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More than three years ago, the Gunung Palung community came to ASRI with a radical idea. Why not have an advocate, drawn from the community leaders in each village around the park that could work with loggers one-on-one to find alternative livelihood activities and sources of income? What emerged was the Forest Guardian program. In conjunction with the village authorities, ASRI chose 30 men (one in each village) who have forest knowledge and are well respected in their community to be sahuts or Forest Guardians. The sahuts have been crucial to reducing logging in the national park. In addition to working with ASRI and local loggers, they have acted as a group to advocate for greater enforcement from the police and function as critical environmental educators among their friends and neighbors.
When I was visiting ASRI earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak with two sahuts, and the conversations remain some of my favorite memories in Indonesia. They were gracious enough to answer my questions about loggers, the forest, ASRI and what it is like being a Forest Guardian. Here are some of the stories they told me:
“In my village, we have a spirit to save the forest for the future. We need to keep animals inside the forest and our water comes from the forest. People here want to keep the forest and want to keep disasters like floods out of the forest. Honestly, most of the people here know we have a responsibility to protect the forest, but we need money to survive. Most people here really care, but the people here who work as loggers really do need the money to survive. For example, some of the loggers, not many but some, after they cut down a tree will try to plant a new one.
“People here have no other experience. You need knowledge to be a farmer and earn money that way. We need to step-by-step move loggers to farming. That is the solution, and ASRI is helping with the training, but we need a facility for training. Most people here have land; they just need the knowledge.
“Since I became a sahut my village has given their full support to ASRI and to me. Most people here are hoping for the hospital and would like to help make that happen. It would be exciting for them to not have to go outside the area for a hospital. Most people here go to ASRI because the staff rally takes care of patients. They are friendly and the medicine is really good. So we know the hospital will be really good, and we really hope it will come true.
“We are a red village, but people here really want and hope to change status to green. They are trying really hard. There was a banana plantation here, but we replaced it with native plants. I try to give people hope. We hope all this effort will work.
“During the time I have been a sahut, ASRI has really helped this village. People here always support ASRI programs and want more training in farming or fishing. All the people here trust ASRI and have a big hope that ASRI will create change. We really believe one day, even if we still have loggers, the loggers will be changed when they get training from ASRI, so we will always support them. If ASRI made a road, we would follow that road. People here trust ASRU and the most important reason is the clinic and the staff. Everyone goes and everyone feels better. Also the conservation program is doing good work, and people are really supportive.
“I am not a sahut for me. It’s for all the people here. I am hoping the village will be better than before. We are ready for more training in anything that will develop our village.”
“I became a sahut in October 2012 on a recommendation from Pak Musa and an older man. We should keep the forest safe and support ASRI programs, so I was willing to help.
“We need to keep the forest safe because people here need water and water comes from the mountains and the forest. The point is to save the water and keep the forest from the loggers.
“There has been a good change in people, in their mindset. A few years ago there were so many loggers. People did not really care about their water, but now, it’s better. Most people here agree. It’s easy for me to hear about what’s going on as head of this neighborhood, but it’s not easy to always protect the forest and get people to not log because they often have economic reasons. But people are trying to protect everything.
“It’s possible for people not to log, but they need another job. One that works not just short term, but long term. Most loggers say ‘just give me another job, and I’ll quit.’ Most people have no basis as a farmer and most have always been loggers, so people want another job, but don’t want to be farmers because they have no experience. The change works, but they need time to learn. The other option is this area is to be a fisherman, and most loggers I have met have turned to fishing.
“The most interesting thing about being a sahut is when people ask what you do, and I say I work for ASRI Conservation, people are always really supportive, because most people know about it. I am really proud of being a sahut, and I always like everything about my job.
“People agree the hospital is really important for everyone, so people don’t need to go outside the area to Ketapang or Pontianak for medicine. It is easy here to make contact with ASRI staff; they are all really welcoming, friendly and take care of patients fully from the heart. Most people believe the hospital will be really busy because it will provide good service. They trust ASRI and the staff.”