Tue, 29 Jul 2003

Illegal loggers turn to ecotourism

Apriadi Gunawan, The Jakarta Post, Medan, North Sumatra

For a great many years, illegal logging became the main source of livelihood for people in the vicinity of Tangkahan forest in Namo Sialang and Sungai Serdang, North Sumatra. So lucrative was the illicit business that they abandoned their less productive farmland.

But the stricter security measures taken by local security forces became an effective deterrent. The people have looked to other ways of living on forest products that are both legal and sustainable.

They returned to their long-abandoned farms and accepted the idea of promoting ecotourism in their area.

Both village communities, comprising around 2,000 families, agreed to turn Tangkahan into an environmentally oriented tourist destination.

Initiated by leading wood "looters" from the two communities, the villagers agreed to the establishment of Tangkahan Tourism Institute (LPT). The organization acted as the manager of the forest area in cooperation with Mount Leuser National Park management in April 2001.

Administratively, Tangkahan is located in Namo Sialang village, Batang Serangan district, Langkat regency, bordering Leuser National Park. The Tangkahan zone relies mainly on its 17,375-hectare, stunning tropical forest.

Tangkahan's combination of vegetation and topography makes it a marvelous tourist spot rarely found elsewhere. The Batang Serangan and Buluh rivers, converging exactly in this zone, are typical of rainforest streams, with diverse varieties of vegetation and colorful rocks on their banks. The clear, bluish green river water against the panoramic view creates a mystical atmosphere.

"We'll be protecting the beauty of Tangkahan from unscrupulous people trying to steal its timber or contaminate the rivers, because we hope local people's economy will improve through proper management of this ecotourist destination," said LPT chairman Njuhang Pinem.

Himself an ex-illegal logger, Pinem admitted the formation of LPT was not a simple process. It was born out of the awareness of poor communities coexisting with abundant natural resources. "As part of Mount Leuser National Park, the Tangkahan forest had so far become a great temptation to us poor people," he added.

Sugeng, another LPT executive, confirmed that Tangkahan used to be the exit point for loot resulting from illegal logging in the national park. As a former illegal logger, Sugeng argued: "We had to do it solely due to economic pressure. But now everything has changed."

Head of the office of Mont Leisure National Park Hart Lamert Susetyo said that until two years ago, Tangkahan was a center of illegal logging activity but now people were aware why they should stop the illegal business.

"As part of efforts to stop the business, LPT and Mount Leuser National Park management have security personnel guarding the village gate," Susetyo said.

Tangkahan's ecotourism is managed by village communities. Susetyo said through this direct management the zone was expected to contribute concretely to local economic improvement, which could eventually prevent environmentally destructive activities as they began to feel that they owned and benefited from it.

"It's the first time that the National Park office has entrusted local people with the management of the ecotourist zone while conserving the biological diversity of the park's tropical forest," Susetyo said.

The joint management has drawn up Tangkahan's development plan, which includes the construction of a 1,500-hectare Gunung Leuser National Park research center and a 10 hectare camp site.

Over the past two years, LPT has been training 53 local youths to become forest rangers and tourist guides.

Tangkahan has 11 waterfalls, each with unique features. There are also hot water springs, flower gardens, rafting streams, bat caves and animal watering holes.