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Interview with Sean Delaney, co-founder of Sumatra Rainforest Eco Retreat, which is a partner of the Palm Free Council

November 12, 2018

The Sumatra Rainforest Eco Retreat is a paid volunteer program providing solutions to the problems of deforestation in the jungle in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

• What’s your name and role in the volunteer program? How did the volunteer program start?

My name is Sean Delaney. My wife, Sue Delaney, and I started the program about 4 years ago, after visiting Sumatra on vacation. We saw a lot of poverty, and palm oil and rubber cultivation were the only options for work. After our visit we decided to start a trekking company in Bukit Lawang that included local guides and ethical tourism (i.e.-not feeding wild animals or leaving rubbish behind). We began to look for opportunities to get more involved in conservation in Bukit Lawang when we were invited by community members to purchase this land which is now the Sumatra Rainforest Eco Retreat.

• How did you find out about Batu Kapal?

Our idea was to play a role in conservation of the Gunung Leuser eco system. We knew of Batu Kapal, from previous visits and thought it was particularly beautiful with the geological formation of limestone cliffs and remnant forest (aka secondary forest). We knew there was a small population of orangutans living here so it looked to be a good place for us to start a conservation program.

• What did you discover about this area?

It’s interesting because there are a couple of things that are happening in conservation in and around the Leuser system. One of the things to understand is the real battlefront in conservation isn’t in the center (ie-in the national park itself). The battlefront is in the boundary areas. The transition between the park, mixed farming and secondary forest is particularly important because the food resources are significantly higher. But these boundaries are a high conflict zone where animals and humans fight over those resources. There are several factors in play: the farmers constantly push back the boundaries and reduce the size of the park. So, from a conservation initiative point of view, locking in those boundaries and stabilizing them is really important. Also, in this particular area there are huge limestone rock formations which is very unusual and allows for the persistence of a number of species, most notably the orangutan and quite a significant number of old growth of fig trees. The trees provide an important food source and enable the orangutan to move quite easily through this range, even though as I said, farmland has increased on both sides of that structure.


Limestone Rock Formation in Bukit Luwang secondary forest

• In terms of conservation, how do you explain your approach?

We have a slightly different approach to conservation here. We don’t preach to the local people with a pointing finger, telling them that they are doing it all wrong. You can’t fix an environmental problem without understanding and resolving both the economic and social issues that are driving the behaviors. For example, palm oil and rubber production are key drivers of land pressure. The immediate solution is more money. As more money comes in, more forest is cleared for more oil palm trees and more rubber trees. There are, we think, significant opportunities to value add and change farming practices to provide an equal, if not better, economic benefit for farmers. That is one of the key strategies behind locking in the boundaries of the park.

• So your approach is to look after the national park. Or do you have plans for something else?

I don’t think our focus is looking after the national park. I think our focus is to work with the local community to sustainably manage the land and the biodiversity of the park that comes through this place. So, we need to find ways here for the local community to benefit from the biodiversity that exist. We need to find ways for the local community to see animals, like orangutan and silver monkey or Thomas monkeys, as assets rather than liabilities.

• How does the volunteer program work towards achieving that goal?

The volunteers are working to connect a tree path corridor, ie-a canopy corridor, that allows arboreal species to move to and from the park. Some of those trees are on our neighbor’s land, so good relationships with the landowners is crucial. It is important to listen to their concerns. Sometimes we plant a value fruit tree as a gift to the landowners in exchange for their permission to plant additional forest trees.

• What are your thoughts about tourism in this area?

When tourism helps the local community and doesn’t harm wildlife, it is incredibly powerful and beneficial. That is Good tourism. Tourism can provide important jobs and economic opportunities to the community. It can educate and permanently alter land use to benefit locals and animals of the region. But tourism also puts enormous pressure on natural resources, because now people want houses and buildings, and those are enormous problems in terms of waste in areas that are remote and don’t have established recycling programs. Plastics just don’t leave the system. So unmanaged tourism is quite frankly, catastrophic for the environment and the park boundaries.

Eco Bricks

Picture of an “eco brick” that was created by the homeless women of the slums of Batu Kapal. A homeless family is pictured in the background. These women end up homeless due to the death of a spouse or pregnancies outside of marriage. These bricks are made with collected plastic trash that gets packed into plastic bottles. Indonesia is the 2nd largest contributor of marine plastic waste. These women have already sold these eco bricks to someone who is looking to build a guest house.

• Can you tell me more about the jungle and the general situation here?

Yeah so, one of the things that drove my wife and I to this place, is how radically fast intentional agriculture, like oil palm trees, are spreading all through out Asia. If you see the satellite images from 1980, 1990, 2000 and now, it’s frightening. Animals such as elephants, tigers, gibbons, different types of birds are now missing from different environments all the way from Cambodia and Vietnam to Java. It’s just a shame that those species are lost. When you lose species from the environment, the ecosystem is changed forever. Regardless of the species identity, they all provide ecosystem services to make the environment function properly. The Gunung Leuser forest is the last complete system around. Although, this ecosystem is under threat from deforestation and development, it is still here, and it is still complete. So, we feel very strongly that if we are going to make a change, this is a good place to start.

• What’s the relationship with the locals with the jungle?

I am constantly amazed at how insightful, how knowledgeable the local people are. Some ethnic communities have a very different relationship with the jungle. People know many things about this environment. Often it is not the case of educating local people but taking time to listen to them. We just need to make sure we are listening to the right people, because the answers are here. Some of the people have been here for generations in a very harmonious relationship with the jungle and without all the problems of deforestation that we see today.

Eco Retreat Volunteer

The Sumatra Rainforest Eco Retreat Volunteer Coordinator(L) and a Trekking Guide (R) from a neighboring property.

• Are there any problems with locals about this project?

We have terrific relationships with our neighbors. In most places like this, there will be a lot of people just looking, waiting and watching. Indonesians are remarkably inventive, and adaptive, so if you have a good idea they will pick it up and run with it. If you have a bad idea, it is forgotten very quickly so I think we just need to make a good example.

Neighboring property that knocked down their oil palm trees in favor of planting durian trees.

Local Influencer-Neighboring property that knocked down their oil palm trees in favor of planting durian trees. They want to grow durian to bring the Sun Bear back to the region. They are doing this because they see the popularity of the Sumatra Rainforest Eco Retreat and want to duplicate that success.

• Are you working with any local people or is it just you and Sue?

We only work with local people. Sue and I provide an advisory role and funding when needed. All money received from our paid volunteer program pays the salaries of our local staff and food. Whatever is left over goes into a savings fund to buy more land or support other programs. Through our conservation program, we perform monitoring in regular sites to look for evidence of orangutan habitation. Monitoring serves two purposes: One is to know how many animals are in our corridor forest site and the other is about introducing our activities to the community that lives here and building relationships and explaining what we are doing. We tell them why there is a group of 3 or 4 people walking with cameras on their land and looking up to the trees. It’s an important meet and greet as well as educative.

• What advice would you give to tourist visiting Indonesia?

The practice of feeding wild animals is really a problem for a couple of reasons. It fundamentally changes the behavior of wild animals and conditions them to interact with humans which can be unsafe. So, feeding exists because selfish tourists want to come and see the orangutan and have their picture taken. Local tourism offers that opportunity, because that is what people want. Is it sustainable? No. Is it good for the environment? No. Is it high risk for the individual and the animal population? Absolutely, yes. The goal of ethical tourism is for humans to commune with nature and observe these remarkable animals who we share 97% of our DNA. We can create opportunities for that. Locals are responding to a need. We need to educate the tourist because the tourist has the power. If tourists demand ethical and responsible tourism, that will create a demand for ethical and responsible eco-tourism companies. If we work as a community here, we can design a plan and create an entirely appropriate and sustainable environment for wild orangutans that is also accessible to humans. But it’s going to take time.

• Do you believe that humans and orangutan could share the same environment?

Yes, I believe that it’s absolutely important that humans and orangutans learn to share the same environment. It’s absolutely important that people living on the edge of the forest, in the environment of the Leuser park have a custodial role in caring for the forest and the biodiversity that lives here.

• What are 3 or more things that a responsible tourist shouldn’t do?

A responsible tourist should not go with the company that feeds animals.
A responsible tourist should not leave their rubbish in the park.
A responsible tourist should not be using and wasting and littering with plastic.
Don’t just choose based on price. Ask if they are accredited. Do they feed animals? Ask for references when you are going on a tour. Support the locals doing the right thing. Give these people the advantage so the others follow their example.