Why chocolate is good for conservation

The Critically Endangered Sumatran rhinoceros is one of the most threatened mammal species in the world. The main, viable Sumatran rhino population is spread across three major parks in Indonesia: Gunung Leuser, Bukit Barisan Selatan (BBS) and Way Kambas (WK). These Parks contain some of the most critical remaining tropical forest habitats in Indonesia. Each is also under extreme threat – up to 30% of their area has already been lost to illegal encroachment and conversion of land for agriculture.

Through Yayasan Badak Indonesia, the International Rhino Foundation funds and operates Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) in WK and BBS, to prevent poaching and encroachment, and to monitor and protect threatened species and the overall habitat. The RPU programme has essentially helped put a halt to rhino poaching in these Parks. But, as successful as this programme is, preventative measures to halt poaching alone will not be enough to save Sumatran rhinos.

If we are unable to reverse ever-increasing habitat encroachment, then Sumatran rhinos will no longer have enough space in which to forage and breed. With park authorities, the RPUs work to deter encroachment through law enforcement. But, by also offering positive incentives to local communities to halt encroachment, we hope to guarantee that suitable habitat will be available to Sumatran rhinos far into the future.

Local communities in the area around BBS have farmed coffee in extensive plantations for some time. Because world coffee prices have been low for many years, and because coffee tends to deplete the soil quickly, leading to decreased productivity, farmers have been forced to continuously expand their coffee plantations just to maintain their current levels of income. These expansions have resulted in increased encroachment and habitat destruction in the Park.                   

RPU community conservation programme                                       RPU Community conservation - Credit Kim Sevier

In 2005, the RPUs and park authorities began providing agricultural extension and training to farmer groups from villages in Park buffer areas to improve incomes and to promote sustainable agriculture that does not necessitate encroachment, expansion, or negative environmental practices. Local people in villages surrounding the Park are particularly interested in developing more sustainable agricultural crops– for example, cacao (from which cocoa solids and cocoa butter are extracted), which has high yields and brings high prices. We are also interested in promoting cacao production, because it is more environmentally-friendly than coffee. Cacao does not require land clearing or irrigation, and can be grown as part of a mixed natural forest system in Park buffer areas.

For the past several years, the BBS National Park Authority has undertaken a development programme, primarily focused on cacao production, for local villages within the Park’s buffer zone. RPU members have assisted with this effort, volunteering their personal time. To date, over 1,000 families from 18 villages have been trained (including several ex-poachers). Farmers participating in the programme receive cacao seedlings, and training on planting and care of trees, integrated pest management, harvesting, and marketing. In return, they sign a pledge not to encroach in Park areas, and provide intelligence to the RPUs regarding illegal activities.

In some areas, encroachment has already decreased by as much as 60%, and – a first for Indonesia – farmers turned over 90 illegal guns to the RPUs and police. 15 farmers are now actively volunteering with the RPUs as informants and providing information on potential poaching and encroachment activities. And, an evaluation of two farmer groups in 2008 showed that after participating in the training over the course of three years, average family income had increased by 30-50%. With increased income, the need for incursions into the forest to hunt wildlife decreases. All of these activities are a “win-win” situation, combining to protect the Sumatran rhino and its ecosystem more effectively and efficiently and to improve people’s livelihoods.

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, Autumn 2010. Author: Maggie Moore, Development Officer, International Rhino Foundation)