Interview with Arief Data Kusuma, WWF-Indonesia | WWF

Interview with Arief Data Kusuma, WWF-Indonesia

Posted on
27 October 2017
We talked with Arief Data Kusuma of WWF-Indonesia about how he has been working with communities to help them protect their forests and implement sustainable economic practices in the Mahakam Ulu landscape on the island of Borneo.

What is your role at WWF and how did it start for you?
I am a Project Leader at WWF-Indonesia in the Mahakam Ulu Landscape Program, in East Kalimantan. It is a program I have been involved with from its beginning in 2007 when Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei agreed to work together to promote sustainable development in the Heart of Borneo (HOB) program. Then, in 2009, WWF-Indonesia succeeded in generating an agreement on sustainable development with Kutai Barat District’s government.

What is your scope of work?
My scope of work is ensuring the successful implementation of the program, which includes working toward WWF-Indonesia and Kutai Barat’s vision for a green economy in the HOB area. To do that we provide examples, or demonstrate the practices, of green economy within the framework and implementation of development in the Mahakam Ulu Landscape. This has included helping communities become community conserved areas or secure Hutan Desa, in one instance to help the community resist conversion to an oil palm concession. The demonstration of green economy practices is targeted at the sources of development pressure, which can be from communities, government agencies or representatives, or private companies. 

What made WWF-Indonesia choose Kutai Barat to develop this landscape program? 
Because there is something interesting about Kutai Barat. All areas within the HOB have considerable forest and high biodiversity, making it a very strategic place in terms of conservation. Kutai Barat is located in the middle of HOB, and is a bridge between several conservation areas.  It still has wide forest cover and high biodiversity, and the Mahakam River, a very important resource for the area, flows through it. 

This made us think that it could have a high possibility for exploitation and so a good place to encourage sustainability with many stakeholders – governments, communities, and businesses. At the time, we worked mostly in the conservation areas and didn’t yet have a place to demonstrate how to carry out sustainable development at the same time as effective conservation. Fortunately, we were able to find partners in the communities and government to work with to make this work possible.

What is the biggest obstacle? 
The challenge is quite big! In truth, there are 3 aspects of development: social, economic, and environmental. However, we are accustomed to a very influential mindset which prioritizes only the social and economic aspects. So, when we include a new concept – the environment – as the third aspect of development, the obstacles are extraordinary. People think money is more important than the environment. What matters now is that they’d rather have money to buy food to eat than saving the environment. That mindset becomes a great challenge, because people tend to do business as usual rather than do something innovative, considering the environmental aspects.

Why were you interested in this project?
Because we are trying to initiate something new and unusual, which is a great and exciting challenge. This challenge is the development and implementation of green economy principles, meaning social, economic, and environmental priorities. If we can incorporate environmental considerations into economic development, it will also make an extraordinary contribution to greater sustainability, which I think is a challenge that’s worth confronting. We still have work to do, but we want to show what we hope can be replicated or emulated by other community groups, even outside of Borneo, outside of Indonesia.

Can you share a success story with us?
Our first project in Kutai Barat was with the village of Linggang Melapeh. The spring that flows through the village comes from an area called Gunung Eno (Gunung means mountain in Indonesian). While some in Linggang Melapeh and its neighbouring villages were aware of the importance of this area in supplying water, this was not the case for everyone, including the village located in the Gunung Eno area. 

Along with some initial community partners, we worked to show how protecting their forests could have benefits beyond those water conservation, especially from ecotourism. Once the communities agreed, we helped them to establish Gunung Eno as a protected forest area. This was complemented by a spiritual ceremony in which the communities promised the spirits of the forests that they would protect the area from external threats and not damage the ecosystem themselves.

Then WWF-Indonesia worked with the communities to develop ecotourism activities, encouraging the formation of a community tourism group, coordinating with smaller groups focused on potential activities like handicrafts, dance, and nature-friendly forest excursions.  An important milestone was when Linggang Melapeh’s community tourism group won first place in a community tourism group event at the provincial level and then fifth place at the national level. This built an important momentum and increased the people's confidence, but it also made the benefits from investing in their forests and forest-related ecotourism more clear. Their efforts received visibility, and in return they were able to increase their income by maintaining and utilizing the environment in a sustainable manner. 

The experience at Linggang Melapeh village is very memorable, because it was not easy to bring everyone to agreement. Now the village feels like home and we have an emotional connection with the villagers; through this shared project, they are like family to us. We are pleased because our efforts had a positive impact and provided environmental, social, and economic benefits that the people can see clearly. 
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