A Voice for the Forest

Nety Riana Sari discusses the role women play in protecting the Sumatran rain forest

Separated by ocean and land, countries apart, WWF’s Jan Vertefeuille reached out to Nety Riana Sari to talk about the role that women have and play in conservation efforts to protect the “Thirty Hills” rain forest in Sumatra, Indonesia, as well as her personal journey in navigating the world of environmental conservation. Nety is the communications manager for a mission-driven, WWF-founded company that manages a nearly 100,000-acre forest concession for ecosystem restoration purposes.

Nety Riana Sari stands beside a tree overlooking a forest and smiles at the camera

Nety Riana Sari

JAN: It’s so good to talk to you today, Nety!

NETY: Likewise, Jan. I wish we could be speaking in person. Indonesia is just a bit too far from the United States!

JAN: Has Indonesia always been home for you? What has it been like growing up there?

NETY: I was born in a rural area of a small town in Sumatra, Indonesia. My house was always surrounded by trees, from fruit trees to rubber trees. We even had thickets, which resemble young, regenerated forest a lot, with trees and undergrowth. So, I’ve always felt most comfortable in an area with trees and wide-open spaces. I’m now living in my childhood home. Though, a lot has changed to its surroundings. The thickets and rubber plantations have been replaced by housing developments. However, the fruit trees in my yard are still there!

JAN: You are currently with the Thirty Hills Forest Company, known in Indonesia as ABT. How long have you been with ABT, and what is your role with the company?

: I joined ABT in December 2018. So, it has been more than two years. I am managing the communications aspects of the company. My responsibility is to ensure our achievements are shared with donors and stakeholders, local and global.

JAN: I’m curious to know more about your journey and path into the conservation world since you have such a unique vantage point and one that is unlike mine! Have you always been interested in conservation? What first got you hooked on being a part of this mission?

NETY: People say you don’t know what you have until it’s lost. It hits home with me. Growing up in a small town with more trees than houses, I never realized that I took these things for granted. The fresh air for your lungs, the “green” for your eyes, the clean water for free from your wells and flowing in your river, even the crisp morning at the beginning of your days. Not until I had to leave the town for college in Jakarta did I begin to miss them. Flying above Sumatra, I would look out from the window and see the green of various tints dominating the island. But, before long, the shapeless greens were now dividing into squares—plantations.

In college, I learned about Transnational Civil Society movements and one of the subjects was environmental issues. In 2007, I volunteered with the UNFCCC global climate meeting in Bali. I was a translator for a civil society discussion series. I learned firsthand about climate change and how it affects the Earth. I met with many people: Indigenous People, activists, people living on small islands, and people making a difference. I remember a quote from one of my favorite books, Cloud Atlas: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” These people I met at the event are the embodiment of this quote. They inspired me in that my “own drop” could also contribute somehow to helping that dwindling forest I saw from the sky.

JAN: What did it feel like when you first set foot in the Thirty Hills rain forest?

NETY: It was amazing! On that first visit, I was welcomed by a group of macaques crossing the street just in front of our car, jumping from a tree on the right side to clusters of bamboo on the left side of the road. I also remember heaps of fresh elephant dung on the road, exciting me about whether we would come across a herd or even an individual.

JAN: So often, we find that people from rural areas head to large urban areas to pursue their careers and don’t want to work in the field. What drew you to this challenging assignment that involves visiting the jungle a lot?

NETY: My late mother once asked me a similar question: “I sent you to a big city for your higher education, why did you choose a job that takes you back to the jungle?” Honestly, I don’t know the answer. I just feel very lucky that I get to live a convenient life in the city with air-conditioned shopping centers and technologies, and I get to step into challenging jungle experiences. The jungle never ceases to amaze me in every visit, with all the natural resources and biodiversity it holds. Its intangible benefits are the most essential that often go unnoticed by us humans. Someone has to do something to ensure these jungles are still here, and I don’t want to be missing out on that.

JAN: You are in the field frequently, interacting with a diverse set of people, from the local communities to government officials to staff at ABT. What role do women play in ensuring the success of the concession’s ambitious efforts to protect this ecosystem?

NETY: Just as our male counterparts, women’s roles in ecosystem protection are essential. Oftentimes, women become pivotal partners in implementing our activities. They open their doors, are naturally curious and willing to listen. Then they are bridging us with the community at large, because they also have a big role to play in the society. In the rural community, women not only manage domestic affairs but also are involved in land cultivation and actively find sources of income for the family. Some of ABT’s programs are directed at women’s groups in the village and they have shown their active participation in the activities. These women can be the pillars to support development programs that empower the community, which will finally lead to a healthy interaction between humans and nature, where utilization of forest resources is conducted in a sustainable manner.

JAN: You are also often the face of ABT, telling the tremendous story of conservation and protection of the forest, wildlife, and communities in Thirty Hills at local and global fora. Last year, you even got a prized slot to promote ABT to a global audience of impact investors and venture philanthropists in an international conference! And, as you’ve indicated, women play a critical role in carrying out the mission of the concession and ecosystem restoration. How integral, would you say, women are, overall, when it comes to making sure conservation is as effective and successful as it can and should be?

NETY: It was an honor for me to present for ABT. I would say the nature of conservation, which is to take care of the environment, is aligned with that of women, which is nurturing. Women manage everything in their homes and often contribute to the household’s income. In local society, though their access to resources is limited, women play a behind-the-scenes role to influence decision making. Therefore, women are considered essential partners for ABT to carry out the mission of the concession.

JAN: What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen during your time with ABT, whether it’s a wildlife sighting, natural event, or human activity?

NETY: I think children are the most amazing beings. They are stronger than they look and still cute at the same time, highly adaptable, and can always find a way to have fun in any situation. Within ABT’s concession border live 54 households of the Talang Mamak tribe. Their settlement has a two-room building that they use as an elementary school for the children. Most of the children live kilometers away from the school, and they have to walk on the road in poor conditions especially in the rainy season. There is also the danger of encountering animals on their way. Most of the time, they attend the class without anything to eat in the morning. At any given period, they might have to walk longer because their parents might take them to the family “umo” or field, the land that they cultivate, which is at quite some distance from the settlement. Despite these challenges, they persevere. They keep coming to school, though sometimes they do fall asleep during class. They never forget to play and smile with their friends and easily laugh at the simplest things. And in their hands, these children hold the future of their community and the forest they live in.

JAN: It has been an absolute pleasure getting to catch up with you, Nety. Thank you so much for all of the work you do—you are an inspiration to us all! Any last words of advice you would give to your younger self or fellow conservation leaders out there?

NETY: Thank you so much, Jan, and to you as well. What I would say is if I could see my younger self, I would tell her to stop being so arrogant to think that nature needs our saving. Humans can be so insignificant next to the power of nature. Nature never needs us to save her. It is us that need to be saved. That’s why we have to be kind to nature so that she doesn’t get too agitated and then shake us off.