Bret Hartman

When Farwiza Farhan first visited the Leuser Ecosystem on the Indonesian island of Sumatra in late 2010, she expected to see plantations slicing across the terrain as she flew in; the Southeast Asian nation is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, and a major player in the pulp and paper industry. Instead, “there were forests as far as the eyes could see,” she says.

Her maiden trip to the rainforest–which spans more than 6 million acres, almost three times the size of Yellowstone National Park–didn’t go smoothly. Then a fresh college graduate who was more accustomed to city life, Farhan recalls panicking about the leeches crawling into her trainers. But she was so entranced by the magical setting and its inhabitants, including a baby orangutan she spotted twirling through the treetops in an impressive display of acrobatics, that Farhan decided to dedicate herself to protecting it. “This landscape is so special,” she says. “I’ve fallen deeper and deeper in love with it.”

Indonesia is home to the world’s third largest area of rainforests, after the Amazon in South America and Africa’s Congo Basin. When deforestation driven by human expansion and resource exploitation became a major threat, Sumatra’s rainforests were labeled a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger. Preservation of these rainforests–whose trees act as vital storage for CO₂—is crucial to achieve the world’s climate goals and there’s mounting recognition that ecosystem destruction reduces protection from extreme weather events that can be exacerbated by climate change. The Leuser Ecosystem–the only place on Earth where rhinos, tigers, orangutans and elephants are found together in the wild–is also home to stunning biodiversity. “A lot of the species that exist in Indonesia are irreplaceable, and when we lose them, we will lose them forever,” says Farhan.

In 2012, Farhan co-founded the NGO Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh (HAkA) to protect the rugged tropical terrain via various pathways, like launching challenges in the court system and by empowering locals. In the decade since, Farhan, 36, has become an internationally renowned conservationist. The organization is working with several communities that live in and near the Leuser Ecosystem to develop plans for managing their piece of forest, and for sustainable economic development. “I’m only a small part of these very big initiatives in this very big landscape,” she says. So far, it seems to be working. “We are still fighting a high rate of deforestation, but that deforestation rate is declining over the years,” says Farhan, who was also recognized on the TIME100 Next list in 2022.

The threat is always looming. Farhan worries that in the near future, the local government may change regulations that could help protect the Leuser Ecosystem. But she’s optimistic; she says that she hears from the local communities that they increasingly feel empowered to protect the ecosystem. “The movement that wants to protect this landscape is also growing stronger,” she says. “We hear a lot about how conservation is fighting a losing battle. Not in the Leuser Ecosystem. We are actually winning.”

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