LEARNING TO LIVE WITH OUR FOREST-DWELLING NEIGHBOURS
Human population growth and the expansion of development into forest regions has the potential to lead to human-orangutan conflict.
You have already met some of our orangutan warriors in previous stories: Now, let us introduce you to another from the Mawas Conservation Program in Central Kalimantan.
Jhanson Regalino, known to his friends and colleagues as ‘Bang Uji’, has been working for the Mawas Conservation Program since its inception back in 2002, and is, at present, the Program Manager. The Mawas Conservation Program differs significantly from the other programs the BOS Foundation because while the Samboja Lestari and Nyaru Menteng programs focus on the care and rehabilitation of rescued orangutans, the Mawas program aims to protect and restore a 309,000-hectare peat swamp forest. This particular forest area had been severely damaged by a failed rice cultivation and development program, yet despite the damage, is still home to thousands of wild orangutans.
Working on this different program meant that Bang Uji and his team had to learn along the way and blaze the trail for future initiatives. They were the first within the BOS Foundation to work closely with a degraded environment, a wild orangutan population, and disadvantaged communities, all within the same working area. "Our activities require direct actions, and can have an impact not only on the environment, but also on other wildlife and the surrounding communities," Bang Uji states.
The main activities under the Mawas Conservation Program include forest rehabilitation through replanting, peat restoration through canal blocking, community empowerment through economic development activities in 13 villages, community-based forest fire prevention and control, and research support.
Read also: ORANGUTAN WARRIOR #3 - MANG USUP
The Mawas Conservation Program’s habitat protection and restoration activities involve the regular involvement of the surrounding communities. The BOS Foundation team acknowledges that conservation is a huge undertaking that would be impossible without the participation of all stakeholders, particularly the local communities.
This unique experience of interacting directly with village communities around the Mawas area has afforded Bang Uji a lot of valuable knowledge. Patience and good communication skills are vital in getting the community involved and in support of the orangutan and habitat conservation program. Bang Uji has even been involved in confiscating a baby orangutan that was being held captive by a local resident. At that time, the residents didn’t see anything wrong with keeping an orangutan as a pet, as it was common practice. They did not even know that orangutans are protected by law. Bang Uji was required to delicately inform the residents of the law, and explain to them the importance of leaving orangutans in their habitat. "The hardest part is getting them to accept our view, without them feeling as if it contradicts their lifestyle and beliefs," Bang Uji says.
The Mawas area was a peat swamp forest that was drained by the government for agricultural use under the Mega Rice Project. The project failed and was abandoned, resulting in devastating environmental damage. Canals that had been built to split the area - with the initial aim of drying up the once-submerged land – were then adopted by the community to use as a means of transportation.
Bang Uji and his team are determined to improve the situation. In order to return the peat swamp forest to a healthy status, functioning as both a vital carbon reservoir and an ideal habitat for wild orangutans, smaller canals have to be blocked so the area could flood and store enough water during the dry season. This canal-blocking, also known as tatas, has proven to be an extremely challenging task, as some of the canals are owned by local residents who rely on the canals as a source of income. "The point is persuading the canal owners to let us block them is not a straightforward task," Bang Uji says.
To support the community and balance the offer, the Mawas Conservation Program team works to improve livelihoods in a way that is sustainable and is not reliant on canals or other forms of ecosystem exploitation. The program offers the business training seminars, facilitates institutional cooperation, distributes seeds and cattle to farms, provides political assistance to improve village programs, and helps to develop plans at higher levels of regional government. “We are already familiar with most of the village chiefs and officials in our project villages as they come from the group of people we have long been working with,” Bang Uji confirms.
Bang Uji feels there is plenty of room for improvement and much work to still be done. He hopes that the community empowerment and capacity-building programs will continue to help the communities within the Mawas Conservation Area. "We can only do our conservation work through the support of external parties. If the villagers are happy, then our efforts to protect the environment will receive support from them and be more successful,” Bang Uji concludes.
Read also: ORANGUTAN WARRIOR #2 - IMAM GHOZALI