Kapuas Hulu District, West Kalimantan, northeast of Ketapang. Nanang Sujana, CIFOR

Youth-focused restoration in West Kalimantan: a Q&A with Dwi Riyan

Wetlands Restoration Steward Dwi Riyan talks about youth and the intersection between nature conservation and human welfare in West Kalimantan

Dwi Riyan is the 2023 GLF Wetlands Restoration Steward and the co-founder of Pongo Ranger Community, a youth-based organization in Ketapang, West Kalimantan. Since 2018, Pongo Ranger Community has focused on the intersection between nature conservation and human welfare. It works closely with local farmers to prepare mangrove seedlings for planting, as well as with a group of young women to produce plastic-free eco-polybags.

While at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Canada, we caught up with Dwi Riyan to find out more about how his project started and what it involves. 

Interview by Erin O’Connell

What are you up to here at COP15?

I’m part of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network (GYBN), which brought me here. It’s a big environmental youth platform that’s recognized by the UNCBD, and we’re mostly advocating to global leaders and towards this global biodiversity framework.

I’m also a master’s student, so I’m writing my thesis and looking at the biofuel production system in Indonesia. I’m really interested in the intersections between the business and environmental sectors, and how this collaboration is working toward the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Global Youth Biodiversity Network in the venue, asking world leaders to “Stop the Same”. Eirini Sakellari, GLF

How did you come to know about GYBN and the Restoration Stewards program?

In 2017, together with some of my friends, we founded a youth organization called Pongo Ranger Community. Pongo is the [genus] name for orangutans, and our name is inspired by the [kids’ TV show] Power Rangers. It was driven by our witnessing of the current conditions of our environment.

We work a lot to build awareness about orangutans as one of the charismatic species in our regency because they are critically endangered, and most local people – especially youth – don’t know about it. We work with schools and the local government to find out what they are doing to help preserve this species, conservation impacts, and local community understanding. There are still a lot of communities that don’t know about the protection status of the orangutans and they tend to kill them to eat.

After forming our community, I got in touch with someone from GYBN, and we joined their Southeast Asia network in 2018. Using that network has opened the opportunity for us to communicate at local, regional, national, and global levels. For example, right now I’m in communication with the national focal point from our Ministry of Environment.

Can you describe some of the activities of the Pongo Ranger Community program?

The main focus is capacity building because our goal is to encourage more youth to join us. I think most youth organizations around the world want to engage youth to be leaders for themselves and to be the next ambassadors of the environment – the custodians for their communities. So that’s our main program, to really build our local capacity.

But in order to do that, we need first to build their awareness about the environment. They need to understand why we are doing this – and then after that, we give them some sort of general capacity building [program] like public speaking or how to better use social media, and then work in more specific things like understanding GIS [Geographic Information Systems].

We also deliver a basic GIS course to our youth, to help them more fully understand the extent of forest loss, for example. In our regency, peatland forest is the major [landscape], and the next-largest is coastal and wetland forest – our mangroves. It’s very rich in terms of ecosystems.

How do you approach the youth work that you do?

We believe in a collaborative approach: we are not doing it by ourselves. We are introducing our organization to local NGOs and government as well – by doing that, we can help to source some of the skills that our youth might need from a particular NGO or units in the government.

I’m also encouraging all our youth members to try to work productively with the government, businesses, and NGOs. Because, at the end of the day, maybe they are doing something wrong with their policy, maybe they’re doing something with their business operations, but we need to map them as the stakeholders and see how we can use them to benefit the youth in our regency.

How do you build that network? Do you have formal workshops, as well as going into schools for public awareness?

Sometimes we send them letters to introduce our organization, or we initiate an informal discussion with them about what we are doing. Then we build mutual understanding. There are many young people [in our network] that are now developing their ideas through start-up businesses, and that’s a wonderful resource for us in our community. They’re doing amazing business, but they’re also considering their impact and contributions to environmental protections and local community development.

And what do some of your capacity-building and awareness-raising activities look like?

Well, for instance, last year we got support from the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSALI) grant to create our first ever all-female capacity building [program]. In my regency, there is an abundance of bamboo. With support from that grant, we built capacity in making eco-polybags [for seedlings] from bamboo. In our regency, there are a lot of NGOs doing restoration projects and we introduced this to them as a way to cut their plastic use.  

Then we see that connection in terms of culture, because weaving is mostly done by the adults, like grandmothers and mothers, not young generations. We tell them: “Hey, we can probably make some sort of local business with this, and then we can introduce you to our NGO network to find buyers for your product, and then you can also contribute to plastic-free restoration projects in our regency.”

We are also in the process of introducing this polybag to our government because it has its own restoration projects as well. And we have some NGOs – Fauna and Flora International, for example, are working in our regency, and they’re now shifting from plastic to bamboo eco-polybags. So there are more organizations coming out and acknowledging this – that we can have a more environmentally-friendly impact even within our restoration projects.

Why did you apply to the Restoration Stewards?

That’s a very good question. One of my friends, Eka, was in last year’s cohort, and I helped her during the implementation of her peatland restoration project. I saw how GLF spotlighted her project, and how the network functions in this kind of forum, and she also taught me about the capacity-building process. So, for me, joining this kind of project is about how I can get that network. We need financial support too, but the most important thing is how GLF can spotlight each of the Restoration Stewards.

Did anything happen in your youth that created your interest in the environment? Why are you focusing on youth in particular?

In 2015, I decided to volunteer in conservation, and I saw that most conservation efforts focus on adults because it’s thought that adults are those who work; are those who are “doing.” There was very limited participation of our youth. So in 2017, I decided to do something about it.

Our youth community is the first of its type in our regency. We are providing environmental education at elementary school, junior and senior high school, and university – we are really doing all levels of the younger generations. But we are also working with teachers in schools: we cannot do 1000 school visits in a year, but if we work with the teacher as well, they can continue to deliver the message to their students across multiple generations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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