Projects overview
Americas projects
Asia projects
Asian Buddhist Network
Southeast Asia
East Timor
Indonesia: Christian
Mongolia: Buddhists
CASE STUDIES from Mongolia
Papua New Guinea
Indonesia: Muslim
China projects
Education and water
Faith in food
Faiths for Green Africa
Green pilgrimage network
Living churchyards
Long-term plans
Major ARC events
Religious forests
Sacred gifts
Sacred land
Other projects
ARC Home > Projects > Asia projects :
Indonesia: Muslim | Islamic Schools and a National Park

How Islamic Schools helped create a National Park in Indonesia

Question to Stakeholders: "Is there a possible solution to the forest crisis in North Sumatra?"]
Answer: “There is not a crisis. There is a war… And we are losing."

The story begins in 2003, when Conservation International Indonesia initiated an effort to conserve a large tract of forest in the Batang Gadis watershed area. The area, considered to be rich in wildlife and home to the Sumatran tiger and several other species of wild cats, covers around 386,455 hectares, or 58.8% of the Mandailing Natal Regency. Batang Gadis is also a key watershed for the region, as it is the main water source for roughly 1,175 rivers and creeks.

The Batang Gadis River flows like a major artery through the forests of six different watershed areas, spreading out into smaller streams and creeks for a total of over 137.5 km. This watershed system supplies almost all of the domestic water needs of 400,000 people in the regency, including water for irrigating 42,100 hectares of paddy fields and 108,320 hectares of commercial crops such as coffee, cinnamon, cacao, palm oil, cloves, ginger, and others. CI’s economists estimated an additional amount up to $24.8 million a year in indirect values from the extensive water system (Midora and Anggraeny 2006).

For the people of Mandailing Natal, a local Islamic community, the river provides water for drinking and bathing, sanitation needs, irrigation, and additional socio-cultural, religious, and economic functions. These people traditionally protected places called ”naborgo-naborgo” (water springs) through customary laws.

In the 1970s, the local committees formalised these laws into river protection (lubuk larangan) schemes (Lubis, 2001). An Islamic practice known as a harim (meaning zone) prohibits the harvesting of fish from rivers close to human settlements for 6 to 12 months each year. The community leaders have to power to decide when the best harvesting time is and a small fee is charged to residents or sojourners who desire to fish. The income generated is used to pay for the development of local social facilities such as schools, roads, and mosques, and some of it goes to provide educational scholarships and administrative salaries and grants to orphans, poor families and invalids (Lubis, 2001).

The river also has several cultural values to the people here. Students attending Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) across Sumatra, totalling around15,000, use the river to bathe and to perform the ritual “wudhu,” which involves washing their bodies before prayer, which they do five times a day. One of the largest boarding schools in the region, Al Mustafawitah, has more than 7,000 students coming in to be educated from surrounding villages, regencies and other provinces, and even from abroad. The school itself has been established for many years, and is the best known school in Sumatra for studying Islamic teachings.

The exploitation of Batang Gadis for logging recently displaced almost all traditional customs and regulations by shifting central laws, including the ownership of the state forest for traditional or cultural values. For centuries in the state forest, local communities have wisely managed and depended on the natural forest and rivers, but now access to these resources is becoming more and more restricted. This situation triggered several social problems and conflicts between the central government and local or traditional communities. The corrupt central government was profiting from the legal gold mining and logging concessions in this same watershed area, making it hard to convince them to implement conservation strategies.

For many years communities have been suppressed and not allowed to appeal to any government system regarding land use issues. Only after the old regime was replaced, and Indonesia’s decentralization authority over the forests was given to the regency in early 2000, were those conflicts brought up and began to be addressed. As a result, a new local government (Pemda) was established that enabled the traditional institution of Namora-Natoras (nobles and elders) to be revived and to play a critical role in the management of local affairs including the protection of forests and rivers. This helped the Mandailings recover their tradition of consultative governance, and encouraged them to challenge the newly-headed regency to promote a participatory planning and decision-making process (Lubis, 2001.)

CI realized that if we were going to conserve the Batang Gadis tropical forest catchments area, then we would need local allies. We began by approaching the most influential person in the community, the Islamic school’s top spiritual leader, or imam. To him, we described the potential pollution problem facing the river running through his school’s property. The river will become polluted with tailings if the proposed gold mining upstream in the Batang Gadis forest goes ahead as planned. The river would also get clogged with slit and could possibly dry up, if logging around the nearby Batang Gadis River was permitted. Then we pointed out to the imam that the Batang Gadis water that he and thousands of his students depended upon to wash themselves for whudlu five times before prayer, would become very dirty and contaminated with poisonous chemicals.

The imam was sceptical of our predictions, so we brought him to the upper part of the Batang Gadis River to see with his own eyes how the mining and logging activities were negatively impacting the river water quality. The imam was surprised, and he agreed that the logging and mining activities were indeed contaminating the river. He knew that polluted water would not be good to use for the whudlu cleansing ritual. The imam began to talk and discuss these issues with his students, and his students talked to their parents, and the information about potential environmental hazards in their water spread to the entire community. We also approached the village’s parliament to remind them of their old traditional practices of “naborgo-naborgo” and “lubuk larangan.”

As the awareness of the potential Batang Gadis River pollution problems spread, the concern for environmental movement grew from the bottom up. The communities took the issue straight to the bupati (the regency head) and asked for the forest to be protected. The bupati agreed to consider this request, but he was worried about how he could compensate the people who profited from the logging and mining industries. We explained to him that the Batang Gadis River was the source of irrigation for 42,000 hectares of local rice fields, all of which would be imperilled if the river were polluted by new industries established upstream.

The bupati understood the situation, but he was not yet sure what he could do. At that same time, Indonesia was changing its governmental structure from a central government based in Jakarta, to have more elected officials in the outlying regions and islands. With the elections coming up, we told the bupati that if he addressed the concerns of his people and supported their movement, then he could become a hero to them. It might even help him to win his first election. So after some thought, the bupati sent a letter to the Ministry of Forestry asking them to declare Batang Gadis a National Park. He was later chosen by his people in the first election in the area.

The process to get Batang Gadis its National Park status was long and involved a lot of lobbying and negotiating. But by the end of 2003, more than 13,000 Muslim students (santri) and ulama (Muslim leaders), together with other society members, gathered for the declaration of Batang Gadis National Park, which covered an area of 108,000 hectares or more than 25% of the total forest in the regency. Because of this established park, the Batang Gadis River will be protected from logging and mining industries, and will remain in its natural condition.

The National Park declaration was announced as follows:

“We realize that the forest is our source for wood, fish and wildlife, water for our paddy fields and agriculture. These important forest resources need to be protected by all of us. We realize that current conditions are very critical and threatening the sustainability of our life resources for future generations. We realize that these conditions are caused by mining activities, illegal logging, and unsustainable use of forest products, encroachment, deforestation, and limited alternatives for sustainable living.”

Learning Points

There are three key things we learned during our experience of influencing the establishment of Batang Gadis National Park in Sumatra:

First, we saw how spiritual interest can be one of the most important influences on the local community to protect their forest and resources.

Second, positive responses and support from spiritual (Muslim) leaders facilitate public movement to protect the environment, because they can explain how a conservation concept is in agreement with the mission of religion.

Third, the demand of clean water and sanitation, and a protected forest is initiated from the lesson of lubuk larangan, a local tradition. This cultural behaviour reflects a strong social togetherness that supports the implementation of conservation principals. Wallahu ‘a lam.

From a paper presented to the Faith in Water conference in Salisbury, 2009. By Jatna Supriatna, Fachruddin Mangunjaya, Jarot Arisona and Erwin Perbatakusuma, Sumatra, Indonesia.


More inspiring water and faith stories.

PDF of Faith and Water book (1.9MB). Salisbury meeting

< to previous page to top of page to next page >
ARC site map

Related information

What does Islam teach about ecology?
A brief summary of the main Islamic teachings on ecology.
Multi-faith environment meeting in Bogor
Indonesia's first multi-faith meeting on the environment was held at Bogor on 18th December 2002.
October 10, 2013:
New book brings inspiring stories of faith-based environmental action from Africa
'Many Heavens, One Earth in Action' highlights some of the inspiring environmental initiatives carried out by Christian, Muslim and Hindu groups in sub-Saharan Africa