Juli 20, 2014

Protecting the Last Lowland Rainforest in Sumatra

ORANG RIMBA, or ‘people of the forest’, are a group of semi-nomadic forest dwellers living in the province of Jambi on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. In the 1980s and 1990s, forest clearances in this area threatened the entire Orang Rimba population with marginalization, poverty and loss of their culture. The intervention and systematic efforts of a local organization and the increasing support from government have not only saved the forest, but also given the Orang Rimba an opportunity to develop their communities on the basis of their own culture and traditional way of life.

The Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) and the local organization WARSI started working with the Orang Rimba in 1998, aiming to protect their remaining forest areas. A baseline survey employing a combination of detailed fieldwork and analysis of satellite images showed that in western Jambi, where a trans-Sumatra highway was built in the early 1980s, forests had been cleared to make way for large-scale transmigration settlements and oil palm plantations. The widely scattered groups of about 1,250 Orang Rimba had basically lost their forest. Deforestation had also affected central Jambi and many of the 1500 Orang Rimba living there, but a substantial core of forest was still left around the Bukit Duabelas hills. Impending plans for plantations presented an acute threat to this remaining forest.

Securing this area would save the Orang Rimba from ending up marginalized and disempowered like their fellow tribesmen in western Jambi. Part of the forest in and around Bukit Duabelas was in fact already protected as a nature reserve, but the Orang Rimba and the resources that they depended on were found mainly in the forests to the north of this reserve. WARSI thus argued for an extension of the reserve. The problem was that the forests had been licensed to a state-owned company which planned to convert the forest into an industrial timber plantation.

A Park for People

To get recognition from the authorities for the rights of the Orang Rimba and the importance of the remaining rainforest, WARSI started by documenting Orang Rimba’s way of life and their dependence on the forest. Thematic maps were made of vegetation cover, hydrology, resource distribution, demography, extent of deforestation, etc. These were then used to inform key decision makers at all levels of government. The media were invited to Bukit Duabelas, and the Orang Rimba became probably the best-known small ethnic minority in all Indonesia.

Soon the government had not only cancelled the plantation license that threatened Orang Rimba rights and livelihoods, but, in August 2000, also formally established Bukit Duabelas National Park, with around 600 km2 of lowland rainforest covering the existing nature reserve as well as a northward extension. The decree, issued by the Minister of Forestry, stated that the Orang Rimba were entitled to live in the park in accordance with their traditions. This was the first time in Indonesia that the presence of forest people was formally acknowledged as legitimate within a conservation area. The fact that a national park had been established to protect the forest habitat of an indigenous population stands as an important milestone for the development of human rights-based, sustainable rainforest management in Indonesia.

Solving Conflicts

However, obtaining formal protection proved to be the easier part. Reducing outside pressure on the park in the form of illegal logging as well as agricultural expansion into the park area has been extremely challenging, but years of work are now showing results. The national park is surrounded by non-indigenous (‘Malay’) villages and transmigration settlements. At the time the park was declared, these populations were heavily involved in illegal logging in and around the park. A nationwide crack-down on illegal logging in 2005/2006 staggered illegal logging in the national park itself, but did not solve the underlying problem. Several of the outside communities had come to rely heavily on the income from illegal logging, rather than continued replenishment and replacement of their smallholder rubber plantations which had traditionally been the main source of income. And although the national park was inhabited by the Orang Rimba, the village communities also had traditional land claims in the area.

A big challenge for ensuring the sustainability of Bukit Duabelas has therefore been to secure support for the national park from the surrounding village communities. WARSI has initiated small-scale development projects and facilitated implementation of government development programmes in some communities. A key intervention undertaken by WARSI has been to provide training in the cloning technology for developing high-yielding rubber-plant seedlings and to establish nurseries. This could increase incomes several times over from the same amount of land, resulting in more efficient use of existing lands, and also makes it possible to reduce agricultural expansion. Restoration of defunct rice paddies also has the potential to increase yields substantially and reduce pressure on the forest. In several cases licences for large plantations near Bukit Duabelas that have not met their legal obligations have been cancelled, to allow redistribution of the land to local villagers. With support from WARSI, some villages have succeeded in having parts of their lands established as ‘hutan desa’, or village forest, which formally secures their access to forest in the buffer-zone and, it is hoped, reduce pressure on the park.

Village communities surrounding the park have organized themselves into a formal association of park stakeholder villages, facilitated by WARSI. Dialogue between the village communities and the relevant authorities aimed at reaching agreement on the final park boundaries proved to be a complicated process which took almost ten years. Without the facilitation of the community participation in this process, encroachment into the park would have been a major problem. The work with the village communities surrounding the national park has been of key importance in securing the park and the rights of the Orang Rimba.

Traditionally, the Orang Rimba have no overarching political organization representing their interests towards the outside world, but, facilitated by Warsi, they have established a council of chiefs to facilitate relations with the park authority and other government agencies. After dialogue, the park authorities agreed to base the zoning of the national park on Orang Rimba’s traditional resource use pattern of the forest. This means that the Orang Rimba are allowed to exploit resources within the national park according to their traditions.

Education and Health

The Orang Rimba have generally viewed formal schooling as something alien, belonging to the outside world and thus taboo. At the same time, they came to realize that they were being cheated and exploited in their relations with outsiders. Literacy and numeracy education has now been provided to the Orang Rimba based on their culture and way of life, in Rimba camps wherever they happened to be in the forest. The great majority of children and young people have now become effectively literate and numerate. Only a few small groups still decline education.

Lack of access to basic health services is a problem severely felt by the Orang Rimba. They have shamanistic curing rituals and use a variety of natural cures based on their knowledge of the plants of the forest, but recognize that this is not sufficient health care. To most Orang Rimba, visits to government health clinics outside the forest is not an easy option, because of the distances involved and the negative attitude of health workers. WARSI managed to get in place mobile health services within the forest, and advocate for better and friendlier health services for the Orang Rimba. The Orang Rimba now receive free treatment at public health centres.

Choosing Their Own Future

The traditional economy of the Orang Rimba has been based on highly mobile slash-and-burn cultivation, hunting and gathering, and collecting of forest products for external exchange. This kind of economy requires large forest areas that can be utilized sequentially to allow for regeneration of the resources extracted. Reduction of the forest area and degradation caused by illegal logging have made it difficult to maintain a fully traditional forest-based economy. The Orang Rimba’s main compensational strategy is planting rubber plants in their swidden fields. WARSI has assisted the Orang Rimba in establishing rubber gardens, primarily in locations along the park boundary with access to external transport infrastructure. The rubber fields function as a barrier against agricultural intrusion into the park from the outside. Rattan is also planted among the rubber for crop diversification, and WARSI has provided assistance in the marketing of forest products, including rubber, to avoid excessive profit-seeking on the part of local middlemen.

Much has changed in the 14 years since the project began. The Orang Rimba of the Bukit Duabelas interior used to maintain an extraordinary degree of separation from the world around them by means of strict taboos that limited interaction with the outside as well as prohibiting cultural change. With the shrinkage of the forest and the establishment of new transmigration villages with road access, contacts with the outside have inevitably increased. Some smaller groups have nevertheless retained a very traditional cultural orientation, while others are changing rapidly, reflecting the fact that the Orang Rimba are now more able to choose their own way into the future.[]


Siri Damman & Ellen Hofsvang, “Protecting the Last Lowland Rainforest in Sumatra”, Rights-based Rainforest Protection: Why Securing the Rights of Forest Peoples is the Right Way to Save the Forest, (Norway: Rainforest Foundation Norway, 2012): 18-20.

Full-text is available here.

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