Tackling Southeast Asia's Deforestation Crisis

The Rainforest Alliance's director for Southeast Asia discusses our urgent work in the region

In the summer of 2015, a toxic haze—generated by forest fires in Indonesia that raged out of control—engulfed much of Southeast Asia. The haze caused more than 100,000 deaths, some of them as far away as Singapore and Malaysia. Each year these fires, set by smallholder farmers and transnational companies to clear land for crops like oil palm, wreak havoc on the environment, but the 2015 fires were especially ruinous: Approximately 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of land burned, tripling Indonesia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions to nearly 1 billion metric tons—roughly equal to Japan’s total annual carbon dioxide emissions. The fires further threatened already-endangered species, such as the orangutan, and destroyed remarkably biodiverse and precious tropical forests.

deforested oil palm field

A deforested field for oil palm production

The Rainforest Alliance has been working in Indonesia for 20 years, first through forestry certification (assisting large-scale industrial firms to improve their timber harvesting practices), and more recently, in agriculture: coffee, spices, and of course, palm oil, which is currently the main culprit of deforestation in Indonesia. We have broadened our efforts to include other Southeast Asian nations, including Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea—countries that are also rich in biodiversity.

To meet the immense conservation challenges in the region, the Rainforest Alliance recently created a new position, director for Southeast Asia, to better address the urgent issues of the region. Nurdiana Darus now leads a diverse team in creating and implementing a strategic plan to grow the Rainforest Alliance’s footprint there, particularly in the palm oil sector.

Nurdiana Darus

Nurdiana Darus

Darus brings with her over 20 years of experience in strategic management and program implementation. Most recently she served as the Executive Director of Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) where she worked with more than 30 partners, government officials, and international stakeholders to implement ambitious commitments to sustainable palm oil production and sourcing. In this role, Darus also worked to greatly increase engagement of smallholder farms and local communities in Indonesia. Here she talks with us about her work.

What are the urgent conservation issues in Southeast Asia?

In Indonesia, it’s palm oil. In no other place in the world is the driver of deforestation as clear as it is in Indonesia. We have the third-largest remaining tropical forest in the world here, so it’s critical that we protect what’s left. In both Myanmar and Indonesia, forest communities are expected to gain land title soon, so we’re working to expand their capacity so that they can build truly sustainable businesses. These communities will need long-term technical support, investment from responsible buyers of forest products, and access to finance. In Myanmar, we are working in the context of peace negotiations—ethnic groups that fled during the genocide are now coming back. We are helping them to articulate a forest policy in order to lay the groundwork for building sustainable forest economies.

You came to the Rainforest Alliance after heading up the Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), whose signatories—which together accounted for 60 percent of Indonesia’s oil palm exports—pledged to adopt deforestation-free palm oil cultivation practices and improve smallholder livelihoods. IPOP was very promising, but in July 2016 it was forced to dissolve.

One of the great lessons we learned from IPOP is that NGOs and companies always want to be in front making changes, but in Indonesia, change has to be led by the government. The government has a distrust of private sector with all the deforestation that has gone on in the past; it always sees business commitments as insincere. But when the Indonesian government announced it didn’t support IPOP, America and Europe asked why the Indonesian government doesn’t want to be deforestation-free. But of course, within the ministry there are supporters of initiatives to stop deforestation. We just have to work in conjunction with the government.

You also worked with smallholders and communities while at IPOP. What challenges did you face there?

For smallholders, the environment is not a priority. It’s just there, to be used to make a living. Smallholders’ concerns are for feeding their families and sending their children to school; there’s no awareness of the environment. In some cases, they’ll sell product for any price, which is very painful to see. So we have to be able to make a business case to smallholders in palm oil, cocoa, coffee, and rubber. We have to be able to show them that they can be more efficient and take home more pay after training and certification—they have to be assured that their products will be worth more.

Harvesting palm oil fruit

Farm worker harvesting palm oil fruit

And what about consumers? Did the enormity of the 2015 fires raise awareness of sustainability?

Not at all. They have no knowledge of a sustainable product—a frog on a pack means nothing. We have to create a pipeline, a demand for sustainable products. Then that demand drives benefits down to smallholders.

Singapore is a little more aware because they get the haze from the fires, whereas Jakarta (Indonesia’s capital) is remote from where the fires happen, so people there aren’t affected by it. But consumers in Singapore pushed their government to take products made by companies associated with deforestation and fires and haze off the shelves. It’s a good example of how consumers can use the power they have.

How did your professional journey lead you to the Rainforest Alliance?

Out of graduate school at George Washington University I was recruited by Andersen Consulting, which changed its name to Accenture in 2001. I stayed until 2014. When the previous country managing director of Accenture became the minister of the national REDD+ Agency in Indonesia, he wanted a deputy minister of technology, systems, and monitoring. So that’s how I moved from the private sector to being a government official. I worked on developing a forest monitoring system, which is how I met [Rainforest Alliance president] Nigel Sizer. I later moved to head the Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), whose signatories [Singapore’s Golden Agri Resources, Wilmar International and Musim Mas; Indonesia’s Asian Agri and Astra Agro Lestari; and American firm Cargill] pledged to adopt deforestation-free palm oil cultivation practices across their supply chain, improve smallholder livelihoods, and encourage other industry players to make similar commitments.

palm oil fruit

The palm oil fruit

Tell us a little about you. A native and current resident of Indonesia, you graduated cum laude from the University of Oklahoma and earned a Master’s of Science in Information System Technology from George Washington University. 

My father was a diplomat for the Indonesian government so we moved every four years—my mother was very good at packing! We lived in London for four years, which is where I learned English. I had planned to major in architecture—OU has one of the top ten architect programs in the US—but I changed my mind and majored in business. There was not much to do in Norman, Oklahoma, except study, bowl, and go to the movies. I went to George Washington University [in Washington D.C.] for my master’s in Information System Technology, and that was a good thing for a city girl like me.

But now you reside in Indonesia?

I live in Jakarta now with my elderly parents and my twins, who are ten years old. I’m a single mum. In January 2016 my daughter was asked by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to train high school students in recycling t-shirts by making them into bags. My son started recycling toothpaste boxes into pencil cases. I’d like to take them out to the field sometimes so they can have that emotional connection to the environment.

What do you like best about your work?

It’s very fulfilling. I go to bed emotionally exhausted because my own government is not in accordance with my passion, which is to stop deforestation. But then I wake up each morning with hope and energy for the work we do here at the Rainforest Alliance.

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