“I hope to make people remember all that the forest has given us, and that it is our responsibility to protect it.”
Mariamah “Mayi” Achmad, based in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, is the Palung Foundation’s Coordinator for Environment Awareness Education, and runs the organization Sekolah Lahan Gambut, or Peatlands School. She has a degree in forest management, and works to educate rural villagers about protecting biodiversity.
What moved you to become an activist?
I grew up in a beautiful rural village with a long river and many mangrove trees. The forest provided my family and the people in my village with food, work, and fresh water. In those days my brother worked as a logger. When the government outlawed logging, I felt angry because I felt our livelihood was being stolen. But I realized that the real problem was that multinational companies were being allowed to control large areas and use the land for themselves. My brother could not cut down a tree, but a logging company came to my village, cut down mangrove trees to make charcoal and destroyed the mangrove swamps by farming shrimp. I took a degree in forest management because I felt there was not enough understanding about how to manage the forest and our natural resources. It is like the forest called me.
How serious are Indonesia’s current deforestation problems?
Indonesia suffers as a result of global warming, but at the same time we have become one of the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide. Hundreds of thousands of forest fires burn here each year, many started deliberately to clear land for agriculture, particularly palm oil plantations. Our peat swamp forests, which hold huge quantities of old carbon dioxide, have been cleared and drained and the peat is very flammable, especially in dry season. When peat catches fire, it can smolder underground and only rain can really put out the fires. Pesticide and fertilizer use and mining activities—both legal and illegal—have polluted the rivers. In 2013, the entire region of Kalimantan [in Indonesia] was named among the world's 10 most polluted places.
How does this affect the people?
The dense smoke from the burning forests can cause asthma, bronchitis, heart disease and lung cancer, and especially affects rural people who live near palm oil plantations. These communities also lack access to good health care and education. In urban areas there are campaigns teaching people how to deal with smog, but my team and I have been to smoky rural areas where community members, including children, were just going about daily activities and not even using masks. I have colleagues who have documented reproductive problems in women as a result of polluted water. There is a social cost, too. With the loss of the forest, the community loses its livelihood. In the past, the forest provided everything people needed for free. Now they must pay, which means they must get jobs, usually at the palm oil plantations—where the hours are long, and pay is low.
What does your organization, Sekolah Lahan Gambut, do to combat this reality?
Most of our members are young women. We train them to become campaigners—to remind rural people how important the forest is, why it is being lost, and what they can do to help. We work in schools, using techniques like storytelling and puppet shows, to educate students about the importance of the rainforest and peat forest, mangrove swamps and biodiversity in general. I take students on field trips to the forest, an area that is also habitat for the endangered orangutan. We also run media campaigns and have created a website and radio programs to spread this message.
What needs to happen?
We must pressure the government to uphold their decision to revoke use permits to the companies that burn forests. We need to pressure them to stop opening the peat lands, and ensure reforestation in areas that have been cleared or burned. Government policies must support communities, not companies. I hope to make people remember all that the forest has given us, and that it is our responsibility to protect it.