Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Agusdin: Protector of E. Kalimantan forests

Agusdin: Protector of E. Kalimantan forests
By Nurni Sulaiman, The Jakarta Post, Balikpapan

Agusdin speaks at length and in great detail about forests and their biological diversity, and becomes more impassioned when it comes to the Sungai Wain Forest Reserve in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, a 9,872.80-hectare conservation area.

It was Agusdin who spearheaded action to prevent the primary rain forest’s total devastation when it was engulfed in flames from 1997 to 1998. It was the most widespread forest fire during the worst drought of the period, which triggered blazes in coal deposits.

Agusdin, acting as community facilitator and coordinator in the Sungai Wain fire-fighting drive, managed with the aid of locals to block the fire’s advance for three months until it was finally extinguished, minimizing damage and saving 4,000 ha of the reserve from destruction.

From 1999 to 2002, Agusdin coordinated local villagers and nature-lover groups to build fire barriers along 32 kilometers of the reserve’s borders and to maintain their vigilance against fires, so they would not spread to undamaged forest areas.

With his active campaigns for forest conservation over the last 11 years, Agusdin has deservedly been dubbed the region’s environmental savior and forest protector.

Using simple tools like a dagger, hoe and compass, Agusdin was prepared to spend three weeks in 1998 at Sungai Wain to combat the fire, leaving his family behind to go on this rescue mission.

This was not part of his job description as orangutan monitoring technical coordinator, a post he held with the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) until 1999 for a monthly salary of only Rp 250,000 (US$25); he did it voluntarily, expecting no reward.

Although half of Sungai Wain was already razed by the raging fire, Agusdin energetically led the surrounding community for four years to extinguish the burning coal deposits with additional implements like spades, long hooks and water pumps. During that period, 71 of 80 coal “hot spots” were put out and eight others doused by rainwater, which left only one blazing at a depth of 9 meters.

He said this spot could not be extinguished manually, and that it had to be placed under constant surveillance, particularly during the dry season.

Illegal logging and poaching were rife in Sungai Wain until 2002. Agusdin, armed with his determination and courage, reported the illegal activities to the Balikpapan Forestry office. Along with Balikpapan rangers, he helped capture several poachers.

But the poachers remained undeterred, so at the end of 2001 Agusdin took the initiative to spike trees with the help of local residents.

Apart from contributing his time and efforts to conservation, Agusdin was also prepared to cover the costs — pending funds disbursement — of monitoring, hot spot control, illegal logging raids, fire-fighting, building fire barriers and tree spiking.

“Ridding the forest of fire and crime is very important,” he stressed.

Amid his ardent forest conservation efforts, he acknowledged the psychological pressure he received through intimidation tactics by poachers and illegal loggers.

“But I don’t care about the intimidation and threats to stop capturing poachers. Some illegal loggers even vainly tried to bribe me,” Agusdin said.

Worse still, his life was once threatened when several thugs wielding knives chased him during a raid on poachers. But he faced the challenge without cringing.

“I was nearly killed when local farmers got furious after their crops were ravaged by Sungai Wain’s protected bears. A row with villagers resulting from a misunderstanding over forest conservation led to a brawl, which is an unforgettable experience,” he recalled about his early attempts to protect the reserve.

Agusdin worked as general administrative staffer of the Mof-Tropenbos Kalimantan program from 1999-2002.

His responsibilities conformed to his passion for forest conservation from 2002-2004, when he served as coordinator of a security unit of the Sungai Wain Forest Reserve. Agusdin has headed the forest conservation and protection division since 2005.

Agusdin received the Kalpataru environment award for his achievements and tireless dedication as forest protector at the State Palace on June 12, 2006.

He was also bestowed various awards by the mayor and the regional environmental control office of Balikpapan. At his house, located not far from Sungai Wain, a large photograph of the Kalpataru conferment by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is displayed.

Agusdin has also contributed to the shooting of a documentary, /Orangutans with Julia Roberts/, in Sungai Wain. The forest has been the site of BOSF’s orangutan releases since 1992.

Other rare wildlife species that live in the reserve include the Malay bear — locally called /beruang madu/ (honey bear, /Helarctos Malayanus/), besides numerous species of vegetation.

Not long ago, the bear was declared the mascot of Balikpapan City.

Today, about a year after Agusdin’s return from the State Palace, illegal forest activities persist. But his forest conservation performance has not diminished with the receipt of the Kalpataru award.

Instead, his conservation activities have increased, as the fire barriers he helped build are getting more extensive due to stubborn illegal logging. It is believed also that illegal mining operations are underway in Sungai Wain.

At present, Agusdin and relevant authorities are hunting down suspects and launching raids to catch the perpetrators red handed.

“This forest is like my second home. Its rescue mission will never end,” he said.