Tackling Deforestation in Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve

We visited one of the densest populations of orang-utans anywhere in the world, to understand why deforestation is happening there

The Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve (in Southern Aceh) is home to the densest population of orang-utans found anywhere in the world. It spans an 82,000 hectare area of the Leuser Ecosystem peat swamp forest, an area teeming with biodiversity that’s at risk.

“Through our satellite tracking we’ve witnessed forest loss in the north of the reserve. This is slowly eating away at an already highly fragmented wildlife corridor,” said Rob McWilliam, head of TFT’s Starling programme, an independent verification tool. Fears are that if this corridor continues to be reduced, the remaining orang-utan population will become isolated and, eventually, be marooned on a forest island in a sea of plantations. If this happens, it could easily become locally extinct.

Further loss of the forest could isolate the orang-utan populations completely. All illustrations by Hannah Timmins

Most of the deforestation in this area involves small scale encroachment, of less than five hectares, on forest areas. “We’ve found that 84 percent of deforestation actually happened outside of concession areas in the Southern Aceh landscape,” continued McWilliam. “That’s around 5, 300 hectares in total.”

Looking into the past

The reasons for this deforestation are complex. After the resignation of President Suharto in 1998, Indonesia began an ambitious decentralization program, transferring a wide range of powers from Jakarta, where the government is located, to District Heads (or Bupatis), in the hope of making local government more accountable and stabilizing the country.

Bupatis, were granted powers to enact their own regulations, as long as they didn’t conflict with existing laws. And, crucially, they were allowed to lease out land within their jurisdictions to developers, including palm oil companies.

Today, politicians running for office continue the legacy by offering the same communities more and more land, often inside protected forest land, in exchange for campaign support and taxes. Within this complicated social and political context, protected areas like Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve can find themselves on the front line.

Visiting the deforestation frontier

Earlier this year, TFT’s Landscape (APT) and Kumacaya teams went down on the ground in Southern Aceh for a week, accompanied by members of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), a local NGO.

TFT visited the deforestation site

“To find a solution we need to first understand the issues in the area,” explained Charlotte Goubin, Programme Manager of Kumacaya.

“We visited a deforestation site at the edge of the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve along with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s protected species unit,” Goubin said. “We also spent a day with members of local NGOs, talking with them and learning the local context to really get the full picture.”

Back in 2017, farmers drained 20 hectares of peat area then burned the dried ground and forest to make way for oil palm. “Part of this area is on land that’s legally designated as forest as part of the Reserve. So, it’s against Indonesian law to convert any of it to oil palm,” Goubin continued.

Above: this video gives insight into a day in the life of our landscapes team, who spent time in Aceh.

It’s often the case that yields of palm fruit on illegal plantations like this are low. Farmers tend to be reluctant to invest much time and money on land that doesn’t legally belong to them. They know they may lose it at any time. “Plus, at this deforestation site the plantations were on hilly land that adds difficulty for growing, while others were on areas that were prone to flooding,” Goubin recalled. “This can greatly impact the palm plants’ productivity, if not destroy them completely.”

Over the past months, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s Protected Species Unit (BKSDA) have been communicating with the smallholders farmers in Singkil on the issues around legality, hoping to find a solution.

The government’s solutions

Since 2011, the government has been rolling out its One Map initiative, an ambitious move to bring together all information on land tenure and uses under one database to avoid future misallocated licenses on community lands. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry have also developed the Social Forestry Directorate, underpinned by regulations to secure land for communities, with the ultimate goal of securing 12.7 million hectares for community use.

In the Southern Aceh area, the BKSDA are tackling smallholder deforestation by informing communities about regulations and the borders of protected area.

Eventually they plan to restore the illegal palm plantations to bring back the forest areas that once thrived there. They have already begun pulling down some of the cabins that were built to house palm workers but the plants themselves remain. Smallholders’ cabins are the first step of settling in an area, their removal is essential if reforesting is to ever happen.

On the other hand, the farmers are challenging BKSDA to speak to the elected official that provided them with this land before clearing the palm. In such a complex situation, it’s important to learn from past illegal palm removal programmes where the balance between conservation and development was missing. In other districts, the local Government removed palm but provided no long-term protection. At the same time, communities who lost their palm were unlikely to be provided with alternative sources of income. This resulted in some areas simply being replanted with palm by other communities within a short time.

Striking the balance and finding those alternative sources of income that could dissuade smallholders from chopping forest will be essential to preserving the Rawa Singkil wildlife reserve in Southern Aceh.

Finding a lasting solution

“In only four to five years, fresh fruit bunches (FFB) from these areas of deforestation will be entering the palm oil supply chain, through a local mill,” said Rikto, a member of TFT’s Landscape – APT team. The mills in these areas are then selling to NDPE-compliant buyers. “Buying and using palm fruit from these deforested areas would, of course, run contrary to these companies’ policies.”

To make a change, the solution to the deforestation that threatens the Rawa Singkil wildlife corridor needs support from different stakeholders. By bringing all relevant stakeholders to the table there will be a far better opportunity to find a long-term and viable solution. Facilitating a discussion in this way between the smallholders, BKSDA and NGOs, the mills and, importantly, the local government is one possible route that is being explored by TFT.

TFT spoke to smallholders in the area, as well as representatives of local NGOs.

“Trusting and understanding communities is also essential,” said John Nelson, leader of Kumacaya. Nelson believes that to truly solve deforestation in Rawa Singkil Wildlife reserve, it’s essential to find out what smallholders need and want. “That’s why we will consult a set of smallholders to find out what they would need in order to stop cutting down the forest and, instead, become active forest protectors.”

This could result in a ‘trade’ concept. In essence smallholders agree to stop deforesting in exchange for another incentive. These could include best management practice training for their crops, a higher or more stable price for their crops, direct financial support for forest protection, support on land rights applications, better healthcare, access to education or infrastructure.

What an ideal landscape could look like. On the left is the forested area. The dotted line represents a boundary area and on the right is community land.

Lastly, there will need to be monitoring and evaluation of the area. For this we would need to measure decreasing deforestation and encroachment, and monitor increases in biodiversity or strengthened ecosystem services. Finally, it will be essential to track whether the wishes of the local communities have been met.

Ensuring that areas like the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve remain deforestation-free is far from easy. Deforestation is often deeply embedded and surrounded by political sensitivities. But by bringing everyone to the table and understanding their needs, it is more than possible to unpick the issues surrounding the Reserve and its land. It is possible that in the near future Rawa Singkil’s forests, its orang-utans and the communities who live around it, can find a balance that suits them all.