Panut Hadisiswoyo

Ashoka Fellow
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Fellow Since 2013
This description of Panut Hadisiswoyo's work was prepared when Panut Hadisiswoyo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013 .


Mount Leuser National Park, one of the largest national parks in the world, is also one of its most resource-diverse ecosystems. Panut Hadisiswoyo is developing a community-integrated approach to park management and conservation by bringing local communities to the frontline of park management in Indonesia.

The New Idea

Panut promotes public awareness to halt deforestation in one of the largest national parks in the world through grassroots educational programs and by empowering local communities living near the last remaining orangutan habitat to work toward a more sustainable future for the forests. With other organizations in North Sumatra, Panut has set up new regulations on mitigation of human-wildlife conflict. With his holistic approach, Panut’s organization, Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), has gained the trust of the Ministry of Forestry, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and local government to work with the communities living near the park.

Panut has developed early detection systems to resolve human-wildlife conflict, such as crop raiding, before it can be felt in the national park. Through environmental curriculum development, Panut has partnered with over 300 schools, reached more than 15,000 students and engaged them in conservation camps run by the schools. He has also started joint community ranger and park ranger patrols to secure the vast lands of the national park.

Panut has shifted park management practices for national parks in Indonesia by creating broad-based partnerships that complement and build on the limited capabilities of the local park authority. He partners with the community around Mount Leuser National Park on forest restoration in a positive example for other park authorities and citizen organizations (COs) to improve their national park management, and is working with the Ministry of Agriculture to expand his model to the management of national parks in Sumatra.

The Problem

As one of the largest national parks in the world, Mount Leuser National Park is a conglomeration of several smaller nature reserves and forests covering 1,094,692 hectares of land. This land serves the ecosystem for at least 4 million people residing near the park. The park conserves a variety of habitats, including mountainous terrain, swamps, beach forests, lowland rainforest, and alpine forest. This variety allows for enormous biodiversity, with nearly 8,500 plant species and 700 animal species residing in the park, including the critically endangered two-horned Sumatran rhinoceros and the Sumatran orangutan.

Like many national parks, its habitats are threatened by human activities. One of the biggest threats to this particular national park is deforestation, which occurs to make way for agriculture and plantations, the main crops being palm oil and rubber trees. Moreover, there is a lack of understanding of the park’s policies.

Increasing the importance of mitigating these issues is the fact that the Gunung Leuser National Park is one of the last refuges for the Sumatran orangutan. It is estimated that less than 7,000 members of this species are in the wild. The Indonesian government allocated US$2.5 million to manage the park, but there is little evidence of this impact on the ground.

When actions are taken to address the parks issues, organizations tend to focus on a particular species without consideration for the people in and around the area, or specific areas within the national park; an approach favored by most donors. For example, an organization working only on orangutan survival will focus on “rescuing” the orangutans they find in the villages and take them to a rehabilitation center. There are many similar activities run by different local COs; however, they are spread across various “buffer zone” areas, leading to mismatched priorities and an unintegrated approach.

The most serious consequence of deforestation is the loss of biodiversity—the extinction of thousands of species and varieties of plants and animals—many of which have never been catalogued. People in small villages surrounding Gunung Leuser National Park often have few livelihood options, other than logging (both legal and illegal), poaching, or a job on an agricultural plantation. Unclear boundaries and terms of public land use, has further exacerbated deforestation and poverty in Indonesia, even within protected areas, such as Gunung Leuser National Park. Since the local community has been disregarded as decision-makers and are often seen as intruders, they do not have a sense of ownership in protecting the forest.

Sumatran orangutans and other wild animals living in the national park are critically endangered due to ongoing deforestation and degradation of their rainforest habitats. As the rainforest is increasingly converted for cultivation, the frequency of human-wildlife conflict such as crop raiding increases. The animals utilize the crops as food resources in communities adjacent to the national park. Traditional park management has failed to address this issue because they only focus on the flora and fauna of the park, and not the people living in the surrounding area. The business sector has made the conditions even worse. Local palm oil entrepreneurs are trying to make incursions into the park, illegal logging has continued, and trade in exotic animals has increased, threatening not only the wild animals in the park, but peoples’ livelihoods around it.

The Strategy

In 2005, Panut’s Orangutan Information Centre was granted permission by the park authority to restore 500 hectares of degraded land inside the park. This began when the national park authority with support from OIC and other COs stopped the palm oil plantation illegally operated inside the park, by two palm oil production companies. In close collaboration with local communities, Panut has led the restoration of the land, planting over 580,000 indigenous tree seedlings to repair damage caused through the illegal palm oil plantations. The restoration project has social as well as environmental benefits, offering local people a way to support their families while preserving and restoring the rainforest. More than 100 farmers have been directly engaged, and the benefits extend to their entire communities. Now local people, before considering purchasing land in the region, inquire about whether the land is within the Gunung Leuser National Park or not. This mindset shift among local communities has definitely impacted the region is positive ways, both in terms of the national park and its wild inhabitants being better protected from any form of clearing. The community is now more aligned with conservation and all encroachment in the Sei Betung Resort, where the OIC restoration site is based, has completely stopped. This has been matched by a marked decline in observed incidents of illegal hunting in the resort.

To sustain local livelihoods, Panut created social and economic opportunities outside the national park, embarking on bespoke training to build the capacity of local communities to make better decisions for their environment. There are now more than ten conservation villages that have several activities, which include a cocoa plantation, agroforestry, biogas, organic farming, ecotourism, a tree nursery, and fish farming. The site has also become an ecotourism attraction for OIC supporters and others from within Indonesia as well as internationally, with overnight tourists staying in village homestays. Increased tourism has buoyed the incomes of local people, but it also has had an impact on village health, as tourism has prompted advances to village sanitation. Also, more than 100 villagers have taken up mixed agroforestry on their farmlands, which will result in increased crop yield and profit; requiring less land to be cleared and managed as farmland.

Panut’s economic development initiative is coupled with educational programs to promote the value of forest ecosystems and the rationale for conservation, thus preventing future conflicts. Through the application of environmental curriculum, he reaches 15,000 students in more than 1,000 schools in the region. Some schools have formed their own “green groups” and actively take part in the reforestation process. OIC also hosts environmental education training sessions for teachers in North Sumatra. This program builds their capacity to communicate environmental lessons in an engaging manner. Using the Sumatran orangutan as a flagship for the Indonesian rainforests and the ecosystem services they provide, youth are inspired to see the value of protecting their environment. By imparting to teachers concepts such as sustainable resource use, the importance of species diversity, ecosystem services, and the plight of the orangutan, Panut cultivates a sense of environmental responsibility among Indonesians.

Several sessions are carried out in an outdoor setting so the participants can use local environmental resources near forest areas for practical learning and nature interpretation skills. A handbook is distributed to teachers to use in their respective schools. Environmental film screenings are also conducted, as this is a very effective method of presenting information, stimulating concern, and prompting action. The films are then distributed to teachers to later use during their lessons, and become part of each school’s library. In addition, nature games and workshops are taught. Panut also implemented The Conservation School Programme, which focuses on students in secondary and senior high schools throughout North Sumatra. Activities include school visits, conservation camps, festivals, and the Conservation Savings Programme, which includes tree nurseries for villages, currently being carried out in the Bukit Barisan Forest Preserve. The Mobile Awareness Unit, or OranguVan, has provided communities with outreach services such as conservation training, discussion forums, a mobile library complete with books, pamphlets, and conservation films, tree seedling distribution, and environmental themed exhibitions. The OIC has been officially entrusted as a conservation authority to develop the environmental education curriculum in schools in North Sumatra by the Governor of North Sumatra province and the Regional Ministry of Education. To make conservation directly relevant to Muslim communities who live around the national park, Panut trained over 150 Islamic scholars to deliver environmental sermons and with numerous resources including his book, Islamic Verses for Conservation, with environmental protection references in the Quran.

Panut has lobbied government agencies to work toward conservation goals and engaged them in conservation-oriented solutions. Through the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit, he has mobilized the government of North Sumatra to take action with the passing of Governor’s decree no. 188.44/536/KPTS/2011. This regulation governs coordination of Human Wildlife Conflict mitigation in North Sumatra province—the first and only province in Indonesia to do this. With this decree, all district governments in North Sumatra province are responsible to address the human-wildlife conflict. The restoration of the natural habitat for the wildlife, minimizing and rehabilitating the forest damage, and controlling the over-usage of flora and fauna are the main conditions to cope with the conflict. Officials from all government levels in the province must play an active role in conservation activities. To follow up on the ground, Panut has partnered with Ashoka Fellow Dr. Sofyan Tan, whose work is on orangutan rehabilitation. He also trains park rangers from surrounding villages, and with them, patrols the national park grounds.

Through empowering communities, Panut hopes to equip local people with the tools and motivation needed for species and habitat conservation. This vision of community-driven species and habitat conservation can be replicated in all landscapes where humans live adjacent to critical ecosystems and biodiversity. OIC has been approached by other national parks from Indonesia and other countries to learn about Panut’s model. This holistic and progressive approach empowers local people regarding the forests, through direct involvement in grassroots conservation action. Panut has eight memorandums of understanding with the national park authority and more with stakeholders who understand that young people, flora and fauna, animals (specifically orangutans), and researchers are connected with each other to ensure the livelihood of the forest and its people.

The Person

Panut was born in 1974 and grew up in a remote village in Deli Serdang District, North Sumatra. His father was a schoolteacher. Panut’s happiest childhood memories were when his father brought him books from school and let him read as many as he wanted. For Panut, these books helped him realize he could do extraordinary things. Panut’s mother was a housewife, but also an entrepreneur, running a small business out of their home. Though illiterate, she encouraged his education for a better future. Panut went to the junior high school in the sub district capital city, a one-hour bicycle ride from his village. His mother also insisted he take English classes only available in Medan, the provincial capital, which took another hour by bus. Panut struggled to finish school since his parents could not afford to pay his tuition fees and living cost. To afford his studies, Panut held many part-time jobs during high school and university. Panut graduated first in his high school class. While finishing university, he founded the first kindergarten in his village, rallying village leaders and youth to transform a decrepit building into a school. Panut then raised the money to pay the teachers, and he became headmaster.

Panut gained extensive experience in community development projects during his participation in the Canada World Youth Cultural Exchange Program, where he first became inspired to work on global environmental issues. After finishing university, he was moved from being a language interpreter on a forest project, to working on a forest project as a researcher in Aceh, where he experienced meeting rebels. Through this job, Panut learned about animal surveys and conservation life. A subsequent series of jobs allowed him to gain experience in project management, finance, and orangutan protection. However, Panut learned that most of these projects did not involve local people.

In 2001 Panut recognized the need for more information and awareness about the plight of the Sumatran orangutan. With support from the Sumatran Orangutan Society, he founded the OIC in Medan, North Sumatra, a fully operational conservation program with support from various national and international organizations. One of his initial partners was Senior Ashoka Fellow Dr. Willie Smits. In 2003 Panut received a scholarship to study in the UK. He considered this a life-changing catalyst, since he was able to achieve personal goals and build a network of support in the UK. In 2007 Panut received another scholarship to study primate conservation in the UK. Realizing that raising awareness was not enough, he shifted to address poverty.

Panut is encouraging a younger generation to learn and care about the environment. Through the scholarship and internship program he created, Panut has opened opportunities for Indonesian university students to study orangutan ecology and conservation. To date, 57 scholarships have been granted to students from Aceh and North Sumatra. The program has enabled them to become key members of the conservation movement and many scholarship winners are working with organizations directly involved in biodiversity and habitat protection. Panut offers a unique opportunity for university students to undergo subsidized job training in the conservation sector.