Almost all orangutan habitat overlaps with community lands that have been cultivated and managed for centuries, if not millennia. Involving local people in protecting orangutans is essential for social justice, but also necessary because of their constant presence, the high costs of excluding them and their impressive knowledge and effectiveness as conservationists in their own right.
Globally, forest-edge communities have been economically marginalized and disadvantaged. They often have to pursue their own interests in ways that do not support conservation in order to support themselves and advance their own development. Where community interests are in conflict with conservation activities, interventions are unlikely to succeed. However, when we can ally them with conservation goals, communities can be highly effective and efficient at protecting biodiversity and ecosystems. Creating the conditions in which local communities benefit from conservation outcomes is therefore the most reliable, and perhaps the only realistic approach to conservation in orangutan (and many other) landscapes.
Engaging with communities in Indonesia requires a deep understanding of their situation, their culture and their relationship with land and biodiversity. Environmental anthropologists can document local knowledge, social dynamics and attitudes to biodiversity, and are uniquely positioned to act as bridges between conservation agencies and local populations. We use this local expertise to ensure the genuine participation and representation of communities in culturally sensitive and locally-appropriate ways, building robust partnerships on the ground that respect and benefit all parties.