon as an example. But my advice to anyone is that we have to protect the world in the best possible way that is achievable. We must stop the excessive nature of consumerism because such consumerism will directly affect the exploitation of the earth. Resolving environmental problems are basically quite simple. We need to recognize the problem and find a way to resolve it and implement solutions.
Others can help me and other environmental activists with many things and by helping directly as well. As such we have our own personal campaign to convey a message to others to protect Leuser and our earth.
Have you ever been threatened by the larger corporations that are involved in the palm oil industry in Indonesia? Has there been threats made against you and your family? What causes you to persists and not be dissuaded?
Never, or even if someone had tried to threaten it was not too serious. There were no threats to me or my family. Our approach made is not to be frontal or against the illegal party, but rather to invite them to care for the preservation of nature. I recalled how an owner of an illegal plantation thanked us for having saved them from prison if they continued to conduct illegal activities. It was a lesson learned well.
What are your future goals and objectives? How can Indonesians carry on with the fight that you started and in raising the awareness of the international community? Do you have a role model?
Our goal for the future is to stop the exploitation of remaining forests in Indonesia. We want to restore the various functions of the forests and promote sustainable use. Indonesia could be a precursor to this because it already has a tropical rainforest that is considered large. And as long as Indonesia is led by a leader that is aware that by protecting the rainforests today actually means protecting the future of the nation.
A model that is very attractive to me can be seen in Costa Rica. I always tell people who are not yet aware of how the country rehabilitated its rainforests after the war ended. They now enjoy the peace and well-being of preserving their rainforests. For Indonesia, this model would need to be further refined. But that is the way we should go as a country.