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Monday, June 26, 2017, 17:51
Natural calling
By David Ho in Hong Kong
Monday, June 26, 2017, 17:51 By David Ho in Hong Kong

Award-winning conservationist is determined to protect her cherished backyard, Indonesia’s Leuser rainforest

(Ma Xuejing / China Daily)

As a child who loved nature, Farwiza Farhan’s dream was to have a garden that contained “all the world’s plants”. But she soon realized she already had an even more amazing area in her backyard — the Leuser Ecosystem. 

Now conservation trailblazer Farhan is hot on the heels of those who threaten it.

The Leuser Ecosystem is a stretch of tropical lowland rainforest in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra. It is an important source of oxygen and a biodiversity hot spot, being one of the few places left on Earth where elephants, rhinos, orangutans and tigers can be found living together in the wild.

Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 2.6 million hectare ecosystem is currently under threat from industrial projects. 

Farhan’s work in protecting the area is attracting attention far and wide. Even more eyes have turned her way since actor Leonardo DiCaprio posted photos online of his visit to the area last year.

“It was nice. I’m thoroughly impressed by his depth of knowledge and genuine intention,” recalled the 30-year-old PhD candidate of her meeting with the Oscar winner.

But it is not just Hollywood stars who are taking note of her efforts. Farhan has won awards herself from international organizations such as Future For Nature and the Whitley Fund for Nature.

The latter is particularly noteworthy, as last year Farhan was among the seven winning conservationists to receive the award from the Whitley Fund for Nature patron, Britain’s Princess Anne.

They are known as the Green Oscars, and the winners also received a significant 35,000 pounds (US$44,700) in project funding over one year.

Through this award, Farhan got to meet one of her heroes, Sir David Attenborough, who is a Trustee of the Whitley Fund for Nature. 

The famed British naturalist gave a glowing statement about the winners, saying that Whitley Award winners “are simply exceptional people — passionate individuals who are committed to achieving positive environmental impact and long-term conservation and community benefits”.

“It’s a great honor to be chosen out of 130 applicants from all over the world,” Farhan said. “I’ll be using the money granted to me to fund community empowerment and environmental conservation through citizen lawsuits.” 

She credits her parents for instilling a love and respect for nature in her and her siblings. Her pharmacist father taught her the value of alternative medicine derived from natural sources. Her university lecturer mother, who teaches civil engineering, educated her on eco-friendly design.

Today, all four of her siblings are involved in the environmental conservation movement in one way or another, from renewable energy research to green design. 

An active person from a young age, Farhan took up snorkeling at 12 and diving at 18. Her first pet was also one of an aquatic variety — an arowana fish. 

Farhan’s fascination with the underwater world led her to pursue her initial studies in marine biology. But when she noticed the changes occurring in her usual diving haunt in Pulau Weh, a small island off the tip of Sumatra, she knew she had to make a difference.

“I grew up snorkeling and diving in the area and I could see firsthand the damage that climate change brought. The coral reefs in the area have been dying due to the sea temperature rising. I realized I needed to do more than just studying and research to save it,” Farhan recalled.

“Since it’s hard to control what goes on underwater, I thought it would be easier to tackle climate change from the land. In my early days, I naively thought we could just build a wall around the areas that needed protection and that would be enough. Clearly, that’s not the case. It takes more to be a hero.” 

In 2012, Farhan began her conservation career in Indonesia at the Leuser Ecosystem Management Authority. 

After the group disbanded, Farhan and a few colleagues founded Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh, or HAkA, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that aims to create long-term sustainability in the region. She is the youngest of the founding members.

“When we first founded HAkA in November 2012, we had just come out of working for a provincial government agency which had just dissolved. We wanted to continue fighting for the cause we believe in, so we founded the group,” she said.

“For the first few months, we worked with no salary. Then our friends supported us through a couple of benefit gigs and it slowly grew from there.”

HAkA and a few other environmental groups are launching citizen lawsuits against corporations and challenging the Aceh administration and Legislative Council to revise the Aceh Provincial Spatial Plan, and to designate the Leuser Ecosystem as a “national strategic area” for its environmental value. 

This designation would protect the ecosystem from destructive industrial projects like road building, oil palm estate concessions and the construction of power plants. 

The nine plaintiffs involved are all community and local leaders who live within and around the Leuser Ecosystem. They are part of the Aceh Society Action Movement, a grassroots movement that started in 2015 after numerous failed attempts at a revision of the Aceh Provincial Spatial Plan. 

“No one person on the list of plaintiffs is expecting any personal financial gain from pursuing this lawsuit. We do this because it’s important for us, for the people of Aceh and for future generations,” Farhan said. 

“The threat of flood, landslides, drought and other natural disasters is very real. We hope that members of government will open their hearts and minds and see these demands for what they are.”

Farhan previously worked on a precedent-setting lawsuit against Kallista Alam, a palm oil company. 

The 2014 case found the company guilty of violating environmental laws for clearing an area of protected peat forest that is home to the endangered orangutan population in the Leuser Ecosystem. Kallista Alam had cleared the forests without securing legal permits.

The company was ordered to pay 366 billion rupiah (US$27.5 million) in fines and reparations.

Farhan is also setting up community empowerment programs that educate people about the value of their environment and teach them about the proper channels to take action when they see violations.

“We hope to create a sustainable platform of conservation through education. NGOs may come and go but the local community will always be there. So I see us as being in a facilitator role in strengthening and empowering them to stand up to corporations and unfavorable government policies,” she said. 

Farhan is currently working on her PhD at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands on the political economy of natural resource management in the Leuser Ecosystem.

“I did it to take a step back and reflect on what I was doing. It’s not easy but it’s important to be honest in answering your own questions,” she said. 

“I want to be critical and understand the safest, most beneficial and sustainable way to save the environment. It also gives me a chance to gain a wider understanding of policies and political processes with permits, businesses and such.” 

Despite the frustrating nature of the work, Farhan remains upbeat about being involved in environmentalism. 

“When it comes to conservation work, we can’t rest on our laurels. It can be relentless but rewarding,” she said. 

“I like to look at the glass half full. Protecting the ecosystem may be difficult but it’s not impossible.”


Farwiza Farhan 

Chairperson and cofounder of Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (HAkA)


2012-present: PhD candidate, cultural anthropology and development studies, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands

2009-10: Master of environmental management, majoring in sustainable development, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

2003-07: Bachelor of science (Hons), majoring in marine biology, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia

Career milestones:

2012-present: Cofounder, chairperson of HAkA, Aceh province, Indonesia

2010-2012: Public relations manager, Leuser Ecosystem Management Authority, Aceh province 

2009-2010: Junior researcher partnership and alliance team, Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, Melbourne, Australia 


2017: Future For Nature Award 

2016: Whitley Award 

Quick takes:

What is the biggest challenge for environmental conservation? 

Apathy. We need both activists and the general public to remain interested and actively enthusiastic about conservation for it to be sustainable and successful.

What is the key to successful conservation?

Collaboration. We need to remember that nobody is evil. Everybody has their reason for doing what they do, even the companies we lobby against. But if we can find a way to successfully meet everyone’s needs and work together, we can succeed. 

Who can get involved?

Everyone! All help and any expertise are always appreciated, whether you are a lawyer or a graphic designer. At the very least, we can always start by reducing our own carbon footprint.

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