Sleepless in Sumatra: Collaborating to Conserve Wildlife in the Trumon Corridor
Once called the Emerald of the Equator, the Indonesian island of Sumatra holds some of the most diverse and unique ecosystems in the world: it houses the last remaining Sumatran tigers, orangutans and elephants, and boasts a cultural diversity that is just as manifold and unique. Despite the island’s critical role, the Sumatran forests are being continuously destroyed – and along with them the habitat of endangered species and the livelihoods of thousands of people. Luckily there are encouraging projects that are starting to address these complex, interlinked issues. One of them is a wildlife conservation project in Trumon Corridor.
[The Trumon Corridor: a view from above]
My way to Tapak Tuan in South Aceh, Indonesia, is dotted with vast landscapes of palm trees stretching in every imaginable direction. Chock-full of great forests less than three decades ago, only half of the forest cover of the Borneo & Sumatra remains today, down from the 75 per cent documented in the mid 1980s.
The island of Sumatra faces the continuous threat of extensive forest fires, and a large chunk of its tropical rainforest forest has made way for pulp or palm oil plantations, leading to rapid deforestation. This is negatively impacting biodiversity and threatening the well-being and climate resilience of local communities. Although the local population recognises the importance of maintaining a healthy ecosystem, the effect of conservation initiatives will be limited unless communities are given access to alternative sources of income. In short, deforestation, the protection of biodiversity, and livelihood development cannot be addressed in isolation from each other. Conservation projects are thus complex endeavours that require a comprehensive approach and committed action from various stakeholders – private sector included.
The past few years have luckily seen large global companies make commitments to rid their supply chains of deforestation. These organisations are now left with the challenge of designing solutions that tackle the problem in a participatory manner. A comprehensive landscape approach means addressing the increasingly complex and widespread environmental, social and political challenges in a way that transcends traditional management boundaries. Most of the efforts that we see today, however, are defined by traditional boundaries. Such is the case of the Leuser ecosystem in Sumatra.
The Leuser ecosystem covers 2.6 million hectares and has been recognized as one of the most precious biodiversity spots left on earth. In 1997 roughly 800,000 ha were declared part of the Gunung Leuser National Park, achieving IUCN conservation status. This was followed one year later by the declaration of the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve, an area further south. These areas – albeit extremely important – are only a fraction of the whole Leuser ecosystem. Between these two key areas lies the Trumon Corridor, which, despite being recognised as important for biodiversity movement, still lacks full legal status for conservation.
[The Trumon Corridor lies between the Gunung Leuser National Park and the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve in Sumatra]
I spoke with Pak Rusdi, leader of the Forum Komunikasi Pekerja Sosial Masyarakat (FKPSM), a community organization in the area. He explained that while the corridor´s services have been recognised at the local level, they lack the legal recognition that will allow for stronger protection and larger benefits for biodiversity conservation. In 2015 South Pole Group (SPG) identified the Trumon Corridor as a high interest area and started collaborating with FKPSM. SPG has supported the organisation’s conservation efforts which involves navigating a tricky playing field with varying agendas:
While conserving the forest and securing sustainable revenue streams are at the core of FKPSM’s work, building long-term support among locals is equally important: their buy-in will be the crucial tipping point for ensuring a strong case for protecting the Trumon Corridor. The government of South Aceh regency has already acknowledged the importance of legally recognising the corridor and efforts to do this at the provincial and national level area are underway. However, land tenure issues in Indonesia are complicated and factors such as economic growth are also important for governments to consider. Driving economic growth entails choices on land use for various production purposes, hence posing a potential threat to the efforts of community organisations such as the FKPSM. Finally, the discussions around Trumon Corridor go far beyond the Indonesian waters, with repeated calls from the international community to protect the area and increase cooperation with local communities.
[The FKPSM team and I on our visit to the project site]
With more channels needed for supporting sustainable livelihoods in areas such as the Trumon Corridor, there remains ample room for corporate action in creating shared value at a local level through business operations. For now, FKPSM’s dream is to create a buffer zone around the corridor that will provide economic benefits to the communities while at the same time protecting the area.
“If we don’t provide locals with sustainable sources of income, the corridor will continue to be at risk. We want to start work with two villages – Naca and Le Jereuneh – that are already more advanced on the discussions and trainings. We will start planting the trees and use them as examples for the other villages to follow,” says Pak Rusdi.
According to Pak Rusdi, this project is bringing them closer to their goal. With the help of the project funds, and in addition to an orangutan and biodiversity survey, they are empowering the communities by facilitating trainings on sustainable livelihoods and forest management. They also work with schools with the aim of integrating awareness raising efforts into the curriculum. This helps ensure better understanding and long-term commitment to protecting the corridor.
“We bring the students right into the heart of the corridor so they can see it – to show that it’s is something real and tangible.”
[High school students visit the Trumon Corridor and study local wildlife as part of their curriculum]
While the Trumon Corridor project led by South Pole Group, FKPSM and partners has led to promising results, it is a living proof of the complexity of conservation projects: it entails work and facilitation on both national and community level, as well as persistence in ensuring the continuity of efforts in the long run – both in terms of funding and stakeholder commitment.
The key take-away for companies in the agribusiness: forestry projects are complex endeavours that require significant investments of time & resources. Proactive conservation work in critical areas as well as continuously mapping out deforestation hotspots in supply chains is important to reduce risks.
Flying out from Indonesia and watching excavators load trees on to barges, it was clear to me that with the rapid pace of deforestation and forest degradation, it is critical to not only preserve the existing boundaries of the most protected areas, but also to focus on other key areas such as the Trumon Corridor. These multifaceted projects can only be successful if we collaborate and bring NGOs, communities and corporates to the same table.
Sue Helen Nieto is Senior Forestry Consultant at South Pole Group, with 10 years of experience dealing with forest conservation and climate change across Asia and Latin America. Get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org on ways to support the ongoing efforts of the Trumon project or to continue the discussion.
 Indonesian word for Mr.