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  • Ann Cools

Finding future in the forest

In partnership with Nuraga Bhumi Institute

"Our souls are dedicated to protecting Mother Earth". This is the meaning of ‘Nuraga Bhumi’, the institute founded by Nurul Nayla Azmi Dalimunthe that helps Indigenous women and members of the LGBTQ+ community in Sumatra to engage safely in conservation.

From left to right: Devi, Nayla and Dwi perform a ritual prayer to ask their ancestors’ permission to enter the forest

"Conservation is our birthright"

The need for a safe space arises from Nayla’s direct experiences in the field. Discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment almost stopped her from pursuing her life long passion. But the fire didn’t dim. Instead, it grew stronger. And as Nayla learned about her indigenous Batak ancestry and their strong connection to the natural world, it all made sense. “Conservation is our birthright” Nayla says, “Our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. They were part of the ecosystem, just like all living beings.”

No longer is the fire in her soul hers alone. Devi and Dwi joined forces in Nuraga Bhumi’s indigenous women and LGBTQ+ ranger team, the only one of its kind in Sumatra. Four fellow photographers and I get the chance to see their work and visit their home. With Nayla as translator, Devi and Dwi guide us during an exploration of the Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra. The park draws in many tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the animals that are equally endangered as they are iconic: orang-utans, rhinos, tigers and elephants.

As we set foot on their land, Nayla, Devi and Dwi invite us to pray with them, to ask their ancestors’ permission. Buzzing loudly, cicadas seem to vocalise the energy of the forest. The forest was asking me to listen, encouraging me to learn. And it was urging me to share.

Nayla and Devi register GPS coordinates of wildlife presence, poaching devices and newly planted trees

Like Nayla, Devi is an indigenous Batak woman. Their paths crossed for the first time more than a decade ago, when Nayla initiated a conservation educational program for the children of Timbang Lawan. It’s the village where Nayla met Darma, her mentor, and where she built a community that feels like family. “Devi was one of my first students,” she recalls, “but it wasn’t before long her world turned upside down”.

At age 9, Devi lost her father. Nova, her mother, eventually remarried and gave birth to her sister Nurshakira and her brother Rizki Ramadhan. Due to disease, Devi’s stepfather passed away too, leaving Nova as a single mother of three. By the age of 15, Devi had no choice but to quit school and support Nova in taking care of the family. Like many Sumatran women working in farms, they’re responsible for fertilising the land, exposing them to toxins and harsh sun on a daily basis.

Three years later, at age 18, another unexpected turn of events strongly impacts Devi’s life. As Nayla lays the foundation for Nuraga Bhumi Institute, she invites Devi to join the ranger team. Today, Devi is a protector of the land and the water, like her Batak ancestors. In Batak culture, animals are believed to be shapeshifting ancestors. And so Devi calls upon her “opung”, the Batak word for grandfather and ancestor, for permission to enter the forest.

In the journey of reclaiming her indigenous identity, Nayla is acutely aware of the fact that a lot of ancestral knowledge has been forgotten. During colonial times, indigenous rituals, ceremonies and language were criminalised. People were haunted and murdered. The ones that survived were cut off from their land and way of living.

The disconnection continues to this very day. In an effort to protect Sumatra’s ecosystem, nature has become even less accessible for local communities. The entry fee for the Gunung Leuser National Park is approximately the equivalent of a day’s salary. With sparse income opportunities, the financial barrier to the forest leads to systemic exclusion of the people who are best placed to protect it. Ironically, with so much wildlife in their backyard, the only encounter most Sumatran people have with animals, takes place in a zoo.

A male orang-utan sits lethargically in his solitary confinement in Pematang Siantar Zoo in Sumatra

Physical separation from nature is deeply ingrained in society and reinforces the paradigm of human dominion over nature. In a world where everything is monetised and objectified, extraction and exploitation proceed to critical levels of exhaustion.

Wildlife poaching and trafficking form an important threat to the Sumatran ecosystem. The image of anonymous gangsters in obscure back rooms is only partially true, as poaching is often a matter of survival for those trying to make a living. With less than 14000 orang-utans, less than 50 rhinos, less than 300 tigers and less than 1000 elephants left, the estimated number of large wildlife in the Gunung Leuser forest keeps declining. And their home, the forest itself, keeps shrinking.

Thousands of hectares of jungle have been cut down to make space for palm oil plantations, causing immense habitat loss and a drastically dwindling biodiversity in a matter of decades. Nayla, who lived on a plantation with her grandparents, stipulates the complexity of the problem: “Twenty million people depend directly on palm oil for their livelihood. It has become the only source of income for many Sumatrans”. Simply banning palm oil would have disastrous humane consequences.

On our way to the jungle we drive past miles and miles of palm oil plantations

The lack of clear borders for the national park adds to the complexity. In theory there is a hundred meter buffer zone along the edges of Gunung Leuser. Buffer zones are as important as the park itself, it’s the space needed for the forest and its wildlife to remain protected. In reality people treat it as public land and use it to plant crops. This causes the animals in the national park to come closer to people’s homes and eat their produce.

Unclear borders also undermine the government’s concession policy. When palm oil companies apply for an expansion of their plantations, the granted concessions often overlap with protected areas.

The palm tree has become the symbol of disconnection and endless rows of orderly placed trees dominate the landscape. With their thorny branches and unquenchable thirst, they leave no room for other forms of life. The soil depletes, rivers dry up, and workers get sick from toxins.

When life becomes lifeless, we need to redirect. The question is: how can we move forward?

A female orang-utan roams the canopy in the Gunung Leuser National Park

“Our souls are dedicated to protecting Mother Earth”

Grassroots initiatives like the Nuraga Bhumi Institute show the transformative power of restoring long lost connections. Devi’s journey of reconnection has been life-changing. Ever since she was a young girl, the jungle seemed like a dangerous place. She grew up next to the forest, but she never went inside. She didn’t know the sounds, the smells, the plants, the animals. The first time Devi saw an orang-utan, she panicked. “I cried hysterically and wanted to run away”, she chuckles. “I thought she would attack me. But overtime I learned that they are kind and caring animals. My fear resolved. Now I enjoy watching them”.

Like all animals, orang-utans are addressed as “opung”, meaning the indigenous consider them to be ancestors and family. Even in dense forest, their bright orange fur stands out from the foliage. While roaming the canopy, orang-utans spread the seedlings from the vegetation and fruit they eat. So as gardeners of the forest, their welfare and the jungle’s biodiversity are mutually strengthened.

Within an hour after our prayer, we come eye to eye with Petes, a female orang-utan that used to live in a sanctuary. Because of her past and other guides occasionally feeding her to get close, Petes is used to human presence. Luck is on our side as we find another female with her baby. I see Devi pointing upwards, guiding Dwi’s vision in the right direction. Carefully snapping branches, the mother builds a nest for their afternoon nap. In the evening orang-utans repeat the ritual, building a sturdier version to withstand heavy weather.

Nayla shows Devi and Dwi what to look out for during a patrol

Understanding the importance of community like no other, Nayla established a close partnership with Nature For Change, the conservation initiative led by her mentor Darma. As a result, his team of rangers joins Nuraga Bhumi’s patrolling activities. With a combined total of ten rangers, the positive impact for the forest is multiplied. They collect data like footprints, fur and scratch marks. Areas that indicate the presence of animals then become the priority for patrolling. While looking out for signs of wildlife, they demolish snares, monitor the vegetation and plant new trees.

With slightly overstretched necks and a big smile on our face, we decide to call it a day. Next up is a visit to Timbang Lawan, the village that Devi and her fellow rangers call home. With all rangers being part of the local community, the long term results of their conservation efforts are more robust.

The rangers know the farmers, they know how to talk to them. “We remind the farmers that they share space with wildlife, like their ancestors also did”, Nayla explains, “and that interactions cannot be avoided”. By planting fruit trees, they provide farmers with an additional source of income. Selling fruit eventually becomes more attractive than illegal logging and poaching.

Hendry, Dharma's brother and one of Nature For Change's rangers, scouts their land for planting new trees

Transforming livelihoods doesn’t happen overnight. But the narrative is changing and it’s creating sparks within the community. According to indigenous beliefs, one’s actions influence the seven generations before and after them. For a young woman like Devi to thrive in a traditionally male dominated space, is transformative. It’s empowering for her as well as those around her.

We follow Devi along the rice paddies in Timbang Lawan to meet with her mother Nova. We are curious to learn how she feels about Devi’s work. “I was very worried” Nova admits, “My daughter, working in the forest? I thought that was far too dangerous for a young girl”. Nayla’s experience and their longstanding trusting relationship persuaded Nova to give it a try. “And I have seen her grow so much ever since, she has become more confident”.

Nova and her youngest daughter Nurshakira listen to Devi’s ranger stories

Not only does the forest fuel her courage, it also allows Devi to support her mother financially. “My family is what matters most to me”, she says, “Having my own income and being able to take care of them, fills me with pride.”

Devi has become a guardian, a steward for the land. It’s hard to imagine the future that once lay before her: moving to Malaysia to work in a factory for $5 per day. In return for a stable pay check for her family, she would have to leave them behind. This is the fate of many young women in Indonesia and a cycle hard to break. But it’s possible.

In their endeavour for social equity, Nuraga Bhumi Institute stands for providing fair and equal wages. Devi’s ranger salary is higher and more dependable than the farm labour income and instead of being displaced, she gets to reconnect.

We begin patrol the next day with a visit to Nuraga Bhumi’s tree nursery. With a basket full of baby jackfruit and durian trees strapped on their backs, the rangers lead the way. As we march deeper into the forest, the trail turns into a mud pool. Contemplating my inevitable, inelegant slip, Devi steadily hops across the puddle and reaches for my hand.

When talking about the importance of their work, her stance is very clear: “We have to care for nature because nature cares for us. If we don’t protect the river that we rely on for water supply, what is our future going to be like?”

Left: Devi and her fellow rangers regularly plant new trees in the forest

Right: A solitary palm tree blends into the lush forest of Nuraga Bhumi's Wildlife Sanctuary

With a dozen freshly planted trees behind us, we head off to the most anticipated spot of our trek: Nuraga Bhumi’s wildlife sanctuary. Without their interference, the land would have been sold to a corporation and turned into a palm oil plantation. The three streams that form the natural borders of the sanctuary, would have dried up in the process.

Protecting what is left, is one of the pillars of Nuraga Bhumi’s mission. In this particularly lush and dense part of the forest, creating a safe space is essential to maintain the richness and abundance of life. “We found tiger footprints in this area”, Nayla reveals. Although the chances of seeing one are extremely low, my excitement tricks me into vigorously scanning every movement and sound.

As we embark on a steep descent, scrambling in between vegetation and a tangle of tree roots, the sound of water dawns upon us. A slow moving river appears on our left-hand side and an idyllic waterfall on our right. The air is thick with joy as we take a dip in the pond. Life feels extra vibrant in Nuraga Bhumi’s wildlife sanctuary. It’s a place where rivers flow, trees grow and tigers roam.

Dwi and Devi hope to build Nuraga Bhumi's new education centre here in Timbang Lawan

The next step is building an own education center. Every week children from Timbang Lawan attend the ‘Caring for the Earth’ class. Through indoor and outdoor activities, Nayla, Devi and Dwi teach them about the forest, the animals, the impact of climate change and ways to protect the ecosystem.


Upon our return from the jungle, we join over twenty kids in an improvised yet cosy class room above Darma’s garage. The level of decibels is proportionally high to the degree of enthusiasm. “We believe in raising protectors”, Nayla says. Devi, once a student in Nayla’s class, is living proof that education holds the potential to change lives for the better. Moreover, her story exemplifies the power of diversifying and indigenising the conservation space.

Amidst the rice paddies, in the heart of Timbang Lawan, Nayla found the perfect place for Nuraga Bhumi’s education center. Once renovated, it allows for more children to learn in a safe, stimulating environment.

And as Devi brings the forest into their lives, they too will find their future.

Find out more about Nuraga Bhumi Institute on their website and Instagram. You can support their work and new education center by donating here.


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