Indonesia’s Women Forest Defenders

March 08, 2023 The Asia Foundation
Indonesia’s Women Forest Defenders
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Indonesia’s Women Forest Defenders
Mar 08, 2023
The Asia Foundation

“You can’t protect what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know.” Indonesian women harness the local power of social forestry.  

Show Notes Transcript

“You can’t protect what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know.” Indonesian women harness the local power of social forestry.  

Farwiza Farhan (00:03):

We saw everyone suddenly embrace this idea that women would go out and patrol the forest. They were mocked, people were laughing at them. People challenged their formal and legal authority over the forest.

John Rieger (00:16):

How the women of a small Indonesian village became the defenders of its forest. Today on InAsia from the Asia Foundation. I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (00:24):

And I'm Tracie Yang. Its name means above the clouds. The Leuser Ecosystem is a mountainous tropical forest in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra. It's the last place on earth where the highly endangered Sumatran elephant, rhino, tiger, and orangutan can all be found, but it's also under pressure from poachers and illegal loggers, who stripped the land of resources and wildlife, causing landslides and floods, choking water sources, and endangering villages downstream.

John Rieger (00:53):

Now a band of forest defenders from the village of Damaran Baru organized and led by women has been patrolling the forest to stop this exploitation. Their remarkable success is due in part to today's guest. Farwiza Farhan is the co-founder of HAkA, an Indonesian NGO that helped the villagers win the state's official blessing to manage their forest. Farwiza, thank you for joining us today.

Farwiza Farhan (01:17):

I'm so delighted to be here.

John Rieger (01:19):

Does Indonesia have a forest problem?

Farwiza Farhan (01:21):

Oh wow. Yes. Indonesia, like many other tropical forested countries, do have forest problems. But the problem is not on its forest, but on the protection of it.

Tracie Yang (01:33):

You are specifically a forest conservationist in the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra. Can you tell us more about this forest?

Farwiza Farhan (01:42):

In the past three or four decades, Indonesia have lost majority of its forest. The Leuser Ecosystem compared to the entire island looks small, but at the same time, it's 2.7 million hectares of relatively intact forest. The Leuser Ecosystem is the last place on earth where the critically endangered megafauna, tiger, elephant, orangutan, and rhino, still coexist in the world.


But the Leuser Ecosystem for me, is more than just this wildlife. I embarked on the journey of conservation because I love the animals, because I love wildlife, but at the same time, I learned about the ecosystem services that this forest provided for people of Aceh and people living around Leuser.


It is serving as a carbon sink to help us mitigate the giant problem of climate change. It provided protection from floods and landslides that is currently happening on regular basis in Aceh, in Sumatra and it is also providing livelihood for so many people living within and around it.

John Rieger (02:53):

Paint us a word picture of this forest, the Leuser Forest. What does it look like? What does it smell like? Or what does it sound like?

Farwiza Farhan (03:05):

This makes me want to send you so many sound recordings of the forest, because that's one of my favorite things. If you get to wake up in Ketambe Research Station, you may hear the rain, but then if you listen closely, it's not the rain, it's the sound of the river. You hear the bird chirping, this orchestra. The first time I come to Leuser, I took a small plane. I looked out the window of the plane and I see mountains after mountains after mountains and everything is comfort in forest. You know that sweet sour smell of forest fruits because this walked into the forest it was the fig season.

John Rieger (03:57):

The fig season.

Farwiza Farhan (03:59):


John Rieger (04:00):


Farwiza Farhan (04:00):

So one giant fig tree in Ketambe Research Station was fruiting. The ground is covered in fig fruit. At the same time above head there's numerous horn bills, feasting and orangutans and different animals is just savoring, devouring the fruits of this tree.


Then I was talking to the research assistant, does this tree ever get some rest? And the research assistant said, If we put camera trap at night, this area where we stand would be full with ground dwelling mammals, well pours and deer would be doing the same thing, devouring all these fruits falling from this tree. It got me thinking how incredible it is, just a single three could support so many life in Leuser.


And this is just an example of how this landscape support ecosystem of services throughout the province. Leuser for me is beyond Apache Forest to protect. Leuser is a symbol of our relationship with the environment. How much we depended on it. How much we take it for granted,

John Rieger (05:25):

Farwiza, I know you've partially answered this question, but why does this forest need protection?

Farwiza Farhan (05:31):

Leuser Ecosystem is rich in timber, land as well as soil and minerals.

John Rieger (05:38):

Resources that can be extracted.

Farwiza Farhan (05:39):

Yes. So a whole lot of economic development in Indonesia kind of happened through extractive economy. When we see this forest, we see it as something that we need to exploit, that we should take the trees for timber, that we should take the land for monoculture, that we should dig the soil for mining. Yes, Leuser is so rich, but at the same time it is also rich in ecosystem services, in biodiversity relationship and things that we don't necessarily value in our economic system. We are left with the choice, either we protect them today or we lost them forever along with the species within it.

John Rieger (06:26):

So, forests are important national resources like you said, and how they're managed seems like an appropriate matter for national policy but HAkA promotes local management by villagers living in or near the forest. Why?

Farwiza Farhan (06:44):

You can't protect something that you don't love and you can't love something that you don't know. So many people that engage in forest protection have told me, the more they understand what is it that they're protecting, the more they want to protect it. People on the grassroots are the first group of people that deal with the consequences of forest destruction, not the national government. So, if there is floods and landslides, people on the grassroots will be the one that are experiencing them. People in the grassroots needs to be re-empowered to take ownership over the protection of the forest because they know best. They are also the group of people that often been blamed as perpetrator, as illegal loggers, as poachers, as people engaging in destruction of the forest. In many cases around the world, the exclusion of local community have resulted in worse management of forests. If we looked at patches of forests that still remain intact today, a lot of it have the involvement of either indigenous communities or local communities. So, we need to learn to change our perspective and respect this knowledge and this authority.

John Rieger (08:10):

HAkA's put this into effect and has helped to establish a new team of women forest defenders in Aceh. What are these forest defenders do?

Farwiza Farhan (08:20):

So let me tell you the story of how it happened., In our work in protecting the Leuser ecosystem. Sometimes at the beginning, one of the core problem that we encounter is the fact that local community do have a seat at the table in deciding how the area the forest round them should be managed. So for example, if there's large construction project, say roads or hydro dam or even a new mining concession, local community of that area would be invited to sit at a table and discuss the incremental assessment whether or not this project is viable, whether or not this project should be allowed to go ahead. So upon realizing that ,we observe that oftentimes local community do not utilize their seat at the table because it could be challenging to join committee, especially if you don't necessarily understand the risk that come with certain projects. I mean, most of us don't even participate in our city council planning even if we have the rights to do so.


When we figured that out, we had this idea, maybe we could find a way for them to better utilize their rights. In the process of doing so, we come across a group of communities in the village of Damaran Baru. These groups of women are already protecting forest, already expressing their desire to be forest defender, but don't necessarily have a means to do so. So did tell us a story of flash floods.

John Rieger (09:58):

Flash floods.

Farwiza Farhan (10:00):

Flash floods that was happening in their village a few years before we met them and they said, we want to protect the forest up in the mountain, but we don't know how. Anytime a group of people come in and encroaching to our forests and we tried to stop them, we were challenged. We were told that we are nobody and we could not stop people from encroaching to our forest. So then HAkA thought, how can we do this together? We know that there's this mechanism, social forestry and this mechanism allow local community to manage forests in the area. So we support the local community to apply for a village forest permit, and once they obtain the permit for 30 years, we work with them to devise a management plan.


And once that happened, we throw this idea, if you want to want to protect your forest, what if we formalize it? What if we created a group of rangers and the woman lead this group of rangers to patrol the forest and protect it? That's what you already been doing anyway, but let's make it formal and they say, yes, let's do it. So that that's essentially how the first woman led forest defender group happened in Aceh in near the Leuser ecosystem.

Tracie Yang (11:26):

So these women were already trying to defend the forest when you began working with them and getting one of these official forest management permits was pretty much unheard of for women before this, right?

Farwiza Farhan (11:38):


John Rieger (11:38):

Why women?

Farwiza Farhan (11:40):

First of all, women are not included in so many aspect of decision making pertaining to their life but at the same time women have increased level of vulnerability as the consequences of incremental destruction. So, the ladies tell me heart-wrenching stories when they have to evacuate after the floods. After the floods, they have to take refuge in the local school. They sleep in the classrooms, no privacy, no security and the problem with sanitation is extra challenging and it get worse during that time of the month. So for this woman to imagine having to go through that again, that's the kind of fear and terror that none of us wants to experience. They want to have better participation in the protection of forest because it matters for them but what we have also learned that when this woman become more involved in the forest protection, they also take more involvement in so many other aspect of life in the village.


They become more involved in the village budgeting process, they become more involved in the village planning process. They become a stronger, more participatory citizen. Once they're more involved in the planning and the budgeting and management of the village, they come up with ideas and those ideas get implemented. They wanted to have economic opportunity in the village. They come up with ideas that restoration should be part of tourism and these good ideas have lead them to a point where government give them a lot of awards. The best eagle village, the best tourism village, the kind of acknowledgement that the village themselves never thought they could ever get.

Tracie Yang (13:42):

Aceh as a pretty conservative and patriarchal region of Indonesia. Is it hard for the female forest rangers to do their job?

Farwiza Farhan (13:52):


Tracie Yang (13:55):

What kind of challenges do they face?

Farwiza Farhan (13:58):

First of all, it's not like the entire village welcomed it idea. It's not like everyone suddenly embraced this idea that women would go out and petrol the forest. They were mocked, people were laughing at them, people challenged them. People did not accept their formal and legal authority over the forest. Some also met with challenges from their own family members. From their husband, from their mother-in-law, from their sons. But they support each other and with the success that they managed to achieve, society approval also comes with it. So in short, yes, it is very difficult for these women to claim their part in the protection of horrors in Aceh.

Tracie Yang (14:52):

Can you give us a taste of the day-to-day of a forest ranger? What does their morning look like and what do they end up doing throughout the day?

Farwiza Farhan (15:00):

These forest rangers, they are mothers and grandmothers. They have responsibilities at home. They have children and grandchildren that they need to take care of. So on the days of the patrol, normally they would wake up early in the morning and they would prepare breakfast as well as lunch in a bag and they would pack the equipment and head out to the forest. They normally patrol in areas that are vulnerable to encroachment or illegal logging. In their bag, not only they bring their equipment and their lunch, they also bring some seedlings to restore the forest. So if they come across illegal loggers, this is what makes them very effective. They would sit down with the illegal loggers, they would offer them tea and coffee and they will start a conversation where you from? What are you doing here? Is this your land or do you know that this area is protected? They would trace down the familiar line, because it's a village and everyone know everyone and oftentimes the conversation would get to a point where the illegal loggers would feel somewhat ashamed of engaging in illegal forestry activities.

John Rieger (16:15):

I hate the way women can do that.

Tracie Yang (16:19):

It's a gift. It's a gift.

Farwiza Farhan (16:24):

Because the tendency is to deescalate, right?

Tracie Yang (16:26):


Farwiza Farhan (16:28):

Very soft, very gentle, but also very effective. In the past, every time they come across illegal loggers, it will result in the illegal loggers pledging to engage in forest restoration. So they would hand over the seedlings that they carry with them and they would start symbolically restore the forest with this woman. Since the woman engaged in forest protection, deforestation in their area have been driven down to zero.

Tracie Yang (16:59):


John Rieger (17:01):

That is a great story. So I thought of these women forest rangers and I thought, well, they must have some very heavy duty boots and they probably are carrying something like rifles so they can get these loggers out of the forest. But what you're describing is actually a process of.

Tracie Yang (17:20):


John Rieger (17:21):

And reconciliation.

Farwiza Farhan (17:23):

Yeah, exactly. And this is why this woman are very effective because the advice become internalized. The conversation they have with the loggers become internalized. The loggers don't come back to destroy the forest because they would feel quite ashamed that these ladies as old as their mothers and grandmothers were telling them off, practically.

Tracie Yang (17:47):

I love it. Farwiza, what is the ideal relationship among government, conservationists and local communities to work together for lasting solutions?

Farwiza Farhan (18:02):

Government are filled with people too. People working in the government. Those bureaucrats, they are trained in certain perspective and certain experience and sometimes they don't necessarily have the perspective and understanding that civil society or local community have. So in certain contexts, when we get the government that are willing to listen to its population, we get a collaborative partnership that result in amazing achievements. But at the same time, sometimes government also see civil society who try to keep them accountable as a group of people that's trying to embarrass them. And there's nothing more annoying, I guess, for people in authority when you have this group of people that's trying to embarrass you as if to dismantle your authority. So the ideal relationship between government, community and civil society would be the kind of relationship where civil society played a role to keep the government accountable. The government are open and collaborative enough to listen to feedback from society and community and community are strengthened and empowered enough to engage in processes pertaining to land and livelihoods in the area where they live

John Rieger (19:37):

Farwiza Farhan, thank you so much for taking the time with us today.

Farwiza Farhan (19:41):

Thank you for having me.

John Rieger (19:46):

On April 26th, the Asia Foundation will honor HAkA and the Ache Women Forest defenders in New York with our annual Lotus Leadership Award. We encourage you to learn more about this gala event on our Website.

Tracie Yang (19:57):

And if you enjoy today's conversation, be sure to subscribe to our podcast. We have some wonderful guests coming Up. We'll leave you now with some sounds of the Leuser forest. See you next time, John.

John Rieger (20:10):

Bye-bye Tracy.