#TakeoverTuesday: Farwiza Farhan

We covered women in conservation, the power of citizen lawsuits and mental health in July's social media takeover.

Farwiza Farhan won her Whitley Award in 2016, and went on to receive Continuation Funding in 2019 for her work to conserve the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra; an extraordinary rainforest landscape recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in Danger.

The Leuser Ecosystem is the only remaining place on earth where orangutan, elephant, rhino and tiger still coexist; a real life Jungle Book. It provides vital natural services to the four million people living around it, as well as to the planet. Despite this, the forest is under threat from logging, expanding agriculture and development.

We caught up with Farwiza for our July #TakeoverTuesday to hear more about this unique place and what her NGO, HAkA, are doing to protect it. In addition to reading the Q&A below, you can rewatch our live chat covering women in conservation, the power of citizen lawsuits and mental health.

Next month we’ll be joined by 2019 Whitley Award winner and Chaco Eagle champion José Sarasola from Argentina, on Tuesday 25th August across WFN’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Q1. What inspired you to pursue a career in conservation?

The idea that we live in a beautiful planet and are systematically destroying it. I actually fell in love with nature through a screen, watching BBC Blue Planet narrated by WFN Trustee, Sir David Attenborough – there I saw the beauty of the underwater world, and decided to study it. In the process, I learnt about the destruction of this ecosystem that we barely understand yet. That realisation flicked a switch in me. We must do something.

Q2. What was your first experience in the Leuser Ecosystem like?

My first ever visit was in 2010. The air was humid and hot, as if the rain that fell that morning was evaporating in a steamer. The climb was arduous and, as a city girl, I hadn’t been exposed to the jungle in a long time. I was wearing breathable running shoes with holes in them and saw these little creatures – leeches – scattered on the forest floor. I freaked out as I started noticing them on leaves, on trees, everywhere! But suddenly someone nudged me. “Look up” he said. And there she was: a mother orangutan and her baby, swinging in our direction. She stopped, observed us and let her baby play. I was mesmerised and thought “This is it. This is why Leuser is special. This is why I will join the force to protect this landscape.” That encounter was something. I can’t even describe it. It paved my path into conservation.

Q3. What do you love most about the Leuser Ecosystem?

You know, out of all the incredible wildlife living in Leuser, and all the ecosystem services that it provides, when we’re stuck indoors in quarantine like this all I can think of is being back in the jungle, bathing in the river and listening to morning calls of the siamang. I love the diversity of this landscape so much: the species, the ecosystem and the people.

Q4. What is the main threat facing the Leuser Ecosystem?

It could be distilled into two factors; poorly designed policy, and weak law enforcement. Leuser is home to a large array of species, many of them critically endangered and this landscape is their last hope. But at the same time, many human communities living within and around this ecosystem are still experiencing poverty. The government’s plan to lift people out of poverty is often reliant on the outdated theory that once we gain economic prosperity, everything else can be fixed later. In reality, this approach has resulted in rampant environmental destruction that leads to natural disasters, which play a significant role in undoing any development.

Q5. Why is it so important that we protect the Leuser Ecosystem?

I am writing this as we surpass three months in lockdown. It is as though nature has given us a time out, forcing us to sit in a corner and think about what we, as a collective, have done. COVID-19 can be traced back to how we interact with nature. As habitat shrinks and fragments, and we take advantage of other animals as food, medicine and pets, the chance for a virus to jump into the human population increases. Protecting species and habitats is important on so many levels: to protect us from the terrible things like zoonotic diseases and the catastrophic impact of climate change, but also for human wellbeing. As the memes would say “there’s no planet b”. We have to protect what we’ve got.

Q6. What is the project achievement you’re most proud of so far?

Looking back, I am extremely grateful to have done everything in my power to create the change I want to see in this world. If I had to pin down my proudest achievement, it would be the strength of our partnerships with communities, other organisations working in Leuser, and within the team itself. When I look at everything we’ve done, it’s clear that none of it would have been possible alone.

Q7. What is the biggest challenge you are facing right now?

For Leuser, the biggest challenge is making conservation integral to economic success rather than a barrier to poverty alleviation. In developing country like Indonesia, conservation is still seen as a privilege only the wealthy can afford. For my NGO, Yayasan HAkA, the biggest challenge is securing long term financial sustainability, enough staff to continue conservation work, strengthened environmental policies, and community livelihoods.

Q8. How has your relationship with wfn impacted you and your project?

Winning the 2016 Whitley Award and 2019 Continuation Funding has not only amplified the importance of conservation of the Leuser Ecosystem, but also significantly expanded our network, allowing us, as a local NGO, to gain insight and collaborate with fellow award winners all over the world.

Q9. How has/is COVID-19 affecting you and your project?

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted on our work with communities, empowering people living in and around Leuser to have a say in its future through citizen lawsuits that stop illegal destruction. But the team has used this time to improve internal systems and communications.

Q10. Describe a normal day for you…

My ideal start to the day would be a short mindfulness meditation followed by some exercise. Yet often, especially during lockdown, I wake up and jump straight into meetings with partners across the planet; we collaborate across various time zones and that often means late nights and early mornings. Every day I gather updates from my team while being available to troubleshoot issues, and at the same time provide strategic direction on goals we’re striving towards.

Q11. What can the public do to help your mission?

I would love to see conservation becoming mainstream. And the public can play a major role in making this happen. On an organisational level, Yayasan HAkA has proved that when the public support our mission, we become stronger together. The easiest way to do this is by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to learn about what we do in the Leuser Ecosystem. Take that knowledge and tell your circle. Discuss it round a dinner table. Share it over coffee with friends. Trust that this makes a difference, because it does. I hope that, through amplifying our work, more and more people will recognise the value of this environment and take action to conserve it.

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