JAKARTA (CNA) – It was a picture of Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio standing in front of two elephants with a man and a woman in Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem (LE) that got people talking in 2016.
The actor posted the picture on his Instagram and said that Leuser is “a world-class biodiversity hotspot… but palm oil expansion is destroying this unique place”.
LE is a forest area spanning Indonesia’s most western province Aceh and North Sumatra province, and a prized ecological hotspot. The photo, taken when DiCaprio was filming in Leuser for a documentary film about climate change, outraged the government.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar responded by saying that the ministry was “working hard” to protect the environment.
But some were curious to know who was the woman standing next to DiCaprio, one of Hollywood’s most famous actors.
“In all honesty, I did feel a bit star-struck,” said Farwiza Farhan who was also featured in the documentary.
Today, Farhan is a household name for forest and nature conservation, specifically for LE, which covers an area of about 2.7 million hectare, more than 35 times the size of Singapore.
As chairperson and co-founder of Aceh-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Forest, Nature & Environment Aceh (HAkA), Farhan spends her days advocating for policies and planning programmes which aim to protect the megafauna sanctuary.
“The sanctuary is the last place on Earth where four mega-faunas – rhino, tiger, elephant and orangutan – still roam together in the wild.
“And the fact that it is the last place on Earth is actually a sad fact,” the 34-year-old Acehnese told CNA.
More than 185,000 hectare of LE are carbon-rich peatlands, and the tropical rainforest is home to about 105 mammal species, 380 bird species, 95 reptile and amphibian species.
It is also the life support system of about four million people in Aceh, providing freshwater and clean air.
The LE is an asset to Aceh’s economic development, bearing an untapped value of USD350 million per year in terms of tourism potential and ecosystem services, according to HAkA.
Nevertheless, it faces immense threats such as deforestation due to palm oil expansions, infrastructure projects and illegal logging, which are just some of the problems Farhan and her team of 30 people are fighting against daily.
“But more than anything, probably the most destructive force to the LE is bad policy and bad planning,” Farhan said.
“I’m not opposed to any developments that would enhance human wellbeing and support people’s livelihood. But if it’s done in ways that could be destructive to the source of livelihood in itself, what’s the point?”
She gave an example of how in 2016 a geothermal was planned to be built in the heart of the LE.
“This is an interesting case because geothermal is a renewable energy that we would really love to support. In any other case, we would support geothermal development.
“However, the location for the infrastructure development is in the heart of the Leuser Ecosystem and it is a sensitive rhino habitat which is critically endangered and there are not many of them left in the world,” she said.
Thus, they took the case to court, campaigned against the project and kept a close eye to make sure there was no bribery or corruption involved.
They also got the local communities involved and eventually managed to win the case in 2017.
At the moment, HAkA is also in court for many other cases, and one of them is the development of a mega-dam in the LE.
“Dams can be very destructive to the rivers’ ecosystem. Only one per cent of the water on this planet is freshwater. And the freshwater ecosystem is one of the most endangered ecosystems out there,” she said.
HAkA is trying to look at climate change problems from both a climate mitigation point of view and climate change adaptation.
“One of the most important solutions for climate change is nature-based solution. Forest restoration and forest conservation are super important because for countries like Indonesia, one of the major drivers for carbon emission is deforestation and forest degradation.
“So for us, preventing that from happening is how we contribute to climate change mitigation,” Farhan explained.
They also work with local communities on forest restoration by making them more resilient in facing climate change, changing water systems, changing rain patterns and changing livelihoods.
Born and raised in Aceh, young Farhan spent a lot of time outdoors since both her parents were busy working as lecturers.
She played with dirt and caught insects, and when she had access to television, she would watch programmes about nature.
Thus, when she became a teenager she knew she wanted to study biology and went to Penang, Malaysia for a bachelor’s degree.
Upon returning, she applied for jobs in conservation but did not manage to get one.
“That taught me you can only achieve the goals that you set for yourself when you are stubborn enough to keep pushing on, even when everyone told you that you can’t,” she said.
Realising that the jobs she wanted required 10 years of experience or a Master’s degree, Farhan then decided to take a Master’s in Brisbane, Australia.
Once she completed her studies and returned to Aceh, she managed to get a job with a government institution which focussed on the LE.
But changes in Aceh’s political landscape led to the institution being dismissed, and that was when Farhan and her coworkers decided to establish HAkA in 2012.
HAkA focusses on policies, but it also has programmes which empower the local communities, including women.
One of their programmes is the women rangers programme.
“We know that women have an important role to play in environmental protection, but their roles have often been diminished. In the village level they are often left out… and are not allowed to play many roles especially in a landscape like Aceh,” Farhan said.
Therefore, they provided the women in the Leuser community with paralegal training so they know what to do if they come across cases of environmental destruction.
The 15 women take turns to patrol the area, although sometimes they are accompanied by their husbands which is common in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia that implements Syariah law and is often regarded as a conservative place.
Despite the circumstances, Farhan feels fortunate that she has been able to challenge the perceptions.
“I am quite lucky that I have a supportive family. My father never forced me to wear a headscarf, my mother never felt ashamed of me for whatever I do or wear, and I tried to be respectful with them as well so I didn’t wear anything which would make them shameful if I’m in Aceh.
“But at the same time, this enables me to have the trust and belief that I am as good as any man. I can do anything that I set my mind to do, that I could achieve these goals without having to accept the common conception that women are less or that as a woman you are less valuable,” she stated.
While working to preserve the LE, Farhan is also currently pursuing her PhD in the Netherlands.
She is also a member of Women’s Earth Alliance, an organisation that seeks to strengthen the role of women in protecting the environment.
For her work, Farhan won the 2016 Whitley Award, an award often dubbed as the “Green Oscars” as it celebrates conservation leaders.
She also won the 2017 Future for Nature Award which recognises the work of young conservationists.
Despite all her achievements so far, Farhan realises that the battle to protect the Leuser Ecosystem is far from over.
“The biggest challenge is the reality that at the moment, our economic system, our policies are not supportive of conservation. Conservation is very expensive in our economic system, and this is why it is seen as a luxury.
“For many people in businesses, to be engaged in activities which protect the environment, there are not many economic incentives for them to do that. But there are a lot of incentives for people to destroy the environment, and this is not working well for us.”
She said that when the environment is sacrificed for the economy, it will lead to bigger inequality.
“The gap in poverty widens, the cost of healthcare becomes bigger and these do not work for the future we have imagined together.”
Farhan realises she does not have all the answers to the problems and thus invites everyone to join in the discussion.
“More than anything, what I really want for the LE is for us to begin to find ways to think of conservation as a necessity rather than a luxury.
“When people in some parts of Indonesia see that protecting coral reefs would mean economic development and livelihood, they begin to do that even without conservation organisations telling them to do so. I wish for the LE to transform in the broader term to that paradigm.”