Conserve Forest Assets; Create Jobs using its Assets

By Wu Yan Ping
“There are tons of potential for more research and more tourism that can serve to protect the area and provide jobs.”


Dynamic. Unpredictable. Life as Head of Development at Bukit Lawang Trust in Sumatra is anything but dull. One day, alumnus Mr Anthony Sean D’Amico (Tony) could be trying to persuade buyers of endangered palm civets to release them back into the wild- or, on a typical day, he could be teaching a nature class to primary school children- or liaising with volunteers from the United Kingdom, Germany and Argentina.

Sometimes there are volunteers who would like to do something different. For instance, in May 2018, Tony and his colleagues hosted a volunteer who was involved in a similar field as part of his Master’s coursework. In the past, Tony himself had benefited from the help given by others when he had to do his fieldwork as a student. Another volunteer will job shadow Tony and the Head of Education as part of her university internship.

The Trust once hosted a university from Medan and had a dialogue session about Indonesia, where participants raised questions about learning English and how syncing conservation efforts with the local economy is so important. Tony also works with surveillance groups that collect data on wildlife outside the Leunser National Park, so that its borders can be expanded at the national level.

As Head of Development at Bukit Lawang Trust, Tony focuses on eradicating poverty by plugging local employment gaps which conservation groups did not foresee. He collaborated with the locals to help create jobs in eco-farming and tourism. Such efforts help protect, and avoid further deforesting of the Leunser ecosystem, as the deforestation deprives endangered animals such as orangutans and tigers of their food and homes.

Palm oil plantations provide a lot of jobs to the locals over the short term. Tony analysed the situation there using the Asset-Based Community Development model, which he learnt during his Master’s at SUSS. In our email correspondence, he said: “If you want people to divest from palm oil, you need to consider the needs of the local community. This means jobs in the short term and sustainability in the long term. For Bukit Lawang, their key assets are the rainforest, the farms, and the people… The rainforests of Sumatra are the only places where you can find tigers, elephants, rhinoceros, and orangutans together. There are tons of potential for more research and more tourism that can serve to protect the area and provide jobs.”

Tony added: “If you want to see gorillas in Uganda, each tourist has to pay around 600 US dollars just for the permit, which doesn’t include the guide or trek. So it is really much more expensive. Here, it is a fraction of the cost but a similar model could be constructed to raise money to invest in the people in the region for a more sustainable and green economy.”

Tony joined Bukit Lawang Trust in January 2018 because of his strong desire to make a positive impact on the people’s well-being through sustainable long-term development projects. This was after he turned in his thesis for his Master’s in Community Leadership and Social Development in 2017. He had visited Bukit Lawang before and was fluent in the local language.

When asked why he joined the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Tony replied: “I really liked the director and thought this was a worthy cause. I wanted to come in and try and scale up the impact of the organisation. Okay, this is what we are doing, how can we do it for more people on a bigger scale or, okay, this looks like something we can support and it goes hand in hand with the ethos of Bukit Lawang Trust.”

The founder of Bukit Lawang Trust, Ms Rebecca Coley from Jersey, England, started a clinic after a devastating flood that killed over 200 people and displaced many others. The government clinic, which was completed in 2011, has since evolved into a community centre. It now provides free day care, a kindergarten, as well as English and conservation classes. The lessons are conducted in English so that the children would have wider job opportunities in the future.

The Trust also focuses on eco-farming projects that produce organic food. Tony formed strategic partnerships with the locals, other NGOs, schools and recruited volunteers for the projects. Through donations by volunteers, the Trust hires the local folks in areas such as teaching, forest surveillance and eco-farming. Nurul is one beneficiary from the Trust. She was once a pupil and now teaches at the Trust. Her ambition is to enter university so that she can further upgrade and improve her teaching methods.

Creating more diverse job opportunities without destroying the inherent ecosystem is challenging. National legislative powers can hasten the demise of the ecosystem or protect it, so that the local population can benefit.

In his email, Tony shared that only a few people were fortunate enough to become rangers, guides and teachers, like Nurul. He added: “The ones who work for guest houses or restaurants in the tourism industry are also okay, and those who work on plantations do okay financially, but the area does drastically need new opportunities.”

“There is a loose network of poachers who might go after big game for valuable ivory or pelts, exotic birds or palm civets to sell in the animal markets as well. If left to the market alone, there would be more and more palm oil and rubber plantations, and this brings lots of jobs. The need for jobs and more investment is echoed not just here but in every country. The people here are just like you and me — they want better roads, Wi-Fi access to cities and services, and more economic opportunities.”

“The real question is whether the government is going to use its natural resources for short-term wealth, or continue to protect this — one of the most special areas in the world, a place where animals and wildlife can flourish and co-exist — and in a way that brings investment in a sustainable and eco-friendly way.”

Despite the challenges, there are still happy endings sometimes, such as in the aforementioned case of civets. The captors did release the palm civets back into their natural habitat. In an email update on April 14, two days after they met with the captors, Tony said: “We just expressed our feelings about how wild animals belong to the jungle and these are not pets. As far as we know, they have been released.”