In Indonesia, women ranger teams go on patrol to slow deforestation

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DAMARAN BARU, Indonesia (AP) — In a lush jungle at the foothills of a volcano in Indonesia’s Aceh province, the in the trees mixes with the laughter of the seven forest rangers trekking below them. An hour into their patrol, the rangers spot another mammal in the forest with them.

“Where are you going? What are you doing?” they pleasantly ask a man walking past, farming tools in hand. “Remember to not cut down trees wherever you go, OK?”

The friendly engagement is just one tactic the women-led forest ranger group has been using to safeguard the forest their village relies on from deforestation and poaching. After years of patrols have accompanied a sharp decrease in deforestation, the rangers are now sharing their strategies with other women-led groups striving to protect their forests across Indonesia.

Rangers talk to a villager they met on their way back from a patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The friendly engagement is just one tactic the women-led forest ranger group has been using to safeguard the forest their village relies on from deforestation and poaching. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Rangers talk to a villager they met on their way back from a patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

A vast tropical archipelago stretching across the equator, Indonesia is home to the world’s third-largest rainforest, with a variety of endangered wildlife and plants, including orangutans, elephants and giant forest flowers. Some live nowhere else.

Since 1950, more than 285,715 square miles (740,000 square kilometers) of Indonesian rainforest — an area twice the size of Germany — have been logged, burned or degraded for development of palm oil, paper and rubber plantations, nickel mining and other commodities, according to Global Forest Watch. In recent years deforestation has slowed, but continues.

Women in one Indonesian province have formed patrols to protect against deforestation. The idea for the patrols came about after one village in Aceh was forced to evacuate from flash flooding made worse by deforestation. (鶹Video: Victoria Milko)

In Damaran Baru, which borders one of the richest expanses of tropical rainforest in Southeast Asia, many villagers rely on the forest for their livelihoods. Farmers harvest coffee from mountainside shrubs and the water flowing from the mountainside provides water for drinking and cooking in the village.

But unregulated deforestation from irresponsible farming practices and abuse of forest resources have led to disastrous consequences, said villager Sumini, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

Rangers walk along a stream during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The female-led group of forest rangers are defying social norms to lead patrols in the jungle to combat deforestation. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Rangers walk along a stream during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

In 2015, torrential rains spurred flash floods in the village, forcing hundreds to evacuate. When the water receded, Sumini went to the forest and saw that the village’s tree-filled watershed had been illegally cut.

“I looked at it and thought, ‘This is what caused the landslides and disaster,’” Sumini said in an interview.

Lead ranger Sumini takes a break during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The patrol group was started by Sumini, who witnessed the devastating effects of deforestation on her local village. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Lead ranger Sumini takes a break during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Rangers measure the diameter of a tree during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The female-led group periodically measure individual trees and mark their locations, tagging them with ribbons warning against cutting them. When they spot someone in the forest, they remind them of the jungle's importance for their village and give them seeds to plant. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Rangers measure the diameter of a tree during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
A ranger writes down a GPS-marked position during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The female-led group of forest rangers are defying social norms to lead patrols in the jungle to combat deforestation. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
A ranger writes down a GPS-marked position during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Members of a female ranger group mark their position on a GPS device during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The female-led group of forest rangers are defying social norms to lead patrols in the jungle to combat deforestation. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Members of a female ranger group mark their position on a GPS device during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Her next thought was what spurred the creation of the woman-led patrol: “As a woman, what do we want to do? Do we have to be silent? Or can we not get involved?”

Indonesia has rangers in its national parks, and a patchwork of watch groups elsewhere, including some Indigenous groups. But Sumini’s idea was new.

After lobbying women in the village to start a patrol, Sumini was met with pushback in the traditionally patriarchal province that is governed under Islamic law, known as Sharia. But after persuading village leaders and husbands of women interested — including allowing men to accompany them on the patrol — Sumini was granted permission to start the group.

Sumini, a leader of a female ranger group, uses a machete to clear the way during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The patrol group was started by Sumini, who witnessed the devastating effects of deforestation on her local village. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Sumini, a leader of a female ranger group, uses a machete to clear the way during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Sumini began working with the Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh Foundation to help legally register the patrol group with a social forestry permit — formalized, government-supported permission that allows local communities to manage their forests.

After the permit was processed, the foundation began teaching the rangers-to-be standardized methods of forest conservation, said Farwiza Farhan, chairperson of the foundation. The first training, she said, was learning how to read a map and teaching other standardized methods of forestry, such as recognizing wildlife markings and using GPS.

“The way outsiders navigate around the forest is very different than how the local communities do. They know it, but it’s not necessarily translated into a standardized language that we use, like maps and GPS,” said Farhan. “Finding and creating that space where we speak the same language when talking about the forest was key.”

Rangers leave for a forest patrol at Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The female-led group of forest rangers are defying social norms to lead patrols in the jungle to combat deforestation. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Rangers leave for a forest patrol at Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

In January 2020, the group had their first official patrol. Since then, their monthly treks through the jungle have include mapping and monitoring tree coverage, cataloguing endemic plants and working with farmers to replant trees. They periodically measure individual trees and mark their locations, tagging them with ribbons warning against cutting them. When they spot someone in the forest, they remind them of the jungle’s importance for their village and give them seeds to plant.

Sumini says the low-key tactics the women use, rather than brusque confrontation, have been effective in getting people to change their habits. They carry no weapons, apart from large blades they use to cut their way through the forest when needed, but expressed little fear for their own safety. Violence in the jungle is almost unheard of, and the rangers typically outnumber those they meet. The women don’t have the power to arrest people, but can report them to authorities.

Even before the forest patrols started, some women in the group were already trying their gentle diplomacy at home.

Forest ranger Rosita, right, and her husband Muhammad Saleh, a former poacher, tend to their cows at the back of their house in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Monday, May 6, 2024. It took years, but eventually Saleh felt the message of his wife. He stopped poaching and cutting down trees and began joining his wife on patrols of the forest. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Forest ranger Rosita, right, and her husband Muhammad Saleh, a former poacher, tend to their cows at the back of their house in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Monday, May 6, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Forest ranger Rosita, left, talks with her husband Muhammad Saleh, a former poacher, before leaving for a forest patrol, at their house in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. It took years, but eventually Saleh felt the message of his wife. He stopped poaching and cutting down trees and began joining his wife on patrols of the forest. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Forest ranger Rosita, left, talks with her husband Muhammad Saleh, a former poacher, before leaving for a forest patrol, at their house in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Forest ranger Rosita, left, rides on a motorbike with her husband Muhammad Saleh, a former poacher, as they leave for a forest patrol at their house in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. It took years, but eventually Saleh felt the message of his wife. He stopped poaching and cutting down trees and began joining his wife on patrols of the forest. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Forest ranger Rosita, left, rides on a motorbike with her husband Muhammad Saleh, a former poacher, as they leave for a forest patrol at their house in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

For years, Muhammad Saleh, 50, would light parts of the forest on fire, hunting tigers he could kill and sell to help feed his family. The then-raging civil war had hurt the local economy, and each tiger would fetch him about $1,250. Other days he’d cut down trees for firewood or trap birds that could be sold at the market.

His wife, Rosita, 44, pleaded with him not to go. She reminded him about the animals that would be affected by his actions.

Muhammad Saleh, a former poacher, walks on a part of the forest that has been cleared by villagers to make way for a coffee plantation as his wife Rosita looks on during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The friendly engagement is just one tactic the women-led forest ranger group has been using to safeguard the forest their village relies on from deforestation and poaching. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Muhammad Saleh, a former poacher, walks on a part of the forest that has been cleared by villagers to make way for a coffee plantation as his wife Rosita looks on during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Lead ranger Sumini, left, and Muhammad Saleh, center, put on a red tape around a tree to mark it for villagers not to cut it down, on a part of the forest that has been cleared by villagers to make way for a coffee plantation, during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Unregulated deforestation from irresponsible farming practices and abuse of forest resources have led to disastrous consequences, Sumini said. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Lead ranger Sumini, left, and Muhammad Saleh, center, put on a red tape around a tree to mark it for villagers not to cut it down, on a part of the forest that has been cleared by villagers to make way for a coffee plantation, during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

It took years, but eventually Saleh felt the message of his wife. He stopped poaching and cutting down trees and began joining his wife on patrols of the forest. He said he’s seen the improvement since he began patrols: the forest has more birds and tree cover is denser.

“Our forest is no longer deforested: the animals are awake and we’re more awake,” he said. “The whole world feels the impact, not just us.”

Rangers start a fire as they take a break during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The female-led group of forest rangers are defying social norms to lead patrols in the jungle to combat deforestation. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Rangers start a fire as they take a break during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Asmiah, member of female ranger group, drinks from a water bottle during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The group of forest rangers are defying social norms to lead patrols in the jungle to combat deforestation. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Asmiah, member of female ranger group, drinks from a water bottle during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Rangers prepare snacks and coffee as they take a break during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. The female-led group of forest rangers are defying social norms to lead patrols in the jungle to combat deforestation. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Rangers prepare snacks and coffee as they take a break during a forest patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Muhammad Saleh, a former poacher who is now a ranger, inspects a water pipe that supplies water from a spring in the mountain to villages around the forest during a patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Many villagers rely on the forest for their livelihoods. Farmers harvest coffee from mountainside shrubs and the water flowing from the mountainside provides water for drinking and cooking in the village. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Muhammad Saleh, a former poacher who is now a ranger, inspects a water pipe that supplies water from a spring in the mountain to villages around the forest during a patrol in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Many villagers rely on the forest for their livelihoods. Farmers harvest coffee from mountainside shrubs and the water flowing from the mountainside provides water for drinking and cooking in the village. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Now the rangers’ methods are being picked up elsewhere in Indonesia, as local organizations, nongovernmental organizations and international foundations help bring together other women-led forestry groups.

Members of the Aceh group have met women from provinces across Indonesia heavily affected by deforestation, sharing information about leading local forestry programs, teaching people how to participate in wilderness mapping, how to draft proposals and apply for permits for forestry management and how to better demand enforcement against illegal poaching, mining and logging.

“There’s now more connectivity between mothers, grandmothers and wives talking about how to navigate issues and being environmental champions,” said Farhan.

The centering of women in forest management is crucial for the success of social forestry programs, said Rahpriyanto Alam Surya Putra, The Asia Foundation’s program director for environmental governance in Indonesia, which has helped organize meetings between the women-led groups.

Sumini, the leader of a forest ranger group, tends to coffee plants at her field in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 8, 2024. The patrol group was started by Sumini, who witnessed the devastating effects of deforestation on her local village. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Sumini, the leader of a forest ranger group, tends to coffee plants at her field in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 8, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Asmiah, a member of a female ranger group, collects watercress to be cooked, at a coffee field in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 8, 2024. Farmers harvest coffee and vegetables from mountainside shrubs and the water flowing from the mountainside provides water for drinking and cooking. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Asmiah, a member of a female ranger group, collects watercress to be cooked, at a coffee field in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 8, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

A survey of 1,865 households conducted by the foundation found that when women are involved in community forest management, it leads to increased household income and more sustainable forest governance.

But women-led forestry management still faces challenges in Indonesia, he concedes. Some traditionally patriarchal communities lack an understanding of the benefits of women’s participation. And even when women are empowered to engage in forestry, they’re still expected to take care of household chores and children.

Female rangers Sumini and Rosita walks on a village pathway in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Monday, May 6, 2024. The female-led group of forest rangers are defying social norms to lead patrols in the jungle to combat deforestation. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Female rangers Sumini and Rosita walks on a village pathway in Damaran Baru, Aceh province, Indonesia, Monday, May 6, 2024. (鶹Photo/Dita Alangkara)

But the women rangers of Damaran Baru say the positive impact they’ve already had has motivated them to continue their work for future generations.

“I invite other mothers to teach their children and community about the forest like we have ... we want them to protect it,” she said. “Because when forests remain green, people remain prosperous.”

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Milko is an Associated Press multimedia reporter covering the nexus of the energy transition, climate change and human rights across Asia-Pacific.