Recognising a natural wonder
The Leuser Ecosystem is perhaps that only area in Southeast Asia with the size and mix of habitats that has a realistic chance of supporting viable populations of many of the endangered and charismatic species for which the region is so well known. Elephants, tigers, rhinos, orangutans, flying foxes, hornbills etc.
need large areas and range widely according to the seasons, and if these ranging patterns are not fully incorporated in a conservation design then the populations of these rare species will eventually wither and die. Many conservation areas in the world are delineated in quite arbitrary ways. The designated Gunung Leuser National Park, for instance, is based on geometric boundaries - a circle with a radius of 30 km whose center is the summit of Gunung Leuser, a straight line drawn between the summits of Gg Wailebah and Gg Titi Akar, etc. Such boundary descriptions obviously bare little relation to ecology or geography. Worse still, the proposed boundaries cross such forbidding terrain that they are impossible to physically demarcate in the field. This one of the reasons that the designated Gunung Leuser National Park falls short of the requirements for full gazettement. Surveys carried out by H. Rijksen, M.Griffiths, O. Nelson, C.van Schaik and Indonesian conservation officers, revealed that the richest forests in terms of biological diversity lie outside the designated National Park in the still untouched lowland forests. Surveys of elephant and orangutan distribution and ranging patterns also revealed that only about 15% of the range of these animals was inside the designated Gunung Leuser National Park. From an ecological standpoint, the National park was not only poorly designed, it was totally inadequate to conserve the region's biological diversity.
The tiger is one species that need large areas to support a viable population
In his final report for his work on the "Large Mammals of Indonesia" for WWF in 1993, M.Griffiths, concluded that if the rich biological diversity and charismatic species of northern Sumatra were to be conserved then a muchlarger region called the Leuser Ecosystem would have to be protected. Such a concept received a mixed response. At the time most people felt that development involved cutting forests and settling farmers on the newly opened areas. No thought was given to the ecological services these forests provided or to their importance for regional economic development. There was even a movement to reduce the size of the designated Gunung Leuser National Park as a way to help "development".
To address the difficult issues of winning acceptance for a conservation area based on real ecological needs, a project funded by the EC and supported by the Government of Indonesian was established to look into the plight of Aceh's lowland forests. The project called the ICDP for Lowland Forests in Aceh was implemented by a very small but dedicated team which during its two year period was able to more accurately uncover the natural ranges and distribution of important species which reflected high biodiversity.
The first was the founding of the Leuser International Foundation (LIF). This was a body of mostly influential Acehnese and North Sumatran leaders who recognized the importance of conserving Leuser and who dedicated much of their time to lobbying for its protection.
The second was a Ministerial Decree issued by the Minister of Forestry (SK 227) that mandated the LIF to take a major role in managing the
conservation of the Leuser Ecosystem. This was the first time that the Leuser Ecosystem had been recognized in an official decree and although the attached map was still incomplete it indicated a major shift in thinking about both the scope of the conservation area and in the way it would be managed.
The strong support of the Ministry of Forestry paved the way for a major commitment by the EC to support a jointly funded programme for the conservation and development of the Leuser Ecosystem, called the Leuser Development Programme (LDP). This initiative, begun in 1995 and which eventually committed 37 million Euro (6 million from the Government of Indonesia) is to be completed at the end of 2004. The project is complex but an important component was to complete the work started during the ICDP in analyzing the full extent of the Leuser Ecosystem. This was done through a series of wide-ranging surveys and took full account of natural landscape features in delineating the area. Official recognition for the Leuser Ecosystem was given by Presidential Decree in early 1998.
Bringing a vision down to earth
A decree of course is not apparent in the field. So major efforts were undertaken to work with local communities, local governments and contractors to socialize the concept of the Leuser
Ecosystem in the field. Considering that the Leuser Ecosystem has a perimeter of about 3000 km this was an enormous job - easily the most ambitious ever undertaken in Indonesia. Work began in 1999 and the boundaries in Aceh were completed only in 2001. An account given by a member of the team that erected the field marker posts gives some idea of the difficulty. "By the fifth day we had reached the new delineation site. It had been a great struggle as each of us had to carry loads of up to 50kgs on our backs and had climbed what seemed like precipitous slopes. The earth beneath our feet had been made slippery by recent rain and for every three steps made upwards it felt like we slipped back at least one. That night we camped on a high ridge. Later in the evening the rain cleared and during the night the stars came out. In the morning most of the land beneath us was coved in mist and the ridge on which we were camped appeared as one of a series of long islands that emerged above this white sea of clouds below us. The air was very cold and our first task of the day was to collect enough wood dry wood to light a fire to boil water for cups of coffee all round." Despite the physical challenges and the security risks (the separatist movement in Aceh was at its height) the boundary delineation for Aceh was completed more or less on time. Parallel with this delineation went a process of explaining the reason for the boundaries and the fact that the boundaries did not negate any existing rights. And then when the boundaries were completed for a given Kabupaten (Regency) the maps would be studied and after further discussion would receive the endorsement of the local government. When all the Kabupatens had signed off then the maps were presented to the Provincial Government for further scrutiny and if they met the requirements were given the endorsement of both the provincial planning bureau, forestry and the Governor himself. The approval of the boundaries was thus a bottom-up affair - starting with local communities, and working up through the various levels of Government and finally after getting the Governor's approval the maps were sent to the Minister of Forestry for final endorsement. The same process took place in North Sumatra only here even more effort was taken to carefully explain the boundary concepts to the local communities and their leaders. Both the boundaries for Aceh and North Sumatra were finally ratified through Ministerial Decrees. Only after these decrees were signed could the area of the Leuser Ecosystem be calculated with confidence. The figure is almost 2.7 million hectares - about the size of Belgium. With a legal status and with boundaries clearly demarcated in the field the term Leuser Ecosystem gradually became to be accepted in the public mind. Newspaper articles refer to it, new laws refer to it, and even ordinary people in the field who speak no English have adopted the term "Ekosistem Leuser" and are proud of it. This is already major acknowledgement for one of the world's most important natural treasures.
Building on the success
An extension of the physical delineation and approval has been to incorporate the boundaries of the Leuser Ecosystem into the regency and Provincial spatial plans. This work is still ongoing and may ultimately include incorporation of the Leuser Ecosystem in National Spatial Plans. Doing so is important to integrate the Leuser Ecosystem into the whole planning process and thus to pre-empt initiatives that would threaten its integrity. Another challenge is to further socialize the Leuser Ecosystem and its boundaries. Almost every week somewhere in the Leuser Ecosystem there are meetings with communities living near the edge of the Leuser Ecosystem. The purpose of these meetings is to explain the importance of conservation, to understand where the boundaries are and what can be done and not done in the Leuser Ecosystem itself. Many communities have adapted their own customary law to address infringements inside the Leuser Ecosystem. Fines, for instance, are calculated not in cash but in heads of livestock and these fines are levied by the local people themselves.
Village Communities are being empowered to protect the leuser Ecosystem from local infringments.
Local communities, with the assistance of the LDP, have planted trees to mark the boundaries in the field for hundreds of kilometers. This bridges an important gap in scale - the official boundary markers are placed at one-kilometer intervals and this is often too far apart for recognition in the field. By empowering local communities to define the exact boundaries between the official markers they can avoid mistakes in which boundaries would sometime appear to cut through inappropriate areas such as private fields. The communities in addition develop a sense of ownership over the boundaries and can reap the harvest of the nuts, fruits etc. that the boundary trees provide. This is truly a win-win solution.