From: Melanie Jae Martin
Published February 23, 2011 04:29 PM

Islamic Leaders Preach Conservation in Sumatra, Indonesia

Do religious texts mandate respect for the earth and other species? Some Islamic leaders in Sumatra believe the Koran does.

In Indonesia, the country with the highest rate of deforestation and some of the most diverse habitat in the world, many Islamic leaders believe religion is the key to conservation. In Sumatra, habitat is disappearing fast, mainly due to oil palm plantations, and populations of animals like the Sumatran orangutan and tiger are dwindling. Education is key to solving the region’s environmental problems, the leaders believe, and religion has the potential to spark wide public interest in environmental awareness.

Called FORDALING (the Islamic Leader Forum for Environmental Care), the group believes the Koran directly addresses the need for protecting the natural world. They explain this in their newly released book Ayat-Ayat Konservasi (Islamic Verses for Conservation). Through this book and other projects, these religious leaders have set out to show Indonesian Muslims why conservation should be important to them and the world.

The 120-page book consists of chapters such as "Earth, Our Collective Home," "Leuser [National] Forest, an Invaluable Gift from Our Creator," "Nature Conservation in the Age of Muhammad the Messenger", and "Implementation of Islamic Principles in Conservation by Communities around the Leuser Forests." One chapter, "The Good Deeds of Muhammad the Messenger to Wildlife," tells how the Prophet Muhammad and his followers saw a pair of baby birds as they were traveling, and caught them. The Prophet noticed the outraged mother bird trying to rescue her babies, and told his followers to give the babies back to their mother immediately. In another story, his followers set an ants' nest on fire, and he told them such thoughtless treatment of wildlife is unacceptable. Through such examples, the book shows the Prophet Muhammad's compassion for other species. The book also emphasizes that when using animals for food, one must ensure they suffer as little as possible.

The authors relate such stories to current environmental and social concerns. Setting fire to the forest is not acceptable, not just because it pollutes and endangers humans' environment but because many animals and plants live there, the authors assert. In making this point, the authors stress compassion for individual animals as well as for the greater ecosystem.

FORDALING works to educate Islamic leaders about how to use sermons to teach their congregations the urgent need for conservation. FORDALING's training program has educated more than 150 Islamic scholars and leaders. Fifty of its members also took a guided tour of Gunung Leuser National Park in January 2010 at Bukit Lawang, a popular orangutan viewing area, to learn more about the problems facing the biodiversity hotspot.

Through these efforts and other projects like "sermon roadshows," FORDALING also works to educate the general public. On March 15, 2010, FORDALING publicly declared its mission and held a speech competition for Islamic students in Langkat and Aceh Tamiang. Seventy-five children participated, and the winners presented their sermons in Islamic schools and villages. FORDALING members and the staff of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), a Sumatran conservation organization that partnered with religious leaders to establish FORDALING, also visited schools and communities to discuss how Islam promotes conservation.

The OIC also partnered with FORDALING to create the book, reviewing the conservation information presented within it. Through large, colorful photos, the organizations aimed to make the book accessible to a general audience. The Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund provided financial support for the project.

FORDALING claims to practice what it preaches. The organization has created tree nurseries in the Sekoci and Kuala subdistricts, where volunteers raise seedlings for planting in the OIC's restoration site in Besitang. Here, as in many other areas of Sumatra, the national park was illegally logged and replanted with oil palms. The group has cultivated over 24,000 seedlings so far.

Young Muslims can join the group Islamic Student Nature Lover (SAPA), created by FORDALING and based in Langkat district, to learn and help with conservation efforts.

The process of establishing FORDALING has been challenging, says Panut Hadisiswoyo, OIC founding director. "The coordinator first had to educate participants about principles of conservation and ecology so that they understood the concepts and the importance of their implementation in the teachings of Islam," says Hadisiswoyo. However, participants have been eager to learn and share the information with their congregations, according to FORDALING. Many communities the group spoke to requested future visits, hoping to learn more about why and how they should preserve Sumatra's remaining rainforests.

Hadisiswoyo believes FORDALING's book and other projects have the power to change people's attitudes across Sumatra, making them more receptive toward and active in conservation efforts. He asserts that "with direct, religiously inspired sources to share and cite to the largely Islamic population of Indonesia, the effort to save the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan has a brighter outlook."

Photo shows local students working in the Kuala nursery. Credit Melanie Jae Martin.

Melanie Jae Martin is a freelance writer based in the U.S. when she isn't roaming through South East Asia. Visit http://storygrove.blogspot.com to read more of her writing on environmental issues.

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