A biologist by training, Rudi Putra 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.
Indonesia’s rainforests are among the most biodiverse on the planet, housing 12 percent of the world’s known mammal species. Only half of the original forests remain standing today, due to an astonishingly high rate of deforestation—an estimated 2 million acres are lost every year.
A large culprit behind Indonesia’s rapid deforestation is the growing worldwide demand for palm oil. It is used as an additive in packaged foods such as cookies, cereal, potato chips, chocolate, margarine, baby formula, and canned soups, along with a variety of soaps and cosmetic products.
Almost 90 percent of the world’s palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, and despite a current moratorium on forest clearing in Indonesia signed by the president in 2011, much of the forest loss comes from illegal plantations that have forced their way into protected areas through bribes and rampant government corruption.
As a high school student growing up in the Aceh region, Rudi Putra showed an early interest in nature and animals. He studied conservation biology and fell in love with the Sumatran rhino, the smallest—and the most critically endangered—member of the rhinoceros family.
He became an expert researcher and tracker, leading rhino protection teams on field expeditions to track down poachers in the Leuser Ecosystem. This 6.4-million acre, federally protected forest spanning the Aceh and North Sumatra provinces is one of the few remaining homes for the Sumatran rhino.
Putra realized that in addition to anti-poaching efforts, his work could not be complete without addressing a much larger threat rapidly outpacing conservation: habitat destruction from illegal palm oil plantations.
Further studies pointed to the importance of the forest for the 4 million people living near the protected Leuser Ecosystem, who rely on the forestland for sustainable agriculture and water. The forests also provide much-needed protection from flooding, which has grown in frequency and severity in recent years. Putra began to see his work as not only protecting the rhinos and their habitat, but the people of the region as well.
With support from local communities, Putra approached local police directly to enforce land protection laws and shut down illegal palm oil plantations. He spoke of the hundreds of thousands of families who lost their homes and loved ones during the 2006 Aceh floods and their struggles to access clean drinking water.
He also approached palm oil plantation owners and reminded them that their actions were against the law. After Putra showed them the boundaries marking conservation areas, some owners voluntarily shut down the plantations and gave the land back to the government so that Putra and his colleagues could conduct restoration work.
Putra’s sustained outreach and strategic negotiations, deploying carrots and sticks when necessary, resulted in the dismantling of more than 1,200 acres of illegal plantations in the Leuser Ecosystem. The rehabilitation of these forests after the clearance of the oil palm has recreated a critical wildlife corridor now used by elephants, tigers and orangutans for the first time in 12 years. The Sumatran rhino population in the Leuser Ecosystem has also inched up in the past decade.
Putra is now part of a fight against a new threat to the rainforest: a proposal from the Aceh provincial government that would legally open up large tracts of forestland in the Leuser Ecosystem to palm oil development.
In 2013, Putra organized an online petition to apply international pressure on the Indonesian government to enforce its own conservation laws and reject the Aceh government’s proposal. The petition garnered 1.4 million signatures, and has been widely credited with catalyzing international conversations between government officials from Norway, the European Union, Indonesia and the Aceh province.