By Dwiki Ridhwan, GIS Analyst of WRI Riau and Sakinah Ummu Haniy Communications Assistant of WRI Indonesia.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we do things, including how we work at WRI Indonesia. Since March, all employees have been required to work from home (WFH). This includes WRI Indonesia’s regional offices in Riau, South Sumatra, Papua and West Papua.

The large-scale social restrictions (PSBB) to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have put many limitations in place, forcing us to move online. WRI Indonesia with different institutions has organized a series of webinars for #stayathome online learning, including on sustainable forest management. We have also collaborated with partners to organize tree-planting donations.

Various government institutions also conduct online events, such as a social forestry mentorship training and peatland seminar. There have been stories of members of customary communities living in the forest having to travel 70 km to get a signal for online classes for college.

The question is how do you generate direct impact from the ideas birthed in these online events, especially on those living in and around the forest?

In the midst of this perfect storm of economic and health crises, many communities living around the forest are losing their livelihood due to declining market demand for products such as palm oil plantation products, food crops or forest products. Learning from the 1997 economic crisis, communities living around the forest must be a priority during recovery from an economic crisis. Deforestation saw a sharp increase during the economic crisis; in many cases, the main perpetrator was found to be members of forest communities. That’s why the effort to protect and improve forest management must continue during the pandemic. If medical professionals are the last line of defense in the fight against COVID-19, those living around the forest are the last line of defense in the prevention of forest destruction.

Before the pandemic, WRI Indonesia Riau was working with communities in more than 10 villages, including smallholder farmers and customary communities living around the forest. This work continues during the pandemic for the continuous implementation of the program with several adjustments. Here are two stories from the field on the adaptation measures we have taken in Riau.

1. Mainstreaming Online Discussions

Since 2017, we have been working with the community of Tandun Village to push for land management improvements. A majority of the Tandun Village community relies on palm oil and some of them have encroached forest areas, threatening forest conservation. But slowly but surely, the community has begun to gradually make the shift to sustainable forest

management. In the area proposed to be a Village Forest, a rehabilitation using the agroforestry cultivation system, combining crops (such as coffee, chilies and food and short-term crops) with trees or annual crops (such as durian, matoa, sugar palm and forest crops), is being planned.

As time went by, the farmers and we have been able to adapt. Luckily, the farmers are still able to work on the field every day, although limited to harvest or planting, during the pandemic. We have been kept updated on the things they’ve been working on together, such as building the village’s seeds farm, preparing land for planting and stockpiling fertile soil.

On the other hand, we as mentors can help them through our laptops on administrations and costs, rehabilitation proposal to organizations that supply them with seeds (such as the Environment and Forestry Agency) and the required scientific analysis for the technical rehabilitation plan, such as land condition and feasibility. We have maintained communication with the community during WFH, which allows us to see the seeds that are ready for planting. We are proud, although we can only see them in photos.

Aside from the people of Tandun Village, we facilitate seven customary communities in making a customary forest management plan. Two of the customary communities under our mentorship have received a Customary Forest Decree directly from President Jokowi in February 2020. Next, the customary communities need to compile a customary forest management plan (Rencana Pengelolaan Hutan Adat; RPHA). The RPHA is hoped to work as sustainable forest management guidelines for customary communities.

However, we can’t compile the RPHA alone. We need the active participation of customary communities in the drafting. Local NGO partners also need to be involved to ensure that collaboration can be maintained.

Despite technological challenges early on, customary communities have been able to adapt. We were able to facilitate an FGD with the customary communities through conference call. A few of us and local NGO partners acted as moderator, operator, speaker and writer of the RPHA draft. Through the screen-sharing feature, the customary communities were able to see for themselves how we present data and information in the RPHA draft and how we present their aspirations.

 <p>Screenshot from the FGD conference call with customary communities. (Background photo source:</p>

Screenshot from the FGD conference call with customary communities. (Background photo source:

2. Adhering to Health Protocol in Field Activities

Some problems can’t be solved online. For those, we have to work on site in limited capacity. For example, we have had to conduct an FGD with customary communities living in areas without Internet access. Those activities must be conducted on site under the health protocol.

Another example was the offline agroforestry practice mentorship program for farmers by community forestry trainers. Without on-site demonstration, land rehabilitation would not be possible. Throughout the event, everyone adhered to health protocols, including limiting the number of participants per day, wearing masks and maintaining physical distance.

 <p>The farmers adhering to health protocols in the construction of the village’s seeds farm for rehabilitation of Tandun Village Forest. (Photo source: Joko Surahmad)</p>

The farmers adhering to health protocols in the construction of the village’s seeds farm for rehabilitation of Tandun Village Forest. (Photo source: Joko Surahmad)

The pandemic has taught us that such mitigation efforts need to be continued for the prevention of climate crisis. Just like in the Tandun Village, planting is an easy alternative for carbon dioxide sequestration. Another alternative is to create an enabling condition for forest recovery, such as through an RPHA that sets out a forest protection and rehabilitation plan. The active involvement of the stakeholders from the government, NGOs and local communities would definitely help such efforts. That way, forest preservation efforts with the direct involvement of the community can continue during the pandemic.