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Tigers and Elephants Over Palm  Oil

Wikimedia Commons | A. C. ShapirTesso Nilo National Park, located in Sumatra, Indonesia is a biodiversity hotspot for mega fauna species including critically endangered Sumatran tigers and elephants. However this ecosystem is severely threatened by illegal logging and palm oil plantations.

The Situation

Due to extensive and unregulated logging practices 75% of the national park has been stripped of its native forest. Surprisingly Tesso Nilo was not recognised as a national park until 2004 and by this time thousands of people had settled inside the park’s boundaries.  With little or no enforcement to monitor the migration, the park became overrun with settlements. Ever since, Tesso Nilo’s natural environment has been neglected and exploited for agricultural and financial gain, with palm oil being the most popular and cheapest crop to plant.

Local officials encouraged the mass migration as the status of land was unclear. Settlers were provided both logistical and financial support from local businessmen, who encouraged logging and burning trees to create grounds for palm oil plantations.  Sufficient evidence has been gathered to suggest that palm oil produced inside Tesso Nilo’s National Park has made it into the world market.

Flickr | Nonprofit Organizations

Tesso Nilo currently holds approximately 150 plantations, according to government figures. This agriculture supports the lives of men, women and children living in the park’s 23 villages in which there are combined 4,000 households. Over 50 palm oil companies that operate outside of park boundaries are believed to invest and buy up palm oil fruit harvested inside, despite the risk of their illegal activity being monitored by the authorities – according to Hariadi Kartodihardjo, a senior advisor to the Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister. Firms don’t accept consignments of palm oil fruit during the day however they do at night, the farmers have admitted to this.


The Indonesian government has recognised the importance of Tesso Nilo’s diverse habitat and the incredible life it supports and have therefore introduced a program to gradually relocate people currently inhabiting the national park. They are encouraging farmers to diversify their methods and choose a more sustainable alternative to harvesting palm oil.

The government also aims to implement a management plan to restore degraded areas of rainforest within the national park. The plan to restore Tesso Nilo has been under careful planning for the past two years and is aiming to act as a template for numerous other parks within Sumatra.

In 2016 the task force had to distinguish between small holders and plantation owners. Once this was achieved the next step was engaging and integrating small farmers into the restoration plan – a scheme that the government created to provide alternative livelihoods to people within the park.

Progress has already been made with some villages now cultivating honey as a sustainable alternative.  This will consequently enable them to grow crops with economic value.  The scheme ultimately aims to gain the trust of the local farmers and eventually relocate them to outside the park and into neighbouring loggings concessions.

Flickr | Jean-Marie HullotHowever until this day comes farmers are allowed to remain inside the park, committing themselves to the forestry scheme and gradually relinquishing their oil palm activity. The transition period is estimated to last 12 years. Once this passes all work on illegal plantations will be indefinitely prohibited.

Due to the livelihoods of the majority of workers operating on palm oil plantations inside the park they consequently cannot be immediately relocated.  Additionally established villages have complex and diverse community bonds which make it problematic to separate villagers.

The end goal is to ensure that the land is preserved for the native wildlife and relocating human settlers. Hariadi says “there’s no way we will disturb the habitat of the elephants and the tigers (in the park).”

The government aims to crack down on the larger companies behind the illegal palm oil plantations whilst resettling those who currently live inside the park.  In addition the government has already seized 12 excavators designed to shift the topography of the land, raising trees for planting oil palms.  Investigations into palm oil owners are also being undertaken.

Flickr | MONUSCO PhotosThe Future of Tesso Nilo

Whilst the government has confirmed it will proceed with the project, Hariadi has admitted that a change in the administration could completely derail the entire program. Although Jokowi, the current Indonesian president, is predicted to repeat his campaign success he faces stiff competition from opposing parties.
The implication will be crucial. Hariadi says “if the leadership doesn’t commit to the people after 2019, then (the restoration plan) won’t work. Indeed, we can’t guarantee it will work if there’s a change in politics.”

However despite these comments Hariadi remains hopeful that with the fundamentals in place, especially hard work being executed by the task force to engage the villagers and government’s commitment, the goal should be accomplished. If it’s successful then the same management plan can be replicated to restore other national parks within Sumatra, many of which are dealing with the same problems. In addition to Sumatra the Environment and Forestry Ministry Secretary General Bambang Hendroyono said that if successful “this will become a model for solving (similar problems) all around Indonesia.”

By Matt Couldwell - Online Media Intern

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