Women protecting Indonesia’s Kerinci Seblat National Park at grassroot level

Women protecting Indonesia's Kerinci Seblat National Park at grassroot level

Finding the balance between environmental protection and economic empowerment often met with a dead end, or in most cases, a sacrifice from the one on the other side. This is often made worse by policies that did not consider grassroots aspirations, such as what happens in Kerinci Seblat National Park, in the western part of Sumatra Island.

As a national park, Kerinci Seblat is protected by law, people need specific permits to enter the area, let alone collect branches for firewood. Failure to do so will lead to an arrest by the officers patrolling the area.

This is not without reason, the area, which spans 1,389,510 hectares across Bengkulu, Jambi, West Sumatera, and South Sumatera, harbours immense ecological significance. As such, it was designated as an ASEAN Heritage Park in 2003 and later recognised as part of the World Heritage Sites’ Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra (TRHS).

For decades, Rita Wati (52) had never entertained the idea of getting involved in managing and preserving the Kerinci Seblat forest, as the mere mention of the national park brought to mind images of stifling iron bars.

“I’ve seen many of my community members getting punished simply because they do not understand that they are collecting food and wood from the protected areas,” says Rita, who was raised in the surrounding area.

However, despite the rigorous regulations it doesn’t mean that the conservation area is fully protected. Public apathy toward conservation efforts became a critical factor, leading to the depletion of 130,322 hectares of the national park’s forests by 2014.

The depletion of the area not only impacted the decrease of biodiversity, but also impacted water sources, the support systems for many agricultural fields that the surrounding communities depend on. As a result, there was a disproportionate impact on farmers, especially women farmers as they faced not only water scarcity, soil fertility, and crop yields but also the cascading effect on it.

Women empowerment and nature protection: a dual struggle

In 2017, Rita and fellow community women participated in a training by The Institute for Studies, Advocacy, and Education (LivE) on women’s rights in forest management. The session addressed challenges in women’s lives, linking health, domestic responsibilities, production roles, and social engagement to environmental strains. Post-training, Rita took the lead, forming a group with three other women from Pal VIII Village to champion women’s rights in forest conservation.

Following the July 9, 2017, meeting at Pal VIII Village Hall, Rita announced the formation of “Women’s Group for Environmental Care Maju Bersama” to engage in the conservation of the national park. Despite a modest turnout, Rita persisted, emphasising women’s rights and the vital role of forests in their lives. Thus, the group was born, with Rita as the chairperson.

Rita, now at the helm, led Maju Bersama group’s mission to engage in the national park conservation. Despite local scepticism, she initiated discussions with the national park authorities, gaining support from unexpected quarters, including village leaders, Regent officer, Acting Governor, and the national park head Arief Toengkagie.

Rita’s perseverance paid off as the group was allowed to submit a proposal to be involved in managing, conserving and benefiting from the national park sustainably on January 9, 2018. Despite challenges in follow-up due to evolving conservation regulations, Rita persisted, seeking support from Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya and engaging with Tamen Sitorus, the national park’s new head.

After persistent efforts and revisions to their proposed area, Rita achieved a breakthrough on March 5, 2019. As chairperson, she inked a historic conservation partnership agreement with the national park, marking Maju Bersama group as the pioneering women’s group managing a forest area in Indonesia.

“It’s truly a joy. Inspired by our progress, now, women in many villages are no longer silent. They are ready to move together to fight for women’s rights to the environment and forests,” said Rita.

Positive impact

The success story of Maju Bersama group, now comprising 25 members, in securing their rights to participate in forest conservation has sparked a wave of positive outcomes. Beyond empowering their own businesses, they’ve honed their capacities, influenced policies, and actively engaged in pivotal decision-making processes. Their expertise and experiences have garnered invitations to numerous local and national events, where they’ve contributed as participants and resource persons.

One notable instance was their participation, led by Purwani, Maju Bersama group members participated in The Asia Foundation’s event on ‘The Role of Women in Social Forestry for Food Resilience’ in Jakarta on November 27, 2019. Simultaneously, Lisnawati played a crucial role in establishing the Indonesia Social Forestry Manager Association, facilitated by the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI).

WALHI then further emphasised Maju Bersama group’s groundbreaking involvement in managing a conservation forest area, highlighting their non-local background and unique contributions, such as being the exclusive representatives of women’s groups at key meetings like the Formulation of the Long-Term Management Plan for the Kerinci Seblat National Park.

The local government acknowledged Maju Bersama group’s transformative impact on the national park’s public perception, dispelling fears and improving communication with communities. This positive shift positions the national park as a pioneer in Indonesia, actively involving women groups in conservation efforts and aligning with UNESCO mandates for gender-equitable management in World Heritage Sites.

Rita’s unwavering determination and successful collaboration between Maju Bersama group and the Kerinci Seblat national park have become a powerful source of inspiration, motivating countless women in the region to advocate for their environmental rights, embodying a remarkable example of empowerment.

Beyond her individual triumphs, Rita’s story represents a broader movement where women actively engage in safeguarding and managing crucial forest areas, marking the dawn of a new era characterised by inclusivity and empowerment in environmental preservation. Her resilience and commitment have amplified voices, creating a platform for women to play a pivotal role in nurturing and conserving their natural surroundings.

About LivE

LivE (known as LivE Knowledge) was built as a means of managing information and knowledge to raise awareness, support and encourage sustainable natural resources and environmental management policy. Managed by Dedek Hendry and Harry Siswoyo, LivE Knowledge stands for Institute for Study, Advocacy and Education in Indonesian.

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