An Uphill Climb
The race to protect the forests and wildlife of Sumatra’s Thirty Hills.
By Sarah Wade
To reach one of the last great swaths of lowland rain forest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, you must drive for hours through land that has already been cleared and developed.
First, taking the busy Trans-Sumatra Highway out of Jambi City, you pass only small-scale stuff: rice paddies and plots of dragon fruit trees between brightly painted houses. As the houses thin, you start to see rubber plantations: rows on rows of pale, spindly trunks with buckets tied beneath the notches carved into their bark. Then the rubber trees begin alternating with oil palms. Phalanxes of the latter—squat trunks with spiky, pompom-like eruptions of leaves from their tops—cover the hillsides, and bunches of oil palm fruit appear in heaps along the road.
You also start passing trucks laden with timber and acacia logs, because you’re driving into the heart of Indonesia’s pulp and paper industry. And you might glimpse occasional chunks of coal along the roadside, each one a dark hint that mining is in vogue. After six hours, turning onto an old, unpaved logging road, you’ll climb steep slopes past more rubber and oil palm plantations—terraced into the hillsides now—and a coal mine gouged into the orange dirt like a wound.
Finally, if you have permission, you’ll pass through a guarded gate into one of the most biologically rich forests on Earth. Sumatran elephant tracks punctuate the muddy road and gibbon howls ricochet through the treetops. The buzzing of insects waxes louder than any of the industrial farm equipment you’ve passed. And everywhere you look, you’ll see green on green on green. Green to the nth degree.