Female Rangers ‘Don’t Go All Alpha Like the Men’ to Protect a Forest

Riding her motorbike while balancing a backpack, a wok and a sharp cleaver, Asmia expertly maneuvered her way up a dangerous cliffside: a three-mile trip along a precipitous dirt path, barely 40 inches wide, to reach the mouth of the forest.

Asmia is one of the 15 members of a team of rangers — 10 of whom are women — whose job is to protect their village forest in Aceh Province in Indonesia from the squatters who want to clear the trees for timber or to farm the fertile soil.

“Here, we once fought with a squatter, asking him to stop the encroachment,” Asmia said, pointing as she walked beneath the thick canopy of trees that shadow her rounds. “He insisted on clearing the land, as he wanted to grow coffee. He was persistent. But we talked him out of it.”

Dressed in headscarves, green uniforms and rubber boots, Asmia and the other female rangers on the team ventured deeper into the tropical rain forest they are charged with guarding, part of the Leuser ecosystem on the island of Sumatra.

The rangers’ laughter was accompanied by bird chirps and the buzz of insects as they patrolled, observing trees and moss as they looked for signs of banned human activity. As much as the rangers enjoy their work, they need to be careful, and not just because of the squatters.

The Leuser ecosystem’s 6.5 million acres is home to orangutans and many other primates, elephants, rhinos and tigers. While a lot of those animals are not found in this part of the forest, there are sun bears, which, though small and generally timid, can be fierce when surprised or protecting their cubs.

“There are new bear scratches!” exclaimed one of the rangers, Rezeki Amalia, or Lia to her friends, as she examined a tree trunk. Other rangers immediately gathered around the tree and started to measure the size of the paws, take pictures of the scratches and fill out their patrol sheets while marking their GPS with the location of the tree.

The field reports from the rangers are eagerly anticipated by the researchers who monitor the Leuser ecosystem, one of the planet’s least studied tropical forests.

Asmia’s village, Damaran Baru, sits in the foothills of the Burni Telong volcano. Surrounded by strong streams and steep slopes, the area was naturally vulnerable to landslides and flooding, but the risk intensified after squatters deforested swaths of the area.

The full extent of the danger was made clear in 2015, when a flash flood ravaged over a dozen homes and inundated dozens of acres of farmland in Damaran Baru and neighboring villages. Though no one died, hundreds of villagers were evacuated to refugee camps.

“My house was only meters away from the path where flood water passed,” said Asmia, who, like many Indonesians, uses one name. At the refugee camp, “it was miserable,” she said. “We have no water there. How could we live without water? When we don’t have water, how do we work in the kitchen, bathe our children, water our field?”

Weary of living in fear that the devastating flooding would reoccur, the women of Damaran Baru decided it was time to play a more active role in protecting their environment.

However, in Indonesia, where patriarchal culture is deeply rooted, women’s roles are habitually diminished, and women are often overlooked in many fields of work. Being a ranger is considered a man’s job and thus taboo for women in Aceh, where Islam is the dominant religion and which is the only Indonesian province to have implemented Shariah law.

“Even though, most often, women are the ones who feel the direct impact from environmental loss and climate change, there was a lot of resistance when we brought up the idea of creating a women ranger team,” said Rubama, a community conservation officer for the Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh Foundation, which funds the ranger initiative. “Women are often left out and not allowed to do many roles in Aceh, especially at the village level.”

While it required months of discussion, the village leaders were eventually convinced to let the women become rangers. A name was picked for the initiative: Mpu Euteun, or someone who looks after the forest.

“I come from a neighboring village. I joined as a ranger here because it is important to protect mother nature,” said Nuriana. “I now get to see trees or plants that I have only heard my parents talk about — and relearn the local wisdom and natural remedies, too.”

With assistance from the Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh Foundation, the village rangers submitted a request to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry for what is known as a Village Forest permit.

In November 2019, the village obtained the permit, officially empowering them to manage and protect 620 acres of forest surrounding Damaran Baru. Without the permit, the villagers could only ask those entering the forest to leave. Now, they can insist trespassers leave and can call on the government for help if they don’t. (The rangers are unarmed and can’t make arrests.)

In January 2020, Mpu Euteun made its debut. Two teams, each now consisting of five women and two men, take turns each month on five-day forest patrols.

“We have the men and women go together as a team to show that women are not competing or taking the role of the men. Instead, they can work together,” explained Rubama.

Since the rangers started patrolling almost four years ago, the number of incidents where they encounter squatters has declined, they say.

When they do come across people encroaching on the forest — whether would-be farmers or loggers — it is the women rangers who first engage and look to de-escalate the situation.

“Whenever we come face-to-face with encroachers, the men will tell us to take the lead and talk to them,” Asmia said.

Often, the trespassers are from the area and known to at least some of the rangers. Instead of confronting them, the female rangers ask the intruders to sit with them and start a conversation.

“When we meet them, we start with small chitchat while offering some snacks and coffee,” said Lia. “We don’t go all alpha like the men, thus the situation never heightens.”

For a five-day patrol, each ranger receives a little over $38, a significant supplement to family income. For the women, patrolling the wilderness is also a great escape from their often mundane daily lives.

“We let go of our burden when we are out here,” said Asmia. “Sharing our stories and laughter make us forget the problems at home. Also, this boosts our self-confidence that — whoaa! — apparently we could do it all, too.”

Typically, the teams return home at dusk, but sometimes they camp out.

Asmia’s patrol was going to spend the night, as the plans for the next day included checking on the upstream condition of the Wih Gile River: wood clogging the waterway would be cleared and trees planted, including those bearing passion fruit, avocado, durian and guava.

The jokes and giggles heard around the campsite were interspersed with the sound of cicadas as tents were erected and a fire was lit.

“My wife really enjoys her role as a forest ranger,” said Darmawan, Lia’s husband. “So if she has to spend the night in the forest, and it’s not the same schedule with me, I’m fine with that,” he said, though he added he did worry about her getting injured on patrol.

Despite the hard work, and even the occasional online bullying, the female rangers say they are proud of, and committed to, their efforts.

“If not us, then who? Let them talk,” said Lia. “We will stay strong.” She added, “You have to really love mother nature to commit to do this.”

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