This story was originally published on The Jakarta Post as part of our collaborative journalism project on Southeast Asia forest restoration supported by the Rainforest Journalism Fund and Pulitzer Center.
Once a lush and green location for a pilot project in reducing forest degradation, the Meru Betiri National Park in East Java faces the dire threat of deforestation, mostly from illegal logging and encroachment by people living in the region.
But hope has started to rise in the region, as villagers and local authorities begin to work together at creating alternative sources of income to prevent further destruction of one of the last tropical rainforests on the country’s most populous island.
Sutinggal, 40, had been working as an illegal logger since 1999. He used to walk into a nearby part of Meru Betiri forest in Sanenrejo village, Tempurejo district, Jember regency to cut down trees and sell them to traders.
What Sutinggal did was illegal as the government had declared the 50,000-hectare forest spanning across two regencies of Jember and Banyuwangi a protected area for conservation purposes since 1972. The then-forestry ministry later revised the total area of the national park to 52,626 ha in 2016.
Consequently, law enforcement officers arrested Sutinggal several times for his illegal activities in the forest.
“I was asked several times by the officers whether I was afraid of being captured by them. I told them I was afraid, but I was more afraid that my wife and children couldn’t eat,” Sutinggal said in early February.
From logging to farming
Illegal logging has long been part of the lives of many people in Sanenrejo and dozens of other villages located in and around Meru Betiri National Park. Sutinggal said he felt guilty about destroying the forest, but could not stop as selling timber was his only livelihood.
But he eventually decided to leave his old life behind in 2019, when officials from the national park offered the villagers alternative sources of income.
Several villagers, like Sutinggal, were allowed to cultivate crops like corn, avocados and mangoes. Some were taught skills and given tools to create batako (concrete bricks), while others were offered the running of a mushroom cultivation business.
The villagers have been given various opportunities to make a living, but they are required to adhere to one condition, they must never again cut down trees in the forest. Some former illegal loggers were even required to plant new trees, which was accepted voluntarily by the villagers including Sutinggal.
“I plant new trees and make sure each one of them is growing to absolve me of my sins,” Sutinggal said.
These changes are part of the collaboration between the villagers and the national park officials. Since 2019, the latter have started to work together with the villagers to provide them with the alternative sources of income.
Meru Betiri National Park head Maman Surahman said the villagers were assisted in working on other non-timber commodities in locations outside the forest. Officials from the national park have a discussion with the villagers on what the latter want to work on.
“After that, we will provide them with the necessary support, such as financial capital, skills and equipment, so they can develop the new sources of income by themselves. This way, we can end their dependence on the forest,” Maman said.
While villagers in Jember rely on the crops and bricks for a living, former illegal loggers in Kandangan village, Banyuwangi, have turned to duck farming, among other sources of income.
Rudi Hartono, the head of a local farmers‘ association in Kandangan village, stopped going into the forest to fell timber several years ago to work on a duck farm managed by several farmers in the village.
He said he was tired of being chased down by law enforcers for stealing timber. His village was also hit by drought several years ago, which he assumed was caused by deforestation.
“Luckily, I was introduced to farming by the national park officials. Now, we’re busy tending ducks and planning to expand our farming to goats,” Rudi said.
“We also tell people to join us in planting new trees to prevent any drought in the future,” he went on to say.
Much to learn and adapt
Maman said the officials adopted such an approach with the hope of reducing the deforestation rate, at the very least, within the national park; while also restoring the degraded forest.
According to data from Global Forest Watch (GFW), East Java lost 9,320 ha of primary forest between 2002 and 2019. The province also lost 84,500 ha of tree cover in the same period. The figure was equivalent to 36.3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions or 7.8 million cars driven for one year.
Banyuwangi and Jember regencies were the top two regencies with the most tree cover loss between 2001 and 2019 with 15,800 and 12,200 ha of forest destroyed, respectively.
Meru Betiri National Park was the location of a pilot project for a tropical forest conservation plan as part of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative.
During the project that ran from 2013 to 2014, the government aimed to replant trees in the 58,000-ha national park to improve the carbon sequestration in the area, thus, reducing the carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
The villagers and officials of the national park had worked to restore at least 2,700 ha of Meru Betiri area across Jember and Banyuwangi, Maman said. In the restoration project, they planted either fast-growing native plants, such as blackboard tree or pulai (Alstonia scholaris), or so-called multi-purpose trees, which can be harvested for consumption, such as durian.
“We just started replanting them, so you might not see the restored forest yet. But it will grow within 5 to 20 years, I believe,” Maman said.
The community-based approach, however, has not always run as smoothly as expected. Former illegal logger from Sanenrejo village, Suhartono, 42, said he and some of his friends were still struggling to market their batako to potential buyers and markets since they only started the business around two months ago.
The Sanenrejo village is also located quite far from a large town or national road. It is located around 40 kilometers or 1.5 hours’ drive from the closest town of Jember. Most of the journey is on single-track roads.
He also said that the money earned from the batako production was not as much as he earned from selling illegally cut timber. Suhartono can earn Rp 6 million (US$417.98) in monthly revenue from selling bricks, compared with Rp 30 million a month from illegal logging.
“It’s less than I earned before, but this is just part of the adaptation process. This business I’m running now also has much lower risk [than illegal logging],” Suhartono said. He once endured an accident that inflicted severe injury to one of his legs while cutting down a tree in the forest.
Incentive for protecting forests
Bogor Agricultural University (IPB) forestry expert and Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) senior scientist Herry Purnomo lauded the approach in Meru Betiri National Park. A similar approach has also been adopted in other regions across the country, such as in Bengkalis, Riau, a region often hit hardest during the forest and peatland burning season in Indonesia.
“The economic approach will become an incentive for people who work hard in protecting and saving their forests,” said Herry.
The latest data from the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s Natural Resources and Ecosystems Directorate General showed it allocated Rp 180 billion for community-empowerment projects for the 2021 budget year. Around Rp 58 billion of this was allocated to facilitate community-based economic activities, such as the one in Meru Betiri.
The ministry’s natural resources and ecosystem director general Wiratno said such programs were part of the directorate general’s bigger focus on protecting and restoring the degraded protected areas.
“We’re giving them regulated access to the forest; meaning, they can’t cut down the trees but they can still use the forest area to make a living. We also involve them in partnerships to help their business take off,” Wiratno said.
But Herry said the economic-based approach should not be the only focus in restoring the forest. He urged the government to intensify law enforcement against people responsible for illegal logging, while also providing alternate sources of income.
“This way will make deforestation through illegal logging expensive and too risky. Meanwhile, the alternative sources of income will be more interesting for these people,” the researcher said.
He added that every stakeholder, including business entities, must be involved in efforts to restore the forest by connecting the producers with potential buyers. Either authorities or business people should also provide green investment because most villagers start their businesses with little to no financial capital.
“We need more people to connect the dots between these villagers producing materials and the buyers because the forestry business is a buyer-driven business. If there’s no demand from the consumer, they won’t buy any stuff made by the villagers,” Herry went on to say.
Slowly but surely, Sutinggal has seen the fruits of these efforts in his village. He said at least 60 percent of fellow illegal loggers had left their old work of cutting down trees within the national park.
“I hope that more of my friends will join me in the village to work in these businesses and stop cutting down the trees in the forest anymore,” Sutinggal said.
Wahyoe Boediawardhana and Tri Indah Oktavianti of The Jakarta Post contributed reporting