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Learning from Mistakes: Conserving the Lesan

 "We ignored the larger ecoregion and failed to see that impending economic forces would render the project an island amidst creeping deforestation." 

Erik Meijaard and Paul Hartman

By Erik Meijaard and Paul Hartman

When do you know that your approach to conservation isn't working? We learned the hard way about our work to protect critical orangutan habitat along the Lesan River on the Indonesian part of Borneo Island — one of the richest such habitats left in the world.

The Nature Conservancy's well-intentioned, site-based project in Lesan had community involvement and support — at least initially.

But we made the mistake of confining our efforts to a relatively small protected area, ignoring the larger ecoregion and failing to see that impending economic forces would render the project an island amidst creeping deforestation.

The lessons we learned can inform future conservation efforts — but they call for a rethinking of the way conservation is practiced today.

Conservationists could borrow from the military concept of asymmetrical warfare, in which the weaker "combatant" uses guile, flexibility and a large scope of vision to win the "war" for the environment.

A Lot of Orangutans and Initial Success

The Lesan site is a former timber concession area of about 12,000 hectares (about 46 square miles) in the East Kalimantan province of Borneo.

In 1999, it had been earmarked as forest to be converted for agricultural purposes. But the area appeared to have a substantial orangutan population — and therefore became a focal site for the Conservancy's work.

The forest area around Sungai (or "river") Lesan overlaps with the land claims of four villages, and one of our approaches was to work closely with those communities to support the permanent protection of Sungai Lesan.

Despite many struggles, the Conservancy won the support from both the district and the provincial government to protect Lesan’s forest area:

  • We developed a multi-stakeholder management council involving local government, communities, private-sector representatives and several NGOs, including the Conservancy.
  • This council hired and trained people from the surrounding villages to patrol the forest.
  • And these measures effectively dealt with remaining threats within the area — such as low-level illegal logging; collecting of geharu (an expensive aromatic wood used in the Middle East); hunting; and smallscale agricultural intrusions into the protected area.

After several years, some of the communities also started to see the benefits of forest conservation — including an increased sense of ownership of the forest and income from its products such as forest honey. These communities became strong supporters of the project.

A Rude Awakening

But we realized in 2006 that our efforts in Lesan were not enough. To our dismay, we discovered that a 20-hectare area had been cleared for an oil palm nursery not far from where the Conservancy had established its Lesan field center.

We then found out that a forest area of some 10,000 hectares was being cleared upstream along the Lesan River to make way for oil palm plantations. This development is causing increased run off and soil erosion, and the waters of the Lesan River have turned a milky brown rather than the clear flows of the past.

During our most recent visit to the area, we learned even bleaker news. There are plans for an oil palm refinery near the Conservancy's field station that would service a large area of connected plantations. It now appears that all forest around Lesan is scheduled for conversion to agriculture and plantations.

To maintain the connectivity between Lesan and the larger orangutan populations in the east and especially in the west, we needed to get those conversion forests changed into permanently forested areas. But instead of engaging communities, working with the plantation owners and informing the local government about the threats the proposed developments posed to the area and the people living around it, we had focused excusively on the crown jewel of our protected area.

Next: Is There Still Time for Lesan?

Read updates on our successes in East Kalimantan.

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