An interview with Farwiza Farhan
Our guest this week is Farwiza Farhan, an environmental activist and one of the leading voices in the fight to protect the Leuser ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia. Farhan focuses on ground-level species protection and high-level legal advocacy. Her strength is in fostering collaboration; she built a grassroots movement that succeeded in advocating for law enforcement against companies operating illegally and launched a citizen lawsuit that empowers local communities to have meaningful involvement in policymaking. She drives change from the ground up. Farhan is the leader of Forest, Nature & Environment Aceh (HAkA) a homegrown Acehnese NGO, which is striving to protect the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra. By empowering communities, taking legal action, and mobilizing local, national and global campaigns, Farhan and her team are helping to pave the way for true sustainable development for their people. Her impact on community-driven conservation was recognized with the 2016 Whitley Award.
Hi, Farwiza, thanks for joining me on morethanhumanworlds! Could you start by telling us how you became interested in environmental issues in Indonesia, personally and/or professionally?
Hi Sophie, thank you for reaching out to me and for offering me this opportunity to appear in morethanhumanworlds.
I grow up in the outskirts of Banda Aceh, a small town on the northernmost corner of Sumatra. During my childhood I spend a lot of time outside, from playing the dirt, climbing trees, and swimming in the river. Time in nature always felt like a solace to me. Yet even back then, as a kid, I notice environmental degradation quite plainly, I realised that plastic waste are littering the beach, I notice that barren land after land-clearing look particularly devastating, and I when the rivers are not as clean as it use to be.
Growing up, I thought I wanted to do something about nature, but I dont have the knowledge and clarity of what is it that I can do. I was imagining that one day, when I have my own wealth, I will create a botanical garden that house all the plant in the world, in a Noah Ark style - without any understanding that species are tied to their ecosystem, and existence of a species cant be separated from it’s environment.
Eventually I pursue a bachelor degree in marine biology, which allow me insight into how ecology and ecosystem works. These process have planted the conservation seed inside me.
Could you describe the ecosystem and biodiversity of Leuser (Aceh, Indonesia) for us, and explain what kind of threats this zone is facing?
The Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra is located at the northern part of the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia. The majority of it lies within the province of Aceh, and the remainder is in the province of North Sumatra. The total area of the Leuser Ecosystem is approximately 2,7 million hectares, and in contrast to the rest of forest in Sumatra, Leuser is still relatively intact.
The Leuser Ecosystem is special, because it is home to so many flora, fauna and funga, each play an important role to ecosystem. It is also the last place on earth where the critically endangered sumatran rhino, tiger, elephant and orangutan still roam together in the wild.
Sadly, a landscape of this importance are also facing tremendous threat of large scale exploitation. Inappropriate policy and infrastructure development plan are creating pathway for forest destruction, in recent years we have witnessed proposal for a large scale-dam that will inundate over 4000 ha of critical elephant corridors, a geothermal plan that would remove protection of 5000ha of the Leuser National Park, important Rhino habitat, as well as new mining permits issued on over 30,000 ha of land in Leuser.
When we imagine threat to places like the leuser ecosytem, we often imagine “illegal activities” like illegal logging, encroachment, even palm oil plantation that dominate the narratives, but in reality much of these destructions happen “legally” - because it’s condone by the government through destructive policies. That is why HAkA work with the government to streghten the legal protection of the Leuser Ecosystem by preventing these destructions from taking place.
What is the vision and mission of the Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh Foundation (Yayasan HAkA), and what kind of activities does the Foundation undertake?
Our vision is the long-term health of Aceh Province – socially, financially and environmentally. The vision is based on scientific evidence of environmental functions and identification of what nature needs to survive and prosper. Scientific assessment of the environment underpins our social and political analyses of how to bring people together to act to enhance as opposed to destroy environmental function. This integrated approach drives our campaigns and is evident in our landscape protection and restoration projects.
HAkA recognises that the unique natural processes that drive our landscapes operate
over great distances and long periods. This means we need to think big when we are
planning for future nature conservation in Aceh, and appreciate interconnections with
HAkA strives for a stronger and healthier Aceh. We believe this is created through an
empowered civil society whose members contribute to the wellbeing of the province
by participating in activities that enhance environmental function to provide clean air,
water and earth and to sustain forest, river and ocean. Protecting and restoring all of
these elements is vital for community development and will result in a safer, more stable
and peaceful Aceh that will benefit generations to come.
The kind of activities we undertake usually related to advocacy and campaigns, ranging from lawsuits against companies or agianst government on certain regulations, collaboration with government to evaluate permits, education campaigns to highlights wildlife and biodiversity in Leuser as well as the threat against them, satellite monitoring on deforestations, paralegal and environmental impact assement trainings, drafting policy papers, and more. Because we focus on the protection of a single landscape, Leuser, we tend to pay detailed attention on different threat that emerge on the landscape and plan our action accordingly.
In your experience, what kinds of skills are necessary to achieve high-impact environmental justice campaigns and advocacy? What did you learn from your own participation in such initiatives, and what challenges did you face?
I think the most important skills that most people then to overlooked is the ability to listen, to listen carefully and to listen attentively without making pre-decided calls on what the message and the response would be.
Throughout the decade of working in conservation I find that in order to achieve long term conservation outcomes, collaboration is important, finding common ground is crucial, and dialogue is very valuable to bring various stakeholders together in achieving the share vision.
Finally, Farwiza, what advice would you give to people interested in studying human-environment relations, in Indonesia or more generally
Haha, this is perhaps the most difficult questions - I don't know, really. I think if I have an
advice for my past self would be to maintain curiosity, cliche, I know - but it work so well
and it’s serve us well to be curious and listen without judging.
"HAkA recognises that the unique natural processes that drive our landscapes operate over great distances and long periods. This means we need to think big when we are planning for future nature conservation in Aceh, and appreciate interconnections with neighbouring ecosystems."
"It serves us well to be curious and to listen without judging."