In Focus, August 2004
by Elizabeth A. Foley
The 5,000 villagers of Tangkahan are now official caretakers of a corner of one of Indonesia's most impressive national parks.
As part of this new role, they are embarking in a transformation of their own livelihoods and the local economy. It's one that is turning illegal loggers into conservationists while helping build Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra into one of the region's premier ecotourism destinations.
With support from the Indonesian Ecotourism Network (INDECON), the villagers recently signed a landmark agreement through the Tangkahan Tourism Institute (Lembaga Pariwisata Tangkahan or LPT) with the national park authority that will help curtail illegal logging and places some 10,000 hectares of the park under the community's care.
The agreement marks the first time a national park authority has entrusted local people to manage an ecotourism zone while conserving the biological diversity of the park. The park, Indonesia's second largest, spans some 792,675 hectares. Only 1,500 of the 10,000 hectares managed by the community will be open to ecotourism.
This unique project is crucial to engaging local communities in protecting this corner of the Sundaland biodiversity hotspot, where the forests—home to the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan—were once the center of illegal logging.
The Leuser Management Unit, a technical body that manages the Leuser Development Programme funded by the European Union and the Indonesian government, devised a "Tangkahan Ecotourism Master Plan" for the park's management while support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund helped build community skills and involvement in implementing the plan.
The project has also received funding from the national park authority for communication equipment, interpreters' uniforms, shelters and information signs.
"It's a huge challenge to get people to change from illegal loggers to conservationists," INDECON Executive Director Ary Suhandi said. "It's a big step in life-and in their income.
"Illegal loggers can make around 3 million rupiahs or $350 for two weeks of labor. Working to protect the forest, they make around US$180, in addition to their income from agriculture which is around $200 per month."
Even when local logging firms upped their fees in an attempt to sway the villagers, they held fast, according to Suhandi. "They say, 'I'm proud because I'm keeping the forest for my children.'"
They're also keen to keep logging out, as its disappearance seems to have decreased the amount of conflict in the region, Suhandi said.
One significant result of the project is new village regulations regarding forest conservation. The regulations, developed through a participatory process, are proving useful as a policy at the local level and as a legal tool to enforce logging laws.
Other successful results stemming from the project include a national park and LPT agreement on entrance fees and benefit distribution. Community members are directly involved in ecotourism activities, receiving income through guiding, river-crossing and interpretive services. The community also receives benefits from entrance fees and from food and beverage sales in the restaurant.
Giving the community access and legally empowering it to participate in conservation and utility of the conservation area are firsts for Indonesia. Both of these factors, alongside the benefits, proved vital in increasing community confidence in the national park authority and boosting the overall attitude toward ecotourism businesses.
"It has been a social approach," Suhandi said. "This is a paternal society-so we began working with the younger people in the village and they in turn told their fathers who are illegal loggers about the long term impacts of deforestation, who in turn told village elders."
An action plan geared toward producing tangible products the villagers could literally see and hold has been elemental to building confidence and enthusiasm.
"Guidebooks, signs, building an information center all helped the villagers see that this is really something that is happening," Suhandi said.
Tangkahan boasts two rivers and 11 waterfalls, several hot water springs and bat caves along its jungle tracks. INDECON and the villagers have cut three new loop trails for hiking, established white water river rafting routes, and are developing caving and other adventure tourism options for foreign travelers.
For domestic tourists, activities will focus on educational tourism combined with traditional knowledge and river trips.
Last year the park welcomed some 80 tourists from Europe, and on average 100 domestic visitors per week came to hike, camp and spend the night in the lush green forests.
It is a region known for its wildlife tourism, with most tourists heading 30 kilometers south to better known Bahorok, Bukit Lawang and its orangutan center. However, all that changed in November 2003 when flash flooding destroyed Bahorok.
Many blamed the tragedy on illegal logging in nearby Gunung Leuser National Park, but it has proven to be a blessing in disguise for INDECON's fledgling ecotourism venture as it has allowed Tangkahan to gain a foothold in the industry while Bahorok rebuilds.
Though foreign tourism in general to Indonesia took a dip in 1998 with Indonesia's economic and political crisis, it is now rebounding to almost 100,000 visitors annually, and Tangkahan and INDECON are poised to capture their piece of the market. They're starting with a savvy marketing plan.
INDECON has developed a strategy focused on both domestic and international markets. Locally, it is courting television and national print journalists. In June, 20 journalists raced down rivers in the park in a white water competition supported by local airlines and the province tourism authority. It is also building partnerships with schools, churches and youth groups in nearby Medan.
A Web site geared toward foreign travelers is being constructed, and networking to promote partnerships between tour operators in Medan and Jakarta is underway.
The team is also actively involved in tourism exhibitions at provincial and national levels as well as internationally. In March, INDECON members participated in the 38th Berlin International Tourism Trade Fair in Berlin, Germany. The fair, Europe's largest international tourism exposition, attracted more than 10,000 exhibitors from 178 countries.
INDECON's approach of weaving the Tangkahan villagers' financial and social future with that of the park is also gaining more converts. In the months to come, INDECON will be training 30-40 guides from Bahorok and helping them to redesign the ecotourism strategy for the park.
See related story - Rutkita Sembiring: From Logger to Park Ranger