Sumatra’s Rainforest Guardians

Words and photographs by Denise Miller, ChangeStream Media Co-founder and Photographers Without Borders U.S. Board Secretary

The lush rainforest of Sumatra, Indonesia is the only place in the world where wild orangutans, rhinos, tigers and elephants coexist. But these once-abundant animals are critically endangered by poaching, illegal trafficking, and habitat destruction. As of 2010, 70 percent of Sumatra’s forests were lost, much of it converted to palm oil plantations.

Shortly before COVID-19 became a pandemic, ChangeStream Media teamed up with Photographers Without Borders to lift up the stories of Sumatrans who are undoing some of the damage, and protecting the people, animals, and forests of their island.

Nayla Azmi, an indigenous land protector, was our guide and partner in Sumatra. For centuries, Nayla’s Batak ancestors co-existed with the animals that freely roamed Sumatra. This harmony was destroyed when European colonizers arrived in Indonesia in the 1500s, and quickly began exploiting the land and people.

Europeans established the first African palm oil plantations on Sumatra in the early 1900s, and the imported trees grew well in the tropical environment. As worldwide demand for palm oil has grown, producers have burned down more and more rainforest to make way for monoculture plantations. This not only dislocates and threatens forest animals, but also leaves local people few options but to work on the plantations.

Nayla experienced the ruinous effects of the palm oil industry as she grew up in a small Sumatran village. Her family cultivated palm oil, earning poverty wages for their difficult and often dangerous labor. As Nayla watched the palm oil industry encroach on the forest near her home, she commited to protect this habitat and help create economic alternatives for villagers. She fought to access an education, became the first in her family to graduate from college, earned a master’s degree, and embarked on a career as a guardian of the forest. 

Through collaborations with community-based projects including Nature for Change, as well as her past work with the nonprofit Orangutan Information Centre, Nayla teaches Sumatrans and international communities how we can create a healthier future for ourselves and the ecosystems we all rely on. 

Nature for Change

Darma Pinem, once a ranger at Gunung Leuser National Park, understands that the people best positioned to protect this precious forest and its animal residents are those who live on its border. Together with community members in the village of Tambang Lawan, Darma founded Nature for Change. 

Nature for Change supplies villagers with fruit trees, providing them with a source of income that reduces the pressure to sell their land to big palm oil companies. By planting and growing the fruit trees, these farmers created a green buffer zone around the park that helps ensure the health of the forest while securing their own livelihoods.

“Save nature, save culture” is one of Darma’s mottos. Nature for Change’s Green School teaches young people about sustainability, and helps them connect with their indigenous roots. They learn not only to care for the forest, but also to celebrate their heritage through traditional dances and other cultural practices. Through this effort, Nature for Change is helping to cultivate a new generation of forest guardians.

Orangutan Information Centre

Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) protects Sumatran orangutans and their forest homes through a wide range of programs, from orangutan rescue teams to nature education centers. 

OIC patrols the forest and helps authorities enforce laws against wildlife trafficking, poaching, and illegal logging. They often hire local people who once engaged in illegal activities to work the patrols, giving them the opportunity to provide for their families while guarding rather than endangering the forest. OIC also works with government and partner organizations to rescue and rehabilitate orangutans that have been trafficked, attacked by humans, or dislocated from their forest homes. 

OIC is also reforesting the island. At Cinta Raja, the site of a palm oil plantation that illegally encroached on the Leuser Ecosystem, authorities cut down more than 11,000 palm oil trees in 2017. OIC is now restoring the 100-hectare forest with native plants, and their team reports an increasing number of sightings of elephants and other animals that had been forced off the land when it was a plantation.

At Bukit Mas, OIC is rehabilitating a 100-acre plot on the edge of the Leuser Ecosystem that had been converted into a palm oil plantation. Now, half of the land has been replanted with indigenous trees, providing animals with vital habitat. The remaining half of Bukit Mas is a permaculture center and school campus.

OIC’s permaculture manager, Sabar, designed the open-air Leuser Nature School. Built from native bamboo, this beautiful learning environment immerses children in the forest.

The school provides a well-rounded education with a special focus on sustainability. Families pay “tuition” in the form of seedlings, reinforcing the value of local flora. Students and their parents are actively involved in reforestation and sustainable agriculture at Bukit Mas, learning how to grow valuable cash crops like citronella, cocoa, and coffee that provide their families with diverse income streams. It’s just one of the ways that OIC’s holistic approach to habitat conservation supports communities while protecting rainforests.

Each student plants a tree near the school during their first year, and then cares for it throughout the duration of their education. As Nayla put it, OIC is “planting the seedlings of conservation in their souls.”

Get involved

Amplify. Follow Nayla, Nature for Change, and Orangutan Information Centre online, and share their messages with your networks.

Contribute. Nature for Change and Orangutan Information Centre accept donations online.

Visit. When travel restrictions lift, consider visiting Sumatra. Nature for Change hosts visitors in a cottage next to their beautiful plant nursery. In partnership with Orangutan Information Centre, Photographers Without Borders hosts Storytelling School programs that teach new and experienced photographers alike how to create movements and shift mindsets through storytelling.