For my MSc thesis on the certification of small oil palm farmers, I travelled to Indonesia earlier this year. My research area was in Sumatra, close to Tesso Nilo National Park. There, I found a puzzle of environmental conservation and social justice issues. My Wageningen education was of great help to better understand these issues.
Once, Sumatra’s forests covered twice the surface area of the Netherlands. Now, I could drive on for hours and never leave the plantations. Tesso Nilo National Park is like an island of hardly 100.000 ha in an ocean of plantations and human settlements. Many species whose habitat is dramatically shrinking have found shelter in Tesso Nilo. But the park is not a shrine: in ten years, 1/3 of the park's original size has been cut down, burned or damaged to illegally grow oil palm or to make space for human settlements. One driver of encroachment is population growth, which puts ever more pressure on the natural environment.
In 2013, even Harrison Ford embraced the park's cause. In that, he insulted the Indonesian Minister of Forestry for not preventing the area's destruction. Being not half as powerful as Ford, I decided to hold my grit and listen. Local politicians and village leaders who accepted to meet me, believe that Western countries, not them, should be stewards of the park. Many farmers consider the encirclement of the area as expropriation: they have been outlawed from the land nearby where they lived. In essence, local people would love to cut down more of the forest, as it is ‘their own right’ to use the land of their forefathers. Many admitted the importance of preserving the forest cover — but not in their backyard!
It's called 'NIMBY' (Not In My Backyard) when people are unfavourable to the implementation of sustainable measures such as solar power or windmills in their surroundings, because they fear change or excessive costs. Western people often ‘go NIMBY’: advocating change, but always elsewhere. But all people want a good life... So can we really ask small Indonesian farmers to be 'less greedy' for the sake of 'the environment'?
I still believe that nature conservation is a human duty and a human right for present and future generations. But it would be so much better if everyone started in Their Own Backyard...