Story by Nayla Azmi

How my story began…

Am I a conservationist? I don’t think I am. What I consider about myself is that I love my forest to pieces and want to contribute to it. The first time I bumped into conservation was when I studied English Literature as a student at the Univeristy of North Sumatra, Indonesia. The story began when I heard a friend of mine got the opportunity as a volunteer and worked with a local NGO. She invited me to come to one of the workshops they conducted in 2007 about orangutans and seeing the programs I felt surreal and eager to learn more. Back then, when you were young, everything seemed possible. Back then, it was a very hard slap on my cheek to finally hear about orangutans and how special they were. As the young generation, sadly, I didn’t even know the precious heritage that this land has.

A Long Path to Get Involved

Since then, I tried my best to find information and opportunities to get involved. As a non- conservation field student, it was surely like walking in a dark tunnel. You just didn’t know how to get to the light. Reaching out to some organisations, they seemed to be exclusive to a-non-conservationist-but-eager-to-get-involved like me. But the more I think about it again now, it is quite understandable that if it is difficult enough for someone with a conservation background to get opportunity in conservation, then surely it will be double to someone with  a non- conservationist background like me. But one question is haunting me at the moment that is “does conservation belong only to conservation background people?”

Call me naive, but in my understanding, conservation needs humans. Beyond gender, across educational backgrounds and race, conservation is about a calling, value and responsibility. It needs everybody on board to play their own contribution. Again, it sounds very naive indeed. On its own, conservation is such a privilege and a prestige as well. Back then, I didn’t even figure it out, for me it was about filling out my calling and responsibility as the young generation that was not only to reach to the past by being connected to this amazing heritage that we have; forest and orangutan, not to mention it’s the responsibility that I carry as the Sumatran young generation.

I applied to many conservation NGOs from international to grassroots NGOs, however they didn’t have that opportunity. I was about to forget that strong willingness of mine until one international NGO responded to give me opportunity as volunteer. Finally be able to see the light, I stepped out from the tunnel with the great hope. Now that I know, it was the starting point of another longer tunnel.

Family Background

For my whole life, my turning point into conservation was the workshop back then, I never knew anything about forest nor did I know about wildlife. I grew up in a small village called Rantauprapat, Labuhan Batu district of North Sumatra province, about 6 hours away from Medan city. My village was the centre of oil palm plantations from the small scale to the biggest, owned by local residents to companies. Every single person that I knew there was involved with oil palm plantations. For sure, my family is not foreign with the concept of the oil palm industry but my father taught me many things I didn’t realise until now. Even though his father spent his lifetime working for a big palm oil company, my father refused to join the merry. My father used to work in an oil palm and rubber plantation, however he learned that there are many negative impacts and illogical points of view in this massive industry. He decided to open a small shop and this small business that has been supporting our family all this time.

Living in my village until I grew up and continued my study in university, I never knew about forests. Yes, I learned very limited knowledge at school and never thought about how essential and significant it is. Moreover, talking about wildlife, I had no idea about this. When I think about it today, I realise that how lack of information could impact our cultural values and perspectives of our national awareness toward conservation. My own people have lost their connection to their own nature, their heritage; the forest. It’s crazy that how places called “first world countries” can get complete information towards our forest and wildlife. They dreamed about adventure of being Mowgli in the Jungle Book. At the same time, I grew up with a very rare information about the forest. Our world as the local people who live surrounded by oil palm plantation is only working hard, to earn as much in order to be saved and then to get our own piece of land with the dream of better living. We didn’t understand the ecosystem, forest and wildlife. A tragic life of local people indeed, who are being blinded by what do they have next door.

Volunteering : A Tunnel with No Ends

Volunteer, it is such a grand word with holy meaning. I have been a volunteer for more than a decade, with a sincere feeling of strong willingness to give my contributions for a good cause. At the same time, it was part of my long journey of “giving” to the fullest to the point that I got confused with what the goal was. Since 2010, I joined one of the most leading Sumatran grassroots organisations that protect orangutan. To be one, I had to be rejected 4 times with the claim back then the organisation was small with limited programmes. It might be true but the more I think about it now it is such a very “diplomatic” answer.

The way I process it, conservation is the responsibility of humans, especially humans who live around it. It does not tie by programme but it is bounded by initiative. I took initiative to volunteer for 3 different organisations and after that and I learned very much about conservation in a good and bad way. One thing that is sure, the more I get involved, the more I get confused about what is the definition of conservation itself. I was working in 2 different jobs to support my volunteering activities. I taught English for half a day, being a content writer after that in the evening and I spent not much of my spare time volunteering to translate documents, being an interpreter, teaching English and anything that I could help with. Back then, the more I had to deal with the more my contributions were. But I didn’t even knew that it was not that simple.

For what I called contributions could be interpreted in the negative way. I was claimed to be attention seeker as a way to be seen by some “important people” to finally get recognised. Especially as an English graduate I am, what do I know about conservation programmes? It slaps me on the cheek indeed that is conservation about programmes only? For the knowledge you have? For the background you carry?

I made my ears deaf and decided to focus myself on my volunteering work. I was trying to be ready all the time when a particular NGO needed and give all of my weekends as well as my spare time for others. The more I think about it, ever since the beginning I had too many reactions that confused me. At one time, a particular NGO gave me an opportunity that I “allowed me to give more” with all of hierarchy and descended perspective. Another NGO that is a smaller NGO gave me second family, guide and space that demand me to define my own values. Both of the organisations gave me so much who I am now. When the opportunity came from bigger organisation, I thought it was an open gate. Little that I know it was even longer struggling path.

Stepping into a bigger organisations means that you have to prove your best with such a strong competition in an ego driven world to show achievement. Again, I thought it was my hallucination that finally I could find a path to conservation; a world where everybody is valued and takes harmonious steps together. Apparently not to a person like me, that was merely because I knew some people during my volunteering and was considered by “how long was my time of being around”. It was not because of or self-qualities, again values (I don’t know how many times do I repeat this) and dedication. It is so much more than that. It is about stage, educational background and achievements in numbers. I was angry, I was frustrated by being called a “project of pity” and to keep being seen in one’s eyes saying “what does she know about conservation, she merely speaks English”. It pushes me to answer the pressure by answering expectation; get educational background in conservation. It makes me struggle even more, to follow the path or just do it with my own values.

It is such a sad reality that the holy dream I have about conservation that would create a better planet is very fragile now. Discussing with some people, the solution of all this, is believed to build your own NGO and get conservation background, because everybody needs legitimacy. I don’t know whether I would do these two answers yet for now. But the question always revolves is it the way it is? Is it going to be this way all time? I have not seen any light to this question yet.

The Story Began

For every one who knew me, everybody would know that my very first day of finally getting a job in conservation was one of the most awaited days in my life. I couldn’t stop being grateful and I felt the day was so vibrant. It was a dream come true in the end, until I realised, it demanded my time. I lost my friends and social circle. Most of the time, I was always in the field. Even on the day of my best friend’s marriage, I couldn’t come. My family lives 6 hours separated from Medan but I only met them twice in a year. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to contribute myself to the work.

I decided to quit from my first job as the lecturer’s assistant in government owned university because of this demanding job which for sure which lead me into arguments with my family. As a person who came from non-educated family, I was the first university graduate and even with a higher educational background for now as I have my master degree in Linguistics. My parents were thrilled that they wanted me to be a lecturer, a professor one day, being the first professional academic. However, when I took the opportunity, I had to compensate this dream and quit. A daughter of a conservative village family decided to leave her stable and promising job as a professor, to work in the field of conservation. The man-dominated world, often being away from civilisation and dealing with danger.

Stigma & Stereotype

As the time went by, I realised that I had no time for myself. I did so much but not for myself. I wasn’t that girl anymore who was so happy, cheerful and smiling. The hard work became duty, rather than an adventure like it used to be. Was it because of the money? No, but it is because of appreciation. Working from the ground, I rarely see other women in conservation. I meet men constantly and realised it was such a masculine world. Some of them gave me pressure, bullying and even sexual harassment. I didn’t realise it was until one of the students who visited us and joined my work told me. I was seeing that as test, I considered it was those mens way of seeing whether I was strong enough to handle them. They told me I’m ugly because I’m tan, fat and unfeminine at all. At the same time, they said they would sleep with me bla bla. If you’ve been to Indonesia, you would shocked as Indonesia is such a conservative country. But then, people blame the way I dress since I’m Muslim but don’t wear a hijab. I don’t care about those comments but I realised it was slowly eating me up.

As I’m not getting younger, I have to deal with another reality as well. I’m still single, work in conservation and having a liberal and brave mind are not the ideal of any man’s type in Indonesia. Nobody wanted to be with me. I have many labels, more than I can remember. Everything and everyone around me is moving on fast. I realise I am stuck and see their life changing. Do I regret it? No, I am happy even though that I have to have a different life and have lost all of my social life.

Is that all becoming the problem? No, my character against this conservative world never ends. I was hoping that conservation would such a safe haven for anybody since it needs everybody on board. That I could get the mentor to learn and grow more. I was surprised that it was far from that. In fact, it is about ego, stereotype and stigma. Like in everywhere else, we are expected to follow the egocentric stream and compensate our values. As the political streams in Indonesia are now on the religious trend, that’s how people present themselves. I am far from that, I am not religious, in fact I am rebel who refuses to wear a hijab. The society puts high pressure on me by labelling me as a whore but I refuse to give in. I actively state campaigns about equality, being single, and I keep fighting for what I believe. As the result, the conservation society puts me in a stigma that they will never accept and I am followed by a stereotype so that it will never change. It’s either you follow the rules or be an outcast. I never thought of conservation to be very political as well. Again I thought it was a safe world that takes everyone on board without seeing labels. I don’t have a person to talk to, I’m alien in this world. I have sacrificed my settled career and chose this, am I? Is it worth it? This started to eat me up. It drains out my emotions.

I lost my friends and I created a huge gap with my family. I don’t know to socialise and talk to friends anymore. Did I make a right decision to my life? No, I never talk about money, because no matter how little money I got, I still could survive. But what about being lonely, isolated and start losing our self?

I’m a fellow lonely conservationist.

Follow Nayla on Instagram at @nayla_azmii