Rutika Sembiring: From Logger to Park Ranger

by Harry Surjadi

Rutkita Sembiring, 26, from Namo Sialang village in the Tangkahan region had to learn to identify commercial wood before he could log alone in northern Sumatra's Gunung Leuser National Park.

His chosen logging ground was an extraordinary area, and still is today.

The national park is home to some 8,500 species of plants, including Rafflesia arnoldi, the world's largest flower that emits a rotten flesh smell and Koompassia excelsa with wood so hard it can defeat even chainsaws.

Sumatran orangutans, Thomas leaf monkeys, black siamang gibbons and white-handed gibbons also live amongst the forest's tall trees.

"I could log 10 tons of wood in one full day of work," Sembiring said.

To log one of the forest's immense trees was neither easy nor legal. In his days as an illegal logger, Sembiring first had to seek out the tree he wanted to cut. He then constructed a 3- to 5-meter-high platform beside the tree to stand upon. And from the precarious heights of that platform, he could cut the tree with an ax or chainsaw.

Once the tree had fallen, he would cut it into 5-10 m lengths of log. These logs were then sawn into planks and floated down river to waiting illegal traders.

A highly prized wood could be sold for $100 per ton, and Sembiring earned as much as $1,000 for a single day's work. He would spend the money gambling, eating, treating his friends and buying things-not out of need but just for the sake of it. His earnings would be gone just in a week. And the cycle would begin again, with Sembiring heading back into the forest to cut more trees.

He was not the only illegal logger. Most of the men from Tangkahan and the nearby villages of Namo Sialang and Sei Serdang in the buffer zone of the park were illegal loggers for many years. Some had been jailed for several months to a year for their actions. All of them had abandoned their farmlands to pursue logging.

For years, thousands of logs were taken from Gunung Leuser National Park daily. And every day the loggers had to go further into the heart of the park, which is the most important ecosystem in northern Sumatra.

But since 2000, Sembiring and other loggers in Namo Sialang and Sei Serdang villages have stopped cutting trees. They stopped not because all the big trees in the park had already been cut, but because of pressure from their family and friends.

"I quit because my father disallowed me to be an illegal logger," Sembiring said. "For four years I was prohibited from sleeping and eating at home. I had to sleep in my friend's house. My father did not speak to me."

His transformation from logger to conservationist began when Sembiring was elected as a chairperson of Simalem Rangers, an independent forest ranger organization. Two university students created the Rangers and gradually influenced the youths of Tangkahan to take a different path by abandoning logging and instead working to conserve the forest.

"Eighty percent of Simalem Rangers' members were youths like me, who were illegally logging," explained Sembiring, who now works with the Conservation and Response Unit, a program run by Fauna & Flora International in Tangkahan.

In the first year, the Rangers registered 53 new members, all of them former loggers looking to take part in the Rangers' work in conservation, observation, and search and rescue.

For Sembiring and most people in Tangkahan, the most significant reason to stop logging has been the realization that their farmland, which has been abandoned for years, is a possible source of income. On average, each family owns 2 to 6 hectares of land planted with orange, rubber and palm oil trees.

Sembiring owns six hectares of orange tree farmland, from which he earns around $3,700 per year.

Sembiring and his fellow villagers still hope to benefit from Gunung Leuser National Park directly, but in sustainable ways.

In May 2001, the people of Tangkahan established the Lembaga Pariwisata Tangkahan (LPT) or Tangkahan Tourism Institute, which includes the ranger organization.

Thanks to a new agreement with the national park authorities, the villagers are now charged with the park's conservation and development of a corner of its vast forests for ecotourism. They are also the first to be directly entrusted with managing an ecotourism zone while conserving the biological diversity of the park.

In Sembiring and his friends, the national park authorities could hardly have picked more appropriate stewards.

- August 2004