Beliefs and Biodiversity: Rediscovering Religion and Conservation in Sumatra

By Jeanne E. McKay
Ravenswood Media Newsletter
November 2010, Issue #11

Several hours after leaving the oppressive heat and congestion of the West Sumatran capital of Padang, we reach Guguak Malalo. I am immediately struck by the refreshing climate and calming influence of the dense tropical vegetation surrounding me. Sitting in the shade provided by a strangling fig tree, I reflect upon this often overlooked benefit that ecosystem services provide us as well as the many others such as clean water, a crucial yet dwindling resource now facing humanity. The big challenge for conservation is to make it relevant to the lives of local people and I believe this project has a chance of doing that.

West Sumatra still contains some of the most pristine rainforest in Indonesia and a watershed that services more than a million people. It is also home to the indigenous Minangkabau (or Minang) ethnic group.

Strongly Islamic, the Minang have a rich heritage of religious and cultural traditions, or adat which still have a strong influence on daily life. Guguak Malalo is one of three sites where the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) is implementing a faith-based community conservation programme. It is funded by the British Government's Darwin Initiative (DI) programme, through a three-year project entitled 'Integrating religion with conservation: Islamic beliefs and Sumatran forest management'. The project has just entered its second year.

Our partners are excited about this innovative project that promotes conservation in the context of Minang culture and Islamic teachings. The initial DI scoping trip in 2008 found that local people immediately connected with the concept and gave it their overwhelming support. It is one of the few projects to integrate conservation and Islam anywhere in the world. Local partner Fachruddin Mangunjaya from Conservational International-Indonesia says, "There is no guarantee that conservation awareness will grow and people's behavior changed without any effort to move people's hearts and minds. Hearts and minds can only be touched by religion, or what they believe."

There are several key principles in the Al-Qur'an that underpin conservation and outline the human role in conserving natural resources and ecosystem services. The DI project is supporting local partners to incorporate these principles into conservation action. Three land-use systems directly apply Islamic principles within conservation:

1. Hima - management zones established for sustainable natural resource use;
2. Harim - inviolable sanctuaries used for protecting water resources and their services;
3. Ihya Al-Mawat - reviving neglected land to become productive.

We are concentrating our efforts on strengthening and integrating these religious management systems through mapping of land and forest uses. The management systems are now protecting the forest through joint community/Dept. Forestry patrols (Hima), conducting outreach focusing on ecosystem management (Harim) and creating tree nurseries to reforest degraded lands (Ihya Al-Mawat).

With support from the British Council, Fauna and Flora International and the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, the project is working to implement faith-based conservation activities within state and Islamic boarding schools in Padang and within project field sites. It's also working with the provincial government to develop teaching materials for a conservation-themed Ramadan curriculum. We have already seen some positive results. A recent survey of teachers and Ulamas (religious leaders) revealed that those understanding ecosystem services rose from 50% to 92% after the training, whereas those who understood the Islamic systems for natural resource management rose from 0% to 100%.

The project has collaborated with the Center of Irrigation, Land and Water Resources, and the University of Andalas to provide full scholarships for two Minangkabau students. The students will conduct research on the interaction among adat, the state and Islamic law on forest management systems. They will also investigate the role of religious leaders within our DI project sites. Although, publications are produced with a West Sumatran focus, the project hopes that the lessons learned here will serve as a catalyst for similar conservation work across Indonesia and the rest of the Muslim world.

Jeanne McKay trained in International Studies, specializing in community development and sustainable resource use in Latin America and later in Conservation Biology at DICE. Working for the IUCN/SSC Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force (DAPTF) as the International Coordinator and as a consultant to Conservation International(CI), she was responsible for developing global amphibian conservation strategies. At DICE, Jeanne worked as a Research Associate continuing her work with CI to develop and launch the IUCN/SSC Amphibian Specialist Group before becoming a Darwin Initiative Project officer in Indonesia where she now lives.