NOW ChangeMaker Diaries

INDONESIA - N. Sumatra
Spotlight on illegal palm oil

It's a luxury to travel to far flung northern Sumatra, but it’s definitely not glamorous. The trip started from Heathrow flying overnight to Doha, followed by another 9hours flight to Jakarta, a 4hours stop-over at a local airport hotel before catching a 5:30am internal flight to Medan in northern Sumatra. I had heard this was the most conservative part of Indonesia, so my colleague and I went prepared with long shirts and trousers to be respectful to local religious culture.

At arrivals, we were greeted by Kresna, a lean and relaxed looking local guy who was our fixer for the coming 10 days. Little did we know that we were about to embark on a 7hours car ride through jungle roads, passing through cloud, to eventually stop by a large and wide fast streaming mud brown river. I thought we were crossing over in the dugout canoe to the other side and I was not prepared for the 1.5hour precarious ride upstream in a motorised canoe balancing us and our heavy wheeled luggage. Camera in hand, I tried to film the palm oil trees ( while trying to decipher palm oil trees from actual indigenous trees.) and the beautiful sun set.

Our “camp” was always “just around the next corner” … when suddenly and rather abruptly in the middle of the river, we hit something which cut the engine. With no more engine, a small wooden paddle came out as the sun set and the jungle started to look more menacing rather than enchanting. It was getting dark fast as we waited for another boat to come. A second small motorised dugout canoe eventually arrived and we set off again and turned into a small stream. It was very dark by now under the heavy jungle canopy as we pulled up to a muddy shore. We can’t see anything by this time!

For two weeks, I filmed Mr Rudi Putra, a biologist by training who is now dismantling illegal palm oil plantations that are causing massive deforestation in the Leuser Ecosystem, a 2.6 million hectare tract of forest in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia. This is the last place on earth where Sumatran rhino, elephant, tiger and orangutan coexist in the wild. Rudi has made it his lifelong dedication to protect this unique place which houses the second most bio diverse ecosystem in the world. Rudi is the leader of the Leuser Conservation Forum (FKL), a local NGO in Aceh province. He manages more than 200 field staff and they are protecting and restoring this habitat. I learned that if you cut down the illegal palm oil trees, the forest naturally regenerates itself in just four years. Nature, when left alone, mostly fixes herself.

Spending time filming these magical wild Orangutans, whose existence is severely under threat due to loss of habitat, made us recognise the dire need for humans to take responsibility of our footprint on this planet. We need to learn to walk alongside and not obliterate the natural world and all its wild inhabitants. As we can see now with the Covid-19 pandemic, our lives are directly affected by the encroachment of human activity into the natural environment, with dire diseases and viruses as a consequence.

There is a tomorrow, if together we embrace. For love and nature are essential for life, let us live in harmony, growing organically. We can take the steps forward. We can elevate, eliminate the bad and evolve for the better. The choice is ours.

Northern Sumatra, Indonesia

About the Traveller

Sophia Scott

Sophia Scott Photographer and Co-Founder of GROUNDTRUTH Global

Sophia Scott is a filmmaker who has lived and worked all over the world. Together with her sister Georgia, they founded GroundTruth Productions and their work put them in direct contact with a range of extreme environments – from drought in East Africa to conflict in the Middle East in the last decade.

These experiences sparked their drive to create a company with another sister Nina that could effect positive, meaningful change called GroundTruth Global. Together, they saw the opportunity to design a unique and brilliant range of travel goods - GroundTruth RikR - that drive positive change by reducing plastic pollution, improving people’s lives and mitigating their CO2 footprint to become 100% climate positive.

Living Positively


Cat in jungle hut sleeping in my tripod bag.


Jungle regeneration.


A river ride deep in the jungle from a dug our canoe.


The anti-poaching team.

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