Now in its 25th year, the Goldman Prize annually recognizes six of the world’s most courageous environmental heroes who often take on great personal risks to protect and enhance the natural environment. As the world’s largest environmental award for grassroots leaders, the Prize offers international exposure for the recipients’ environmental issues as well as $175,000 in funding. An international jury selects the annual recipients–each a representative of the six inhabitable continental regions–from a pool of confidential nominations submitted by an international group of environmental organizations and individuals.
37 year old Rudi Putra is recognized this year as the Goldman Prize’s Islands and Island Nations recipient for his innovative approach to shutting down illegal palm oil plantations in the Leuser Ecosystem Rainforest. Skyrocketing demand for palm oil, which is valued for its high yield, cheap cost, and versatility, has fueled illegal clearcutting to set up palm oil plantations. The problem is particularly acute in Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, where an estimated 4 million acres of forest are felled each year. These illegal palm oil plantations pose a major threat to the critically endangered Sumatran rhino and orangutan that reside in the Leuser Ecosystem rainforest in the Aceh and North Sumatra provinces.
To protect these endangered species, Putra has worked tirelessly to stop deforestation and habitat degradation, much of which is due to the construction of illegal palm oil plantations. Rather than picketing and directly lobbying the local government, Putra’s innovative grassroots approach started with educating local communities about the scale of the problem and how illegal logging threatened the lives of not only the wildlife, but the local Aceh population as well.
Putra created a chain of support that started with community members, and then gradually built up to include bureaucrats and the police. By the time Putra met with the plantation owners face-to-face to persuade them to shut down their plant, he had already gathered a team of allies from all levels of the community. To date, Putra has successfully restored 1,200 acres of habitat and eliminated 26 illegal palm oil plantations, 24 of which were closed down willingly by the owners; the two other plantation owners who refused to shut down their illegal businesses were arrested by the police. Putra’s effective strategies have helped laid the groundwork for long-term, sustainable change and restored habitat back to the Sumatran rhino populations and other wildlife.
Along with the organization FKL, Putra continues to patrol and protect the Leuser Ecosystem. He also hopes that his story and efforts will inspire others to fight back against deforestation and show that “change to palm oil plantations is possible, not impossible.”