We sit down with 2014 Goldman Prize winner Rudi Putra to discuss his work to dismantle illegal palm oil plantations that are causing massive deforestation in northern Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem, in order to protect the habitat of the critically endangered Sumatran rhino.
How did your dedication to protecting the Sumatran rhino inspire you to take action against illegal palm oil plantations?
The Sumatran rhino is a very unique species in the world, and it is the symbol of our struggle to conserve the ecosystem. I realized that if I only focused on protecting the rhino or other wildlife, the animals might be safe from poaching — but the rhino’s habitat would still shrink due to forest clearing and the encroachment of palm oil plantations. Without the habitat, we would lose not only the habitat of the rhino, elephant, tiger and other animals — we would also lose the forest that supports the local people with farming, water and flood protection. It’s very important to stop the expansion of illegal palm oil plantations in the Aceh forest. If not, we will lose the Aceh people.
How did you convince local officials to support your cause, and plantation owners to halt their operations?
I reminded them of the disastrous flood in Aceh in 2006 — the hundreds of thousands of people who had to evacuate, the thousands of homes destroyed and the people who died and became impoverished. I showed them photos and videos of the destruction and talked to them about how logging and deforestation had exacerbated the effects of the flood. I showed them the importance of the Leuser Ecosystem to preventing floods in the future. I also explained to plantation owners that they could build their plantations outside of conservation areas, and outlined where those boundaries were. Most of the owners agreed to this and even formally gave their land back to do restoration work in those areas.
What are you doing to stop the Aceh government’s proposed land use plan, which would allow for increased development (including palm oil plantations) in the Leuser Ecosystem?
The Aceh government is eager to pass the plan, but the civil society in Aceh is pressuring them to reject the proposal. We have used Facebook, Twitter and an online petition, which has 1.4 million signatures, to gain support worldwide. The support from foreign countries has put pressure on the local and federal government to pay attention to the Aceh forest. I believe that when the plan is submitted to the federal government, it will not pass because of the federal protection rules for the Leuser Ecosystem.
Indonesia is the world leader in palm oil production and global demand for the oil is growing. Do you think sustainable palm oil production is possible?
We are not against palm oil — we are only against it when palm oil plantations destroy the forest. We believe it can continue to be grown as long as it’s not inside protected forests. But certification of sustainable goods is difficult, and not effective in my opinion. Several companies certified by RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) are still destroying the forest and don’t care about the wildlife. We have evidence of one certified plantation that is still destroying the forest — we had to evacuate the orangutan population in the area because of this.
What is the most important thing you want people to know about your work?
I want people to know that change to palm oil plantations in the forest is possible, not impossible. If the local people support our activity, we will be successful. I also want to provide an example to other areas of the country of what we can do to stop illegal plantations. I think that what we have done is an important learning lesson about how we can restore the forest from palm oil plantations, rather than clearing forests to create plantations.