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A photo of Farwiza Farhan, an Australian alumna, posing outdoor in nature.

17 Nov 2022

Farwiza Farhan: The Environmental Warrior Guarding Leuser Ecosystem

Environmental activist and Australian alumna Farwiza Farhan has recently been crossing continents to receive acknowledgements. She was in Seoul, South Korea, to attend The National Geographic Explorer Asia Convention, where she was given the 2022 National Geographic Wayfinder Award. From there, she flew to San Francisco, the United States, as she won a fellowship from Mulago Foundation.

"There are 40 fellows from all over the world and various sectors. In one week, we will design high-impact solutions and strategies for better and bigger outcomes. And it will be implemented in our organisations," said Farwiza, or Wiza, as she is affectionately called, during a recent chat.

The recognitions are certainly well-deserved for the environmental warrior. In 2012, Wiza founded and was the chairperson of the Forest, Nature, and Environment Aceh Foundation (Yayasan HAkA), the grassroots organisation based in Aceh, Sumatra, to protect, conserve, and restore the Leuser Ecosystem.

Comprising 2.6 million hectares of rainforest in Indonesia’s westernmost province, Leuser Ecosystem plays a crucial role in the global climate. The destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem is one of the drivers of climate change. This area is also home to some of Southeast Asia's endemic species and is the last wild habitat for critically endangered animals, like orangutans, elephants, tigers, and rhinoceros.

Wiza has done important jobs to preserve the Leuser Ecosystem and paved the way for sustainable development for the communities and other living beings that depend on the Leuser. She empowers the communities, takes legal action, and mobilises local, national, and global campaigns.

Time magazine recognised her impactful leadership that brought change for a better environment and included her on the emerging leaders' list of TIME100 Next 2022. Previously, she received the Future for Nature Award in 2017, a prestigious international award that celebrates tangible achievements in protecting wild animal and plant species, and Whitley Award in 2016 for Conservation in Ape Habitats.

In Pursuit of a Higher Education

Born and raised in Aceh, Wiza’s love for and connection with nature was developed since her childhood and drove her to become a conservationist. After obtaining a Bachelor of Science from Universiti Sains Malaysia, she went on to get her Master's degree in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development from the Department of Geography at the University of Queensland, Australia.

"I found the reputation of the research environment superb and the education system in Australia excellent. There was also an opportunity to do some research on the Great Barrier Reef. I had always wanted to go there because I love diving," said Wiza.

Her academic journey brought a new perspective and critical way of thinking. "It encouraged me to grow and run HAkA up to this point. Those experiences when studying at Queensland become a great foundation," she asserted.

Wiza is currently a PhD Candidate at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

Leuser is Her Life

Returning home from Australia, Wiza worked for Leuser Ecosystem Management Agency (BPKEL) under the Aceh Administration. Unfortunately, the agency was dissolved in 2012, which led Wiza and her colleagues to establish HAkA.

Through multiple campaigns with grassroots environmental leaders, the foundation attempts to strengthen civil society and empower communities living at the frontlines of conservation work.

"I cannot work by myself, so more parties have to take part to strengthen collective voices from the ground up," said Wiza, who has collaborated with Hollywood actor Leonardo di Caprio in a documentary project on Leuser.

She also educates and trains locals to get paralegal knowledge to reinforce the protection of local communities.

"People have the right to be involved in the decision-making process, especially on projects developed in their areas. They were not aware that they had the right to do so. And then, when something bad happened, they were left alone. The training aims to raise their awareness that there's a way to fight for their right," said Wiza.

Her campaigns also focus on policy and advocacy, where she succeeded in advocating for law enforcement against illegal corporate operations that threatened the Leuser Ecosystem. Her team once won a class action against a palm oil concession that resulted in a US$26 million fine for the concession.

The works of Wiza and her team have important implications in policymaking, such as the recent collaboration with the government to evaluate the development permits in several districts surrounding the Leuser and assess spatial plans for Leuser.

Giving Space for Women’s Voice

Living in a patriarchal society, Wiza is no stranger to sexism, as people often see her as incompetent on the sole basis of her gender.

"Invitation letters to me are addressed to 'Bapak (Mr) Farwiza Farhan'. People often ask me where the chairman of the foundation is. They do not believe that women can be a leader," said Wiza.

As she believes in gender equality and that women have the power to change the world, Wiza worked to break the entrenched gender discrimination. For instance, she encouraged the women in Damaran Baru Village of Bener Meriah District in Aceh to obtain a forest management permit from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in 2019. The 251-hectare forest was destroyed by illegal logging that caused floods in 2015. The women requested for the land to be managed by the community. HAkA then acted as their mentor to plant and protect the forest.

Wiza is highly aware that she is facing a continuous battle. "My work is far from being done. I will keep on going until there is no need to have any more campaigns to protect Leuser because Leuser has been preserved properly," she concluded.

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