We began our 8-hour jungle trek at 9 am, slowly making our way up the steep steps closer to the entrance of Gunung Leuser National Park. We took a quick break at the top of the hill to catch our breaths as Dede, our guide, casually leaned against a rubber tree. He took this opportunity to explain to us the history and rigorous labor process behind rubber production. He emphasized the patience and time it took, and how the laborers only make a few US dollars per week. Before we continued on with our trek, Dede jokingly asked the group, “So who of you wants to become rubber laborers?” We chuckled and Dede remarked, “But anything for money when you have none, right?”
Poverty is a sad reality for most Indonesians, and choices for income source are often quite limited. In order to provide for their families, many get involved in rubber, cacao, wood, or oil palm production, which is especially true for those in villages surrounding the forests. Oil palm production is the most problematic because it involves cutting down miles of rainforest to plant the oil palm trees. Deforestation occurs at the highest worldwide rate in Indonesia, and this is, in part, due to the land requirements for oil palm production.
But an innovative option that promotes both the livelihood of local people and preservation of these forests seems to be on the rise – the business of eco-tourism. According to Dede, many of the villagers are not aware of this alternative use of the forest that links conservation with sufficient income. The villagers might see more value in removing the forest rather than in maintaining it because there is certainty in the income coming from the production of goods. In addition, much of the money coming tourism goes to sustaining the lodges in the national park, and not to the villagers themselves.
Because of this, some of the villagers do not like the idea of tourism simply because they are not aware of the potential tourism holds to directly impact them. But if done right, ecotourism could provide more opportunities for the villagers, and open many jobs such as hotel managers, drivers, tour guides, housekeeping, cooks, servers, and more. As well, it can prevent problems such as deforestation, loss of habitat for numerous species, and emission of greenhouse gases from forest burning. Many of the villagers are unaware of what such emissions may mean for their environment and future generations.
In order to have successful eco-tourism, there must be balance and communication between the local people and the tourists. As of now, there seems to be minimum interaction between surrounding villages, tourists, and education on the importance of the forest grounds.
Gunung Leuser National Park is a government-protected area of the rainforest that prohibits anyone from going in and cutting down their trees. It attracts many tourists globally who wish to explore the rainforests and participate in a fun yet clean and organic adventure. It was not only my first time being in the jungle, but it was also my first time participating in any sort of hike of such rigorous effort. It was extremely challenging, but definitely something I would recommend to others or come back to do again. Being surrounded by miles of rainforest, I was able to explore the different species of animals living in their natural habitat, from orangutans, pheasants, Thomas Leaf monkeys, to long tailed macaques. After a day of being emerged in their own habitat, I was fully able to understand the impact that deforestation has these animals.