Defender of Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem wins Whitley Fund for Nature award

2016_04_03_2192_1459649679._largeFarwiza Farhan is a force for nature, and a force of nature. Determined, dedicated, and passionate about protecting the environment, she is one of the founders of the NGO HAkA – based in the Indonesian province of Aceh in northern Sumatra – and she has just won a prestigious Whitley award.

The London-based Whitley Fund for Nature honoured Farwiza for “defending local livelihoods and Sumatra’s iconic species in the Leuser Ecosystem”.

The fund says Farwiza has tackled corporations and government agencies head on “in order to ensure the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra is preserved for future generations”.

Farwiza was presented with the 2016 Whitley Award for Conservation in Ape Habitats by the Princess Royal in a ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society in London last night (Wednesday). The prize is worth £35,000 (about US$ 51,000). It was donated by the Arcus Foundation and Farwiza will use it to protect Leuser via citizens’ lawsuits. She also wants to set up a wildlife protection unit.


The fund gave its additional 2016 Gold Award to another Indonesian, Hotlin Ompusunggu, for her work in dentistry and reforestation.¹ (Full story about Hotlin and her work to follow).

The Leuser Ecosystem is the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants can be found living together in the wild, and is the area that HAkA (Forest, Nature, and Environment of Aceh) is fighting to protect.

The Ecosystem hit international headlines recently when actor, film producer, and ardent environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio paid it a visit.

DiCaprio was photographed with Farwiza, who chairs HAkA, and with members of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), which runs a quarantine centre.

Farwiza, DiCaprio (right), and award-winning environmentalist Rudi Putra.

13000300_10154007076198257_4480376882085710189_n dicap and socpDiCaprio at the SOCP quarantine centre.

After DiCaprio’s visit, social media was abuzz with the photos and his comments about saving Leuser. The “Save Leuser” petition on quickly grew from 2,000 signatures to 53,000, Farwiza says. “A few years ago, we launched a petition on Avaaz and Leo tweeted it and it grew to a million signatures. That’s the impact of Leonardo DiCaprio.”

Such awareness raising is vital, Farwiza says. “DiCaprio delivered and amplified the voice of the local people. He doesn’t have his own agenda; he is simply standing with the locals. That’s his message and that is super strong, and we see massive changes in public awareness and support.

“Through experience, we have learned that public awareness and support can change legal outcomes.”

The Leuser Ecosystem covers 2.6 million hectares and straddles the border of Aceh and the neighbouring province of North Sumatra. It has been listed as one of the world’s most irreplaceable areas.

It includes the Gunung Leuser National Park, which is listed as a World Heritage Site.

Citizens’ lawsuit

While Farwiza was in London for the Whitley event, the civil lawsuit brought by a group of nine Aceh citizens against Indonesia’s minister of home affairs entered the stage of initial courtroom submissions. Farwiza is one of the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit is the latest development in a two-year fight by an alliance of concerned citizens – Gerakan Rakyat Aceh Menggugat (GeRAM) – against the proposed spatial plan for Aceh.

Farwiza  says the Whitley award money will be used “to prevent the Aceh spatial plan from legalising destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem and to enable communities to be involved in the policy-making processes that will effect their livelihoods”.

Her aim is to shift the balance of power to the local level and support people in their defence of Leuser.

The spatial plan will “whitewash crimes of the past, and pave the way for a new wave of catastrophic ecological destruction”, Farwiza says.

The class action plaintiffs are demanding a cancellation of the plan and “a thorough and comprehensive revision” of its proposals, which they say must include the recognition of the Leuser Ecosytem’s special status.

The new spatial plan would open up swathes of the Ecosystem for roads, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions. It threatens to destroy the area’s biodiversity and increase the risk of flooding and landslides.

There has already been extensive illegal burning of land in the area and there is large-scale encroachment for illegal logging and plantations. Environmentalists say the new spatial plan would effectively dissolve protection of much of Aceh’s remaining tropical rainforest.

Illegal activities within the Leuser Ecosystem have triggered a surge in poaching. Evidence of tiger presence has plummeted by almost 75 percent over the past five years and oil palm plantations are disrupting elephant migration paths.

The new spatial plan makes no mention of the existence of the Leuser Ecosystem as a National Strategic Area and no reference to its role in environmental protection.

“It effectively legalises numerous new roads, many of which have already been constructed illegally and cut through vast areas of forest, fragmenting this sensitive ecosystem and opening up new pathways for destruction,” Farwiza said.

An aerial view of the Leuser Ecosystem, 19th November 2013. Photo: Paul Hilton

The approach in the citizens’ lawsuit is different to that taken previously by a coalition of NGOs including Friends of the Earth Aceh (Walhi), which sought a judicial review of the plan itself in the Supreme Court. The move was unsuccessful.

“The citizens’ law suit comes down to asking the government to do its job,” Farwiza said.

Farwiza says the spatial plan should be revised in accordance with the ministry of home affairs evaluation. “That’s a compromise that we are willing to make.”

The plaintiffs say the home affairs minister has “failed to act on his jurisdiction to cancel the Aceh spatial plan” as required under the ministry’s decree Nº 650-441 of 2014.

The home affairs ministry has written to the Aceh government asking it to revise its spatial plan in accordance with the ministry’s evaluation. If it did not do this, the ministry said, the plan would be revoked.

“Neither the ministry of home affairs nor the Aceh government have done what they are supposed to have done,” Farwiza said.

The citizens’ lawsuit was formally filed in January 2016. Then the court decided there needed to be mediation. “In a case taken by citizens against the government they said there should be dialogue.”

Unfortunately, Farwiza says, all the plaintiffs attended the mediation sessions, but the government simply sent its legal representatives.

“They walked in with a pre-prepared agenda, with no desire to have a dialogue; no desire to seek a sensible solution.”

Millions of people depend upon Aceh’s forests, and the Leuser Ecosystem in particular, the plaintiffs say.

Protection of the Ecosystem is required under several of Indonesia’s national laws, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has ranked it as one of the world’s most irreplaceable protected areas.

4. A JCB moves earth inside the protected Leuser EcosystemA bulldozer moves earth within the Leuser Ecosystem.

The ministry of home affairs evaluation is not as complete as HAkA would like, Farwiza says. “Of course, we would like the area to be fully mapped out. We know exactly which area needs to be one hundred percent conserved, where not even a single tree can be taken out, and which area could be harvested; which area needs to be restored, and in which area we could build roads and have industry.”

Data analysis by the UK-based Sumatran Orangutan Society shows a dramatic loss of forest cover in the Leuser Ecosystem in recent years.

The charity compared the period from the start of 2008 to the end of 2012 with the previous five years and found that forest loss in the Ecosystem had more than doubled. At least 30,830 hectares of forest were lost over the first period, and 80,316 hectares over the second.

Over the entire ten-year period, from the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2012, an area the size of Hong Kong was lost, the society says.

Sustainable development

Aceh does need economic development, Farwiza says. “But, at the end of the day, if we focus on economic development without putting real thought into it, we’re going to end up with pseudo economic development.”

Farwiza cites the example of the Tripa peat forest, large swathes of which have been destroyed to make way for oil palms.

“After the palm oil companies came into the area and changed the ecosystem, the local people no longer had fish in their rivers; they no longer had rattan in the forest because the forest was gone; and they no longer had honey because those trees were gone. When that happened, like it or not, they had to work with the plantation.”

The locals in Tripa are earning more money than they used to, Farwiza says, but they are worse off because they now have to buy everything. “When I ask them what do you grow these days, they say palm oil.”

Can Leuser be protected if there are still oil palm plantations there? “Palm oil is only a crop; a commodity,” Farwiza said.

“If you replaced all the palm oil with coconut, it would be just as destructive. What we need to change is the practice, and we need to set a line in the sand beyond which there can be no further expansion.”

There needs to be intensification on the plantations, Farwiza says – increased yields with no further expansion. A major problem, however, is that many companies are conducting land clearing and expanding as far as they can before they obtain a permit. And it is often very unclear who owns which parcels of land.

Deforestation or conservation

Farwiza told Changing Times recently: “Aceh has an opportunity today to decide which direction its development is going. The Aceh government and its people are at a junction; it is a choice between deforestation and conservation.

“A lot of people would argue that conservation in developing countries is in lieu of development; that you have to have either conservation or development.

“In reality, we need conservation to make sure we have sustainable development. If we destroy forests in order to build infrastructure, over time – not so long – we are going to have more natural disasters.”

Farwiza, who is writing a PhD about conservation and development, says it was thought that environmental destruction was already peaking, but it isn’t. It is continuing to increase.

“All around the world we see that forests are declining; all around the world we see more and more natural disasters and, last year, Indonesia made the headlines for forest fires that burned for months and, at their peak, caused more emissions daily than in the entire United States.”

She cites the flash flood in Aceh Tamiang in 2006.

“Initially local people didn’t realise that palm oil encroachment upstream was affecting their livelihood.

“They only realised this when the flash flood happened and not only mud, but logs flowed down the river, smashing homes on their way through.”

Farwiza says she understands that President Jokowi has to navigate his way through political and bureaucratic complexities, and she thinks he has good intentions, but she wishes he had stronger policies and would deliver on his promises.

Optimism has increased with the recent government announcement of a moratorium on new palm oil and mining licences in Indonesia, but implementation will be a challenge. The ban’s authority is based on a presidential decree, which carries less weight than a law.

A current ban on palm oil cultivation on peatland isn’t adequately enforced.

Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister, Siti Nurbaya, made specific reference to the Leuser Ecosystem in her speech at the United Nations headquarters in New York on April 22 after the signing of the Paris agreement on climate change.

The governor of Aceh had declared that no new palm oil or mining licences would be granted in the Ecosystem, she said.


From small beginnings

HAkA came into being three years ago when the Leuser Ecosystem management agency was dissolved and Farwiza and other employees found themselves out of a job.

Other NGOs wanted to employ them, but they wanted to keep working to protect Leuser. “Within each of us there was still that love for Leuser and we wanted to continue the work,” Farwiza said.

“We regrouped and we created HAkA out of the mess. At that time we had no money and we had no office. We worked out of coffee shops. For the first year we didn’t even know if we would have a salary at the end of the month.

“It was very hard, but, because we worked out of love, because we worked out of passion, we lasted through the challenges and we grew out of it.”

Farwiza used to be a marine biologist, but is now focused on anthropology and development studies, and has chosen to become an environmental activist.

“I watched the ocean die before my own eyes. I thought forests should have a better chance. And I don’t want to be the one who took no action. I was a scientist, but then someone told me you could very well study something to death.”

She wishes scientists would talk to policymakers and the public in language they understand. For Farwiza, public education is vital. “On-the-ground success for me is empowering communities.”

Farwiza cites legal successes in Tripa.² “Once the communities saw that we had started to win, they realised they could do something themselves; that they could actually fight companies and win.”

A stronger civil society makes sure the government does its job well, Farwiza says, and gets companies to make their practices more sustainable.

“If more people are empowered we can take on bigger battles. Just by living our lives we make an impact, and it’s down to us what kind of impact we want to make.

“Either we choose the pathway of apathy and inaction or we choose to do something.”

While Farwiza, who is just 29 years old, respects custom, and will cover her head on certain occasions, she resists Aceh societal pressure and has made a personal choice not to wear the hijab (headscarf) day to day.

Environmentalists in Indonesia do not face the threats and dangers encountered in such countries as Honduras, Guatemala, Cambodia, and the Philippines, but there are continual attempts to bribe them.

“It happens to everyone, not just me,” Farwiza said. “If any of the HAkA staff decided to jump ship, they would be driving fancy cars for starters, but the strength that we have here is our integrity and honesty.”

10329214_10154123765983854_8942899388337312272_n with chocolate

Farwiza with Chocolate the orangutan, who was rescued from wildlife traders four years ago and was released back into the wild in February.

The Whitley Fund for Nature says its awards honour “exceptional individuals who, through their outstanding conservation work in developing countries, are redefining the way people engage with the natural world in the 21st century”.

The fund’s founder, Edward Whitley, says it focuses on conservation success stories and the progress that’s being made.

“The awards ceremony is about recognising and celebrating that – winning those small battles, which cumulatively add up to significant change at the national level.

“In addition to the financial benefit of winning an award, our winners receive professional communications training to turn scientists into ambassadors, so they’re able to communicate what they’re doing to the public and to policy makers.”

The renowned naturalist David Attenborough, who is a Whitley Fund for Nature trustee, said: “Empowering local people, who understand what the problems are, and who have the local knowledge, determination and vested interest to find the solutions, is the very best way to ensure long-term protection for the natural world.”

Farwiza remains very modest about her achievements. She says she has numerous mentors who have inspired and empowered her.

“None of us could achieve any of the things we achieve if it were not for all the help we get from everyone involved. It is never just one organisation, and it is never just one person.”

Winning the Whitley award is a massive achievement, Farwiza says, and a huge mark of appreciation of the work she and others are doing. “It is something I would never have dreamed of. I never expected to be shortlisted. I am incredibly honoured and humbled to be selected.”

She added on Instagram: “This award is not mine; it belongs to everyone working tirelessly day and night to protect Leuser; it’s the people at @haka_sumatra and all of our partners; it’s the local grassroots communities whose courage and bravery continue to inspire me and provide me with strength. It’s our supporters, donors and petition signers who have enabled us to achieve what we have achieved, and it’s friends and families who have been beyond understanding and supportive.”

The award will help to amplify the voice of those battling to protect Leuser, and strengthen their work, Farwiza says.

“The awareness that this award could bring could actually change the game; it really could.”


1) The additional prize, the Whitley Gold Award, is worth £50,000 (about $US 73,000). It was awarded to dentist Hotlin Ompusunggu for “improving the health and well-being of rainforest communities while safeguarding a globally important habitat for orangutans, gibbons, and hornbills”.

Hotlin’s novel approach, which marries healthcare with conservation, has resulted in a significant reduction in illegal logging in the Gunung Palung National Park, and replicating this successful model to other sites in Southeast Asia is now being explored.

The Whitley fund said: “Since Hotlin won a Whitley award in 2011, the project has seen a significant decrease in illegal logging whilst improving the health of 24,000 people living around Gunung Palung National Park – home to 10 percent of the world’s orangutans.

“Hotlin’s Gold Award will enable her to work with park authorities to manage this important habitat, as well as establish Indonesia’s first ‘conservation hospital’ and explore expansion of the model to other potential sites across the country. Joining the judging panel to assist in winner selection, the Gold Award winner also acts as mentor to the new Whitley award winners.”

ChDdgS_WIAUgrnl HotlinHotlin Ompusunggu, whose NGO, Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) provides healthcare incentives for local people to reduce the need to exploit rainforest habitat.


2) On January 8, 2014, judges at the Meulaboh district court in Aceh ordered the palm oil company PT Kallista Alam to pay 114.3 billion rupiah (at that time nearly 9.4 million US$) in compensation and 251.7 billion rupiah (then close to 20.8 million US$) to restore the 1,000 hectares of forest it destroyed by burning. The court also ordered the confiscation of 5,769 hectares of land managed by Kallista Alam. In September last year Indonesia’s Supreme Court rejected the company’s appeal.


Other 2016 Whitley award winners

  • Gilbert Baase Adum, for saving giant squeaker frogs in Ghana.
  • Makala Jasper for forest stewardship in Tanzania (community conservation of coastal forests in the greater Selous ecosystem).
  • Karau Kuna for protecting tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea.
  • Muhammad Ali Nawaz for snow leopard conservation in the mountains of northern Pakistan.
  • Alexander Rukhaia for safeguarding birds of prey negotiating the Batumi Flyway migration route in Georgia.
  • Juliette Velosoa for saving the critically endangered side-necked turtle and its freshwater habitat in Madagascar.

Photos of Farwiza and the Leuser Ecosystem by Paul Hilton.

Article updated on April 29 and May 1.

More articles on the work of HAkA, and the value of conservation to follow.