Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Real Meaning of Sustainability, Part VIII

Part VIII: A Letter to the Leuser Foundation

I was reviewing my notes that I scribbled down at the beginning of this exercise a few weeks ago, to remind myself what I wanted to touch on as background for showing potential donors how important it is to help create sustainable stallholder coffer production in Aceh Timur.

Here’s what was on various cocktail napkins, shopping lists, and scrap paper:


Conflict affected

Conditions: violence, poverty

5th anniversary of Aceh documentary

Simpang Jernih: the Wild West

Poorest, most dangerous
Guns in from Thailand through SPJ
Living in Leuser

Save Ecosystem

Need Conservation reporter  ?Jakarta Post

April 2013—why isn’t there a story now?

When this forest is gone, there’s nothing left

If you can decipher that, I think it sums up every obstacle the area faces, and everything we want to address.  Ecosystem, violence, poverty, lack of interest from outside.

Just so we’re clear.

Remember the article in the Sun (who, by the way, have not answered my request re: a story on the tsunami 10 years later—I must write them again)?  Called “Keep Off the Grasslands,” it was an interview with Mark Dowie, whose new book about “conservation refugees” explores how international NGOs unwittingly (and sometimes consciously) conspire with multi-national and agribusiness, mining, petroleum companies to remove indigenous people from their traditional homes, believing that they damage the protected forest, while simultaneously accepting large donations from these corporations to either broker deals with host governments or oversee “green” projects.  In Aceh, for example, the Leuser Foundation is working with the Acehnese government to “re-zone” protected forest and call it “Production forest,” and that’s pretty much the ball game for the small, rural communities that live on the margins of the forest and try to subsist there.  Not to mention the incredible loss of plant and animal species—the very thing that these large conservation organizations warn about in all their very expensive campaigns.  I just don’t get it.

I’d been wading through their website(s) and have discovered that the Leuser Ecosystem has many mansions . . . most of which, including the Foundation’s, are “under construction,” created by other groups, not updated, and in general tend to contradict each other.  I suppose it’s this way for any enormous and incredibly important land mass (I can’t imagine, for example, the number of websites, public and private, devoted to the Amazon or the Grand Canyon), but I did think that the “official” website would have some sort of regular press release/update page.  Sigh.
So I decided to write a letter to the Leuser Foundation . . . before I realized they’d just do the electronic version of crumpling it into a little ball and send it sailing across their air-conditioned office. 

Dear Aceh-based Leuser Foundation staff:

I’m writing on behalf of Yayasan Jembatan Masa Depan, which has been providing sustainable livelihoods services and programs to people in remote natural disaster and conflict-affected areas of Aceh since 2005.  JMD is one of the only local community service NGOs in the province. They have been working in Aceh Timur District, specifically Simpang Jernih sub-district, since 2009, assisting women cocoa farmers improve production, raise their standard of living, and provide positive role models for citizens still suffering the aftereffects and consequences of the 30-year conflict.  As you know, much of Aceh Timur’s land mass falls within the Leuser Ecosystem.  Our current three-year initiative involves developing a cultivation, harvest, and marketing model that is environmentally sensitive and sustainable for generations to come.

People living on the forest buffer face many challenges including large-scale agribusiness and mining operating in “production” areas of the forest, poaching and illegal logging which is sometimes encouraged by outside interests (and necessary for survival), and environmental regulations that prohibit indigenous and long term residents’  use of the forest while promoting large-scale destruction by palm oil and mining interests.

In order to continue to help develop programs that fit the interests, desires, and needs of future generations, JMD is looking for whatever information is available from our larger colleagues with regards to any sociological, demographic, cultural, or historic studies conducted in Aceh Timur and/or Simpang Jernih sub-district.  Our agriculture field officers and community development staff have gathered much information over the years, but a deep dive into the daily lives and individual aspirations of this group has not been undertaken by us to the extent that it will be possible to understand what matters most to people in East Aceh, especially young people who are poised to either leave the district or remain with less than positive options.

It was with great interest, then, that we read on your web page a 2008 announcement that was updated in July 2013:

How will the people of Aceh and North Sumatra directly benefit from the conservation of the Leuser Ecosystem ?

In addition to the benefit from environmental services, local groups and companies will be able to participate in the sustainable utilisation of buffer zones within the Leuser Ecosystem. Because of the size of the LE many different models are being used, taking full account of local norms and customs. In certain cases limited extraction of forestry resources can be supported, in other cases community forestry is being encouraged, fishery rights might be issued, and tourism is being promoted in areas of potential interest. On a larger scale, industries such as fertilizer plants, oil extraction operations, and gas liquification complexes, all of which employ many people, will continue to receive the supply of water they need to carry on their operations. (

I have two requests:

1.       Please forward us any information you have regarding the model being used for Aceh Timur, and how you went about finding information on “local norms and customs,” as well as providing a report of what those local norms and customs are, and with whom we can speak regarding this survey.

2.       Please let us know if any part of the Leuser Ecosystem lying within Aceh Timur is protected forest. The maps indicate that there may be no protected forest in this area, although other websites refer to Leuser as the “Leuser Protected Ecosystem.” 

The survival of these small, isolated communities depends on the wisest and best use of the natural resource that has been their home for generations. It is up to agencies who want to assist in this endeavour to understand completely the demographics, culture, traditions and future plans of the forest residents before designing projects.

Thanks so much for your time and assistance.
Sara Henderson, President
Building Bridges to the Future Foundation, Inc.

I think I’d have as much chance of being kissed by a Sumatran tiger as getting an answer, so I haven’t sent that one yet.

I’m trying to refresh my memory as to who founded The Leuser Ecosystem, and whether Leuser and other organizations actually do have “deals” with the Indonesian government in which “ecologically friendly” palm oil farming and mining are allowed to take place in exchange for big donations to their agencies, as described in Dpwie’s interview/book.

I mean, when is the line drawn, and by whom, between subsistence hunting/farming and excessive/harmful use of the resource by local residents?  I can sputter and rave all I want, but in practical terms, there has to be a definitive answer to this . . . doesn’t there?

Right before I went to bed, I found this Leuser project list on their website, and seeing Line #3, I guess I got one of my answers.  Sadly.

Past and Current Projects

If this is too small to see, #3 is "Project: Protecting the Leuser Ecosystem.  Source of Funding: Exxon/Mobil Indonesia. Year: 2005-2012."

Below is from their webpage: the history of how Leuser was started: by an international interest looking for oil and minerals.

The conservation history of Leuser
The efforts to conserve Leuser started in the 1920’s. Back then a geology expert from the Netherlands named F.C. Ven Heurn explored the prevalence of oil and mineral resources in Aceh. The local customary leaders became worried about the preservation of Leuser, as they considered the Leuser Mountain a holy and sacred place.

Van Heurn didn’t find the minerals he was searching for and instead he started to help the local customary leaders (the Datoek and Oeloebalang) to persuade the Dutch Colonial Government to grant Leuser a wildlife sanctuary status. After discussions with the Netherlands Commission for Conservation of Nature in August 1928, it was proposed to assert conservation status to an area stretching from Singkil (upstream of the Simpang Kiri River) in the south, along the Bukit Barisan mountain towards the direction of the Tripa River valley and the coastal swamp in northern Meulaboh. On the 6th of February 1934 a customary community meeting was held in Tapaktuan that resulted in “the Tapaktuan Declaraton”. This was the first formal agreement concerning the conservation of Leuser.

And so it would stand to reason that Leuser would be making agreements with the government to allow incursions into an area it helped to protect, but always wanted to see turn a profit.

Things are starting to fit together.

Next: An overview of the 2006 Aceh Village Survey commissioned by the World Bank

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