How a group of women wanted to change the fate of the forest

A story on the origins of the Damaran Baru Forest Protectors

A lot of species relies on the presence of trees. In 2016, the inhabitants of Damaran Baru, a small village in the Bener Meriah District of the Aceh Province, found out that these species include humans as well. During heavy rainfall, a flash flood swept away 11 houses. The people of Damaran Baru had to evacuate to higher areas to save their own lives. 

Landslides and flash floods like the one described above are not uncommon in the Leuser Ecosystem. As a result of (illegal) logging and forest clearances, the mitigating effect of trees on rainwater has disappeared. Heavy rainfall could easily lead to another flash flood. The women in Damaran Baru were the first to acknowledge the need for a healthy rainforest to safeguard their own lives. 

The specific forest they rely upon is part of the Leuser Ecosystem, and it is legally recognised as a National Strategic Area for its environmental protection functions. The protection and conservation of these 2.6 million hectares of forest is crucial to a healthy future for all life in Aceh. But with vast, pristine and remote areas of rainforest and other hard-to-access terrains, it is incredibly hard to keep an eye on the entire area. To further complicate the matter, some local villagers (including people from Damaran Baru) are involved in illegal forestry activities as a way to make a living. Despite their harmless intentions, the implications of their actions could be destructive to the broader community. Still, local communities can play a key role as guardians of the forest, as the case of Damaran Baru will show. 

Like most women around the world, the women of Damaran Baru tend to play a caregiver role in the households and the village. With the loss of trees in the areas around their villages, they noticed changes in the water regime. They have witnessed first-hand what these changes could do to their life and livelihood and decided to take matter into their own hands to ensure that the forest (and their livelihood) is protected. The journey they embarked on to achieve this ambitious goal greatly shows their perseverance and dedication. But as with most ambitious goals, it takes the overcoming of a few hurdles to reach it. Convincing people who engaged in illegal logging and encroachment was the first crucial step for these female forest protectors. The next hurdle was an even bigger one. Even with the entire village rooting for the forest, ownership is murky, making it somewhat illegal actually do things like patrolling the forest. As the forest belongs to the Indonesian state, the management is also in the hands of the government. Fortunately, the villagers, along with HAkA, found a pathway to gain “ownership” and management rights over the forest in Damaran Baru. 

As a civil society organisation, HAkA carries a mandate to strengthen the role of local communities in the decision making about “their” forest and livelihoods. In the case of the Damaran Baru community, HAkA helped the villagers to get a voice in the local management of the forest. With HAkA narrowing the gap between the local and the national, the government and the villagers soon became aware of the synergy of a potential collaboration, in which the forest would be the third benefitting party. If the villagers managed the neighbouring forest sustainably, its biodiversity would be safeguarded and the village would be protected against environmental hazards. This could all be done without government intervention. 

In November 2019, Damaran Baru Village obtained a Village Forest permit from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. This permit gives the villagers the right to manage an area of around 200 hectares of Protected Forest near their home. The women who initially shone light on the issue also were the first to make use of the permit. Since 2018, they have been planting plenty of trees and started cultivating crops like coffee and tempeh to make a living. In a sustainable way of course. Recently, the power women of Damaran Baru took protecting their forest to the next level with the formation of a female ranger unit. This team will patrol the area around the village and report illegal activities to the authorities. Furthermore, they will also obtain valuable biodiversity data. And while they’re on the job, they’re making a bold statement: being a ranger is not an only-for-men job!

Women-led initiative to protect the forest near Damaran Baru Village (Photo Credit: Manuel Bergmann)

Written by: Ruben Hoekstra (Future for Nature Academy –

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