Life today for many locals in the city of Aceh, Indonesia, is a battle for survival. They are forced to precariously juggle the balance of earning a living and preserving their rich ecosystem. The Leuser ecosystem that they live in has already been extensively burned, logged and destroyed almost beyond repair, but for the ravaged species still dependent on the remaining jungle it is vital that the people living there can find a way to earn a living without impacting their ecosystem so heavily.


The Acehnese are governed by a system that does not take their rights or views into account. Money comes first, people and wildlife a distant second. Laws protecting the ecosystem do come about slowly from rigorous campaigning and pressure from the West, but even those are broken. Indonesia has sold much of its history, natural habitat and culture to the Palm Oil companies who have now planted on four-fifths of what used to be one of the oldest and most diverse ecosystems in the world.


The local people are being displaced due to illegal logging, frequent landslides and flooding that are directly linked to the removal of the jungle, and an uncontrolled mafia who engage in illegal logging and poaching. People from all over Indonesia and even from other countries in Asia are flocking to North Sumatra to cash in on the business, and locals feel they can do little to stop it.


Palm oil plantations are indeed lucrative but unsurprisingly they do not benefit local communities, including the people who work on site. Income from 90% of palm oil grown on local farmer’s land goes directly to foreign corporations. Corporations send representatives around the country and offer villages and communities expense free conversions of their land into palm oil fields. They promise health care, schooling, better housing, and roads. These agreements are made without contracts, and the terms are not enforced.


I joined a team of conservationists and scientists who are collating data about deforestation, the relationships between locals and corporations and biodiversity in the western coastal peat swamps and lowland Leuser Ecosystem. They are currently working on a case to bring forward to the Acehnese government.


In collaboration with the Sumatran orang-utan Conservation Program.


green trees palm jungle in sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Palm jungle belonging to Lonsum, a British palm oil company. They claim they will soon be acknowledged as a "world leader in the movement towards true sustainability in the oil palm and rubber plantation industries". In reality, they are one of the biggest threats to the survival of the Leuser Ecosystem.

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Palm jungle belonging to Lonsum, a British palm oil company. They claim they will soon be acknowledged as a "world leader in the movement towards true sustainability in the oil palm and rubber plantation industries". In reality, they are one of the biggest threats to the survival of the Leuser Ecosystem.

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orangutan juvenile babies at SOCP quarantine conservation with vet in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Juvenile orangutans hold on to a keeper at SOCP's orangutan quarantine centre in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Well over 200 orangutans have been returned to the wild as a result of this work, and two entirely new wild populations of this Critically Endangered species are gradually being established, as a back up “safety net” for the remaining wild population, increasing the likelihood that at least some orangutans will survive in Sumatra’s forests in the future.

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Juvenile orangutans hold on to a keeper at SOCP's orangutan quarantine centre in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Well over 200 orangutans have been returned to the wild as a result of this work, and two entirely new wild populations of this Critically Endangered species are gradually being established, as a back up “safety net” for the remaining wild population, increasing the likelihood that at least some orangutans will survive in Sumatra’s forests in the future.

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sun bear behind cage in Medan zoo in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Sun bear at a 'zoo' in Medan, Sumatra. Sun bears are the world’s rarest bears, yet are commonly exploited for their gall bladders and bile. In traditional Chinese medicine the bile is thought to treat a range of ailments, from hangovers to hepatitis. Cubs are farmed, sometimes living permanently with a catheter used to drain the bile.

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Sun bear at a 'zoo' in Medan, Sumatra. Sun bears are the world’s rarest bears, yet are commonly exploited for their gall bladders and bile. In traditional Chinese medicine the bile is thought to treat a range of ailments, from hangovers to hepatitis. Cubs are farmed, sometimes living permanently with a catheter used to drain the bile.

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family looking at landscape in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Villagers in Kutachane look out over newly logged land that was once part of the Leuser Ecosystem.

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Villagers in Kutachane look out over newly logged land that was once part of the Leuser Ecosystem.

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a man on Acehnese bus in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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A local on an Acehnese bus in Sumatra, Indonesia

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A local on an Acehnese bus in Sumatra, Indonesia

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palm fruit on leaf  in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Palm fruit

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Palm fruit

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juvenile orangutan baby behind bars at socp quarantine conservation centre in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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A juvenile orangutan at SOCP's quarantine centre in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Well over 200 orangutans have been returned to the wild as a result of this work, and two entirely new wild populations of this Critically Endangered species are gradually being established, as a back up “safety net” for the remaining wild population, increasing the likelihood that at least some orangutans will survive in Sumatra’s forests in the future.

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A juvenile orangutan at SOCP's quarantine centre in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Well over 200 orangutans have been returned to the wild as a result of this work, and two entirely new wild populations of this Critically Endangered species are gradually being established, as a back up “safety net” for the remaining wild population, increasing the likelihood that at least some orangutans will survive in Sumatra’s forests in the future.

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football field and palm oil jungle in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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When palm oil companies move into regions, they give locals few employment options. Most villagers work on the palm oil plantations and in return, the companies promise to provide basic amenities. There are many cases where palm oil companies have provided little to no support.

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When palm oil companies move into regions, they give locals few employment options. Most villagers work on the palm oil plantations and in return, the companies promise to provide basic amenities. There are many cases where palm oil companies have provided little to no support.

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Muslim Quran book on corrugated iron roof in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Heavy deforestation has caused a stratospheric increase in landslides, causing villages to be wiped out in a matter of minutes. This home once belonged to a young family in the Kutachane region.

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Heavy deforestation has caused a stratospheric increase in landslides, causing villages to be wiped out in a matter of minutes. This home once belonged to a young family in the Kutachane region.

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woman looking out of window in Bukit Lawang in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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A young woman looks out her window in Bukit Lawang, a region dependent upon tourism.

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A young woman looks out her window in Bukit Lawang, a region dependent upon tourism.

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men standing in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Locals in rural Sumatra rebuild their town after recent flooding and landslides caused by deforestation.

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Locals in rural Sumatra rebuild their town after recent flooding and landslides caused by deforestation.

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Diggers and trucks in a river bed asphalt in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Illegal asphalt mining that will go towards further road construction. Road access does not only provide easier access for illegal loggers, it also breaks up animal colonies - such as the critically endangered orang utans and breaks up tiger territories.

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Illegal asphalt mining that will go towards further road construction. Road access does not only provide easier access for illegal loggers, it also breaks up animal colonies - such as the critically endangered orang utans and breaks up tiger territories.

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elephants in river at tangkahan conservation site in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Elephants bathe in the water at Tangkahan's Conservation Centre in North Sumatra.

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Elephants bathe in the water at Tangkahan's Conservation Centre in North Sumatra.

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hijabi muslim women and children leave mosque in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Women and children leave Masjid Taqua mosque in North Sumatra.

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Women and children leave Masjid Taqua mosque in North Sumatra.

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men standing on a log in Sumatra Indonesia by conservation photographer photojournalist Emily Garthwaite
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Young men look out over recently deforested land they intend to replant in Northern Sumatra.

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Young men look out over recently deforested land they intend to replant in Northern Sumatra.

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