Rudi Putra is a 37-year-old biologist from Indonesia. Yesterday he was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize -- the world's largest prize for grassroots environmentalism -- for managing to shut down 26 illegal palm oil operations in the northern Sumatra. Putra’s work in a region called the Leuser Ecosystem has restored 1,200 acres of natural habitat to the critically endangered Sumatran rhino, as well as the Sumatran tiger, orangutan, and wild elephant.
Putra had a surprisingly simple approach to tackling illegal palm oil operations. First he rallied support from local communities, who by now knew well what devastating effects deforestation can have. (In 2006, catastrophic floods took over the Aceh area, destroying homes and injuring 8,000 people; the floods were made worse by illegal logging.) Next, Putra got the local police force on board, and went with them to speak with plantation owners. Twenty-six agreed to shut down on their own, once they understood that they had overstepped conservation boundaries; only 2 refused and faced arrest by police.
When I spoke with Putra a few days ago, he told me that the population of the Sumatran rhino has increased significantly since he started working in the Leuser Ecosystem. In 1950, there were an estimated 39 individual rhinos. That number dropped to 20 in 1990, but now in 2014 there are 45 to 55 rhinos in the area where he works.
Putra explained that illegal palm oil plantations are especially detrimental to rhinos because they cannot live near humans. Orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and elephants, on the other hand, are able to live near humans, but that poses other risks. Illegal poaching is a serious problem, since ivory is very profitable, and the market for live orangutans is huge throughout Indonesia. Tigers are killed because they’re viewed as a safety threat.
While he is thrilled to see his work achieving international recognition, Putra still fears for the future of Indonesian rainforests. He does not think that the moratorium on further deforestation, signed by the Indonesian president in 2011, will prevent the forestry department from continuing to clear the land. After all, the federal government has recently pledged to double its palm oil production by 2020. (Indonesia and Malaysia already produce nearly 90 percent of the world’s palm oil, and much of that goes to the U.S. market.)
Putra’s latest battle is against the federal government, which has recently proposed new legal palm oil plantations throughout the Leuser Ecosystem. This would be devastating for the animals that Putra has worked so hard to protect from illegal operations. In 2013, he organized an online petition that got 1.4 million signatures and was a motivator for talks between the Indonesian government, Europe, Norway, and the Aceh peninsula (where Leuser is located).
Putra’s dedication to the Indonesian rainforest is inspiring, as is his refreshingly simple approach to promoting its preservation – just talking to people and explaining why it’s important to care. Sometimes you never know what doors will open, just by having a face-to-face conversation.