Sei Betung: The Spirit of Restoration in Action

16 May 2013 General News
Protected forest: A security post stands in a restoration area of Sei Betung forest in Langkat regency, North Sumatra. Protected forest: A security post stands in a restoration area of Sei Betung forest in Langkat regency, North Sumatra.

May 2013 | Jakarta Post

It takes more than two hours to travel from Medan to Besitang district, Langkat regency, North Sumatra. West of this district is a wildlife sanctuary extending from Central Aceh regency in Aceh to Bahorok district, Langkat regency, better known as Mount Leuser National Park (TNGL).

Housing protected animals like orangutans, elephants and crocodiles, the park is in critical condition as thousands of hectares are being deforested for farming and plantations, resulting in occasional floods in Besitang district.

In a nursery at the park, thousands of seedlings are cultivated for replanting to restore Sei Betung, a 9,734-hectare area in the TNGL zone. “From five nurseries in TNGL, 125,000 seedlings have grown since June 2012. We are aiming to plant 165,000 seedlings until June 2013 in Sei Betung,” said Panut Hadisiswoyo, director of the Sumatra Orangutan Conservation Foundation — Orangutan Information Center (YOSL-OIC).

The seedlings cover a variety of species such as meranti (Shorea sp), damar (Agathis sp), cengal (Hopea sp), merbau (Insia bijuga), ingul/suren (toona surenii), trembesi (Pithecolobium saman), pulai (Alstonia scholaris), rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum), jeluak (Mallotus barbatus), turi-turi (Sesbania grandifora), cempedak (Arthocarpus champeden), tiga urat (Cinnamommum spp), sentang (Azadirachta exelsa), halaban (Vitex pubescens), sungkai (Peronema canesdens) and salam (Syzygium polyanthum).

Nurturing growth: Chairperson of Kakao Jaya forest collective, Parlan, explains how to make organic fertilizer.

Among the 6,000 other seedlings now in cultivation are a species commonly found in orangutan habitats that are fire resistant, in addition to waru of the hibiscus family, known for its fast-growing nature and easily decomposed leaves that form compost. “Previously planted with oil palm trees, the restoration area is suitable for waru since every two months its leaves turn into compost. Along with other trees, its seedlings are also supplied by the local people as source of living,” indicated Panut.

Ahmad Azhari, fondly called Ari, Restoration Coordinator the Tropical Forest Restoration Action (TFCA) of Sumatra and Restoration Manager of YOSL-OIC, said all water resources, including waterfalls in this area had been drained by oil palm estates. With a single oil palm tree consuming 15 liters of water daily, over 20 years, millions of trees have forced the local community to buy clean water to meet their daily needs.

“That’s Dinding Hill where there used to be waterfalls five to 6 meters high with 15 water springs but they’re gone now. River streams have turned shallow and dry. Villagers spend Rp 600,000 (US$61.73) monthly on water. When it rains, this area gets inundated as it has no buffer trees to absorb water. Former oil palm trees were only compatible with weeds,” Ari noted with concern.

The situation, however, has apparently made local residents aware of the need to conserve, rehabilitate and restore the degraded area of the park. The distributed information and training tirelessly carried out by a Sei Betung restoration team has now gained local support as all those involved hope to restore the damaged area deprived of water and promote the community’s economy.

The restoration team’s working cottage is located in TNGL’s core zone, which has been affected by the degradation. Photos and data available there reveal that this house has been frequented by domestic and foreign tourists wishing to learn about and get involved in the restoration drive. It has also served as an information center for students and researchers studying the restoration activity in Sei Betung.

On the ground training: Guests learn organic farming in an area managed by Kakao Jaya forest collective at Sei Betung forest.

The cottage and Sei Betung have become educational tourism spots, where visitors are instructed how to cultivate seedlings, make compost, and plant trees in the restoration area. In the evening, guests are served warm coffee while they enjoy a film on the restoration and everything found in TNGL, which in 2004 garnered world heritage status by UNESCO.

With continuing activities by squatters and poachers and no concrete government action stopping them, Panut along with TFCA-Sumatra and the Mount Leuser National Park Center (BBTNGL) strive to rescue TNGL from illegal activities by involving local people in replanting the weed-overgrown area and felling the oil palm trees that have overrun TNGL since 2007.

Today, Leuser Protection Farmers’ Groups (KETAPEL), carries out replanting in the degraded area, produce the seedlings to be grown and maintain the trees.

Apart from the working cottage and seedling centers, a compost house will be built there to support the rehabilitation of TNGL’s degraded soil, by restoring its trace elements to boost the replanting effort. Meanwhile, the cottage also functions as a security station to safeguard the park against illegal logging, forest squatting and animal hunting.  

Sei Betung is a primary forest area with 35 families of 146 bird species besides orangutans and elephants. Bordering the oil palm and rubber estates of PT Rapala and Putri Hijau, the forest has been degraded by weeds, oil palm and other trees. Official data shows that Sei Betung’s damaged area covers 1,500 hectares. Based on a social survey, one of the causes of squatting is local people’s ignorance of the park’s restrictions.

While implementing intensive replanting and maintenance, this restoration program also takes inventory of the species of birds and mammals in the forest being restored as some of the animals are distributors of plant seeds. Certain birds are capable of determining their primary forest habitat or secondary forest habitat.

“Restoration is a long-term project that can go on for at least ten years. We’ve now reached the halfway point. This has become an example of successful restoration on a small scale but its positive impact is felt by the Sei Betung community. YOSL-OIC is the only agency capable of realizing this project in TNGL. We should be able to rid the animal habitat and water resources of oil palm trees without any anti-oil-palm attitude. The spirit of restoration is now in action,” Panut said.

According to him, restoration involves not only the forest but also the community. Conflict mitigation has also been achieved and the 240 hectares already restored need intensive maintenance. His institution focuses on reforestation and community restoration in its broadest sense.

TFCA-Sumatra has fully backed the restoration work in Sei Betung. It has been realized through the Debt for Nature Swap (DNS) between the US and Indonesian governments with two nongovernmental organizations as swap partners, Conservation International (CI) and the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation (KEHATI).

Education center: A shelter used for guests to stay in while learning about the reforestation program of Sei Betung.

Education center: A shelter used for guests to stay in while learning about the reforestation program of Sei Betung.

This program provides a grant for local NGOs and colleges in Indonesia engaged in financing sustainable tropical forest conservation, protection and restoration in Sumatra, with total funding commitment of US$30 million for the period of 2009-2018. The grant is designed for the promotion of natural resources management and conservation efforts, including the development continued sources of livelihood for local people and those depending on forest resources.

“The US government has agreed to write-off Indonesia’s foreign debts worth almost $30 million for eight years. Indonesia is committed to channel the debt repayment fund to the grant for the protection and improvement of Indonesia’s tropical forests,” said Ali Sofiawan from TFCA-Sumatra’s Communication and Outreach division. This is the first scheme implemented in Indonesia and the largest debt for nature swap that the US has been involved with.

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