Hutan Harapan as a whole is home to nearly 2,000 species of flora and fauna, including 43 unique to Sumatra and 46 on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. The Sumatran tiger, Sumatran elephant and the helmeted hornbill are among the forest’s critically endangered species, while the southern pig-tailed macaque, long-tailed macaque and blue-winged leafbird are endangered, and the rhinoceros hornbill is vulnerable.
An increasingly rare habitat, this biodiversity hotspot is one of just 36 identified in the world. It covers 98,555 hectares, 1.4 times the size of Singapore.
Hutan Harapan, which translates as Forest of Hope, forms 25 per cent of Sumatra’s remaining lowland forests that once covered 16 million hectares and it is still at risk from logging and other commercial activities. Nevertheless, the forest is surviving thanks to efforts by the Indonesian government and local and international organisations.
The area where the Living Rubber project is located within Hutan Harapan is surrounded by timber companies, palm-oil plantations, a gas company and human settlements built on land that was once covered in trees. But in 2007, it became the location for the country’s first Ecosystem Restoration Concession (ERC). The forest is now legally protected from further encroachment for the foreseeable future and significant efforts are being made to restore it and improve the lives of those that live there. These efforts are managed by PT REKI, supported by a non-profit foundation made up of Burung Indonesia, a local bird conservation group; BirdLife International, the global conservation group; and the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Three distinct groups live within Hutan Harapan: the indigenous Batin Sembilan, who have made the forest their home since the 7th century and are traditionally nomadic hunter gatherers; traditional Malay families who live along the river; and recent migrant families. In total, the population within Hutan Harapan amounts to about 10,000 people. Members of these communities have the right to live in the forest and earn a living sustainably from non-timber products. As part of the Forest Partnership Agreements with PT REKI, the groups have agreed not to, for example, clear new land, engage in illegal logging or plant new oil palms. With technical and financial support from PT REKI, they practise mixed agriculture, also known as agroforestry. This type of farming combines planting trees with crops on the same piece of land to boost the food supply, income and health of smallholder farmers and reduce their exposure to price fluctuations.
Many migrant and Malay families work for the existing local commercial enterprises that focus on palm oil and rubber production. Those with an agricultural background have become smallholders producing palm oil from existing trees and cultivating rubber trees.
The Batin Sembilan, in contrast, largely make a living from the natural resources of the forest by fishing, harvesting and selling non-timber products such as rattan, honey, latex, resin and medicinal plants. Historically, they have not been involved in the palm-oil industry and are now prohibited from planting oil palms under the Forest Partnership Agreements with PT REKI and the laws and regulations governing the forest.
While some Batin Sembilan remain in the forest and retain their traditional nomadic lifestyles, many more have become semi-settled as their sources of food and income became restricted following commercial developments, including agriculture. However, a lack of experience in traditional farming has resulted in limited income which contributes to the pressures felt by the younger generations to abandon their traditional lifestyles to find employment.