“Take a look at our beautiful country. Indonesia is so naturally rich with its immense forests and wildlife. We have to protect our environment, it’s a gem,” declares Nurdiana Darus. As Director for Southeast Asia of the Rainforest Alliance, Nurdiana leads a diverse team in creating and implementing a strategic plan to grow the NGO’s footprint in the region, especially in the palm oil sector.
“Remember that we used to call our country the ‘Emerald of the Equator’?” says Nurdiana. “We don’t hear that phrase so often nowadays, right? We need to be able to speak again about Indonesia being the Emerald of the Equator. We need to be prouder of our natural assets.”
Nurdiana graduated cum laude from the University of Oklahoma and earned a Master’s of Science in Information System Technology from George Washington University. She has more than 20 years’ experience in strategic management and programme implementation. She was previously Executive Director of Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), where she worked with more than 30 partners, government officials and international stakeholders on sustainable palm oil production and sourcing projects. In this role, she worked to increase engagement of smallholder farms, local communities and indigenous people throughout Indonesia.
Prior to her role with IPOP, Nurdiana worked with the REDD+ Agency as Deputy Minister of Technology, Systems and Monitoring, and was a senior advisor to the United Nations. She has also held leadership roles with Fortune 500 companies such as Accenture, the world’s largest consulting firm, where she worked for 16 years.
“We focus heavily on how we can improve their productivity and livelihoods,” Nurdiana says of the farmers the Rainforest Alliance works with. “We want to get smallholders ready for sustainability certification. Of course, certification itself is not a one-time deal. It’s a milestone. We need to continuously upgrade the operations of smallholder farmers. We don’t just give them some training and then says goodbye. We continue working with them after they gain certification.
“We are engaging with other organisations, such as AMAN (Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago) and the Samdhana Institute to introduce the concept of community forestry enterprises. We are engaging communities in the forest to become business entrepreneurs, to make use of what’s in the forest as an income. But we are doing it sustainably, so it’s really interesting work. We’re not hurting the forest by exploiting its resources, but actually protecting it. Because when you rely on the forest to make an income, it’s in your interest to protect it. You want to sustain it so that you can prosper in the future.”
What made Nurdiana decide to join the Rainforest Alliance? “I wanted to learn more and the Rainforest Alliance is a big environmental non-profit organization,” she replies. “The frog, our icon, is very well known in Europe and North America. It’s not yet well-known in Indonesia or in Asia. That’s the challenge we face: how to increase brand awareness of the Rainforest Alliance, how to increase awareness of sustainability, and how to spread the love for the forests and the environment.
“I know that this job will be a great learning curve for me. One thing that really attracted about joining the Rainforest Alliance that it covers not only the forests, but also agriculture as well. We cover the coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil and pulp and paper industries. I think it’s great to have that knowledge, because then you can see the dots that connect agriculture and forestry. Our goal is to conserve our biodiversity and, of course, we want to stop deforestation in Southeast Asia. Much of our deforestation comes from poor agricultural practices.
“We need to understand the dynamics of the different crops and how they relate to forestry. Then we could see how we could actually intervene and put in place programmes that could hopefully bring an end to deforestation. But we also want to improve the livelihoods of the small farmers as well. At the end of the day, it’s about the farmers as well as the forests.”
Nurdiana talks excitedly about her NGO’s latest projects. “We are just launching an exchange programme for seven indigenous communities in Indonesia,” she says. “We will take two to three people from each community to Guatemala, where we have been working for 20 years. The community forestry enterprises programme project is about building entrepreneurship.
“The farmers taking part in the programme will learn from what they see and experience in Guatemala. They will be able to see other communities that live in rich tropical forests and are actually making a good living there. Introducing palm oil and other commodities that are not indigenous have an impact on the forest. What we want is for them to go back to the forest and make use of it sustainably, but to also increase their livelihood. It’s been done in Guatemala and if they can do it, I believe we can do it also. I think the Guatemalans will also learn from the exchange programme.”
How has Nurdiana’s environmental work played a role in her everyday life? “I have changed a lot and it’s not just myself, but also my children,” she smiles. “I’ve grown to only use refill products. I print on both sides of paper. I have also started being conscious about my usage of tissue paper, because it comes from the forest. As much as possible, I use Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified tissue paper.
“What I’m really proud of is how my work has affected my children. I have 10-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. In February last year, my daughter was asked by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to teach high school students how to make recycled bags out of old t-shirts. My son turns old toothpaste boxes into pencil cases and takes them to school. They have also become conscious about the amount of water they use to shower and brush their teeth. I think it’s necessary to set a good example for our children, because it’s their generation that will be able to a lot more good things in the future.”
What is the biggest environmental issue we face, in Nurdiana’s view? “No doubt deforestation is the biggest problem,” she replies. “But I think one issue that is also possibly not being spoken enough about is soil quality. Our farmers are often working with soil that has been affected by pesticides, making it difficult to grow produce. How do you rehabilitate the soil? That’s the question we face. Would you introduce new chemicals into it? Maybe not. We need to replant or to put organic nutriments back into the soil so that it could rejuvenate itself and become more fertile and productive. If the soil were extremely productive, our farmers could produce optimum yields. Then they would not need to encroach on the forests in search of better land.”
How do you define a good sustainability programme? “It’s one that puts the people first,” says Nurdiana. “When we teach people to become more aware of their actions, then we will see improvements in the environment. To save the planet, we need to educate people. To protect the environment, we first have to change mindsets.”
The feature has been published in Prestige April 2017, The Green Issue. Click here to purchase.