Conservationist is determined to protect her backyard

By DAVID HO For China Daily | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-07-01 04:34

As a child who loved nature, Farwiza Farhan's dream was to have a garden that contained "all the world's plants". But she soon realized she already had an even more amazing area in her backyard — the Leuser Ecosystem.

Now conservation trailblazer Farhan is hot on the heels of those who threaten it.

The Leuser Ecosystem is a stretch of tropical lowland rainforest in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra.

It is an important source of oxygen and a biodiversity hot spot, being one of the few places left on Earth where elephants, rhinos, orangutans and tigers can be found living together in the wild.

Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 2.6 million hectare ecosystem is currently under threat from industrial projects. Farhan's work in protecting the area is attracting attention far and wide. Even more eyes have turned her way since actor Leonardo DiCaprio posted photos online of his visit to the area last year.

"It was nice. I'm thoroughly impressed by his depth of knowledge and genuine intention," recalled the 30-year-old PhD candidate of her meeting with the Oscar winner.

But it is not just Hollywood stars who are taking note of her efforts. Farhan has won awards herself from international organizations such as Future For Nature and the Whitley Fund for Nature.

The latter is particularly noteworthy, as last year Farhan was among the seven winning conservationists to receive the award from the Whitley Fund for Nature patron, Britain's Princess Anne.

They are known as the Green Oscars, and the winners also received a significant 35,000 pounds ($44,700) in project funding over one year.

Through this award, Farhan got to meet one of her heroes, Sir David Attenborough, who is a Trustee of the Whitley Fund for Nature.

The famed British naturalist gave a glowing statement about the winners, saying that Whitley Award winners "are simply exceptional people — passionate individuals who are committed to achieving positive environmental impact and long-term conservation and community benefits".

"It's a great honor to be chosen out of 130 applicants from all over the world," Farhan said. "I'll be using the money granted to me to fund community empowerment and environmental conservation through citizen lawsuits."

She credits her parents for instilling a love and respect for nature in her and her siblings.

Her pharmacist father taught her the value of alternative medicine derived from natural sources. Her university lecturer mother, who teaches civil engineering, educated her on eco-friendly design.

Today, all four of her siblings are involved in the environmental conservation movement in one way or another, from renewable energy research to green design.

An active person from a young age, Farhan took up snorkeling at 12 and diving at 18. Her first pet was also one of an aquatic variety — an arowana fish.

Farhan's fascination with the underwater world led her to pursue her initial studies in marine biology. But when she noticed the changes occurring in her usual diving haunt in Pulau Weh, a small island off the tip of Sumatra, she knew she had to make a difference.

"I grew up snorkeling and diving in the area and I could see firsthand the damage that climate change brought. The coral reefs in the area have been dying due to the sea temperature rising. I realized I needed to do more than just studying and research to save it," Farhan recalled.

"Since it's hard to control what goes on underwater, I thought it would be easier to tackle climate change from the land. In my early days, I naively thought we could just build a wall around the areas that needed protection and that would be enough. Clearly, that's not the case. It takes more to be a hero."

In 2012, Farhan began her conservation career in Indonesia at the Leuser Ecosystem Management Authority.

After the group disbanded, Farhan and a few colleagues founded Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh, or HAkA, a non-governmental organization that aims to create long-term sustainability in the region. She is the youngest of the founding members.

"When we first founded HAkA in November 2012, we had just come out of working for a provincial government agency which had just dissolved. We wanted to continue fighting for the cause we believe in, so we founded the group," she said.

"For the first few months, we worked with no salary.

Then our friends supported us through a couple of benefit gigs and it slowly grew from there."

HAkA and a few other environmental groups are launching citizen lawsuits against corporations, and they are making to designate the Leuser Ecosystem as a "national strategic area" for its environmental value.

This designation would protect the ecosystem from destructive industrial projects like road building, oil palm estate concessions and the construction of power plants.

The nine plaintiffs involved are all community and local leaders who live within and around the Leuser Ecosystem.

"No one person on the list of plaintiffs is expecting any personal financial gain from pursuing this lawsuit. We do this because it's important for us, for the people of Aceh and for future generations," Farhan said.

"The threat of flood, landslides, drought and other natural disasters is very real. We hope that members of government will open their hearts and minds and see these demands for what they are."

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