Meet with inspiring PANORAMA Solution Providers: Adam Miller, Executive Director at Planet Indonesia
Yayasan Planet Indonesia has pioneered a model of community-based conservation through their ‘Conservation Cooperative’ model that addresses the underlying drivers causing climate change vulnerability in partner communities. They have created village-led partnerships to support ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) by instituting community governance structures (Conservation Cooperatives) that enable access to financial and non-financial services that catalyse community-based adaptation.
Adam Miller, Executive Director at Planet Indonesia, is joined in this conversation by Cécile Fattebert of the IUCN Protected and Conserved Areas team.
Hi Adam, could you first briefly introduce yourself?
My name is Adam Miller. I'm the executive director of planet Indonesia, and one of the co-founders. I'm originally from the US, but I've been living full time in Indonesia since about 2013. So just a little bit of backstory on the organization, I first moved to Indonesia on a Fulbright scholarship from the US Department of State, and I had always, from the time I was a kid, had an interest in birds. I had actually planned to pursue a career in academia, so I had gone to Indonesia to set up the beginnings of a PhD and to learn the language and do some research, particularly on the songbird trade and parrot trade in Indonesia.
It was during that time, I guess you could say I had somewhat of an early life crisis. It just felt very strange to be out in the forest, counting birds and measuring trees when there was chainsaws and gunshots going off and communities were faced with marginalization and all the issues of rural poverty. I like to say that I had this kind of moment where I hung up my binoculars and became a reluctant social entrepreneur. Around that time, I met Novi, Roja and Desi and the four of us were from different backgrounds, and had worked for NGOs for research, government, and things like that. We all felt that conservation in Indonesia and much of Southeast Asia was kind of missing the mark. So, we came together and founded Planet Indonesia in 2014, we founded a US 501C3 organization and then an Indonesian non-for-profit GIS on.
We spent the first six to 12 months going out and just listening to communities. We went to terrestrial interior, DIAC communities in Borneo, we went to coastal communities and offshore marine protected area communities, and really wanted to listen to their stories. Why were people involved in things like illegal logging, poaching, forced to sell their land to oil Palm companies or mining concessions? We realized that a lot of the stories that we heard were the same, that there was these two categories of challenges that communities faced underpinned by one category that kind of had an influence on both, and that was that many communities were faced with social economic challenges, that in times of need they were forced into situations where they would rely on natural capital to make up for losses or cover unmet healthcare bills or education bills.
The second area was around management and governance. These communities lacked democratically built platforms or structures, such as an association or cooperative, that could bring people together to make decisions about such ‘tragedy of the commons’. If we have these two issues, underpinning both was the issue of rights. Communities often felt sidelined by state led protected areas and that free prior informed consent wasn't practiced and that there was a lot of confusion about where boundaries started and where boundaries ended, that spacial aspect that underpins indigenous rights. So, we took these stories, and we created Planet Indonesia with our core model really focusing on those four aspects. We advance rights of communities by supporting the legal process, either for co-management of protected areas or exclusive management through things like customary forest or locally managed marine areas. Once those rights are secured and recognized, we support adaptive management of natural resources. This means providing technical support and incentives for communities to come together, building resource management plans - really trying to ask simple questions and answer those questions. Who gets access to what resource, when are there going to be no take zones, limited use areas, full use areas, and things like that.
The third area that we work on is governance. We call our model the Conservation Cooperative Approach, and I'll talk a little bit more about that in a minute, but in every community that we partner with, we set up a community association and that association has democratic processes. We help them have elections, a governing board, a safeguarding board, and then within that association they have different what we call sub working units. For example, one community association may have a sub working unit around organic farming, and another around surveillance using smart patrol, and another around reproductive health and community healthcare and so on. These associations act almost like little nonprofits or charities that we support.
The fourth area is around socioeconomic activities. Here we investigate how we can integrate things like livelihood, support, healthcare, and education into the conservation space to really catalyze conservation and social ecological outcomes. Going back to our original story, I think one thing we found that's really important and unique about Planet Indonesia is how much emphasis we put on community governance. When we were going out and listening to those stories from interior communities to coastal communities, one thing that we noticed a lot of was the community-based conservation that was thriving wasn't actually created or facilitated by a nonprofit or government agency, it was already existing there. Most of the time, the reason it was existing is because of governance. There was an indigenous association with a level of prestige where people wanted to be involved for a number of reasons, either culturally or biologically or economically. That association was really the central piece. Without the governance aspect, community-based conservation often had a short lifespan, and that for long term solutions and the longevity of community-based conservation, the governance piece was essential. Relating back to the conservation cooperative approach, the governance aspect was the initial thing that we wanted to figure out. As our first innovation, we wanted to explore how we could create a community association. Looking back historically at community-based conservation over the past thousands of years, we know that that's the solution, we know that has to be there. How do we create that association and bring it into the modern era? That's why we call them conservation cooperatives - they are a community association, they act like a governing body, but also, they have social economic and environmental programs built into them. For example, most associations have a village savings and loans program. Community members who become members meet monthly about savings and loans. They discuss who's taking out what loans, for what reasons, such as emergency situations and what are the interest rates and things like that. At the same time, that platform is used to discuss matters like, an oil palm company approaching the village and wanting to buy their land. By integrating these social and economic services into a governance institution, I think we've been able to overcome a lot of barriers that people face in community-based conservation. We started with one conservation cooperative in 2014, the year we launched, that was supporting 17 households. Now there are over 36 associations that we support, working with more than 17,000 families and over about 1.2 million hectares of land and sea. So yeah, that's a little bit of an overview of where we came from and where we are today.
Thank you, this is a very comprehensive presentation of your work! It is fascinating. You actually answered already the first question, I had. Looking at the solution Catalyzing Community-led conservation to reduce deforestation and biodiversity loss through an integrated ecosystem approach, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, that you submitted for the Pathfinder awards, you explain about these elements there as well. Is there anything you want to add about what makes this solution successful? Also, if I understand correctly, it seems this solution is a model you have been able to transfer to different sites, adapting to different needs?
Yes, so, we kind of have a general infrastructure for the model, but as you said, every village that we work in, the community association looks slightly different. I think the one important aspect is that all of program design, program implementation and evaluation, all three of those major processes are led and co-designed with communities. Not every cooperative that we support, for example, has healthcare services. It’s really based on the needs and opportunities that exist in each village landscape that we support.
And do you bring sometimes community representatives you start working with, to meet communities with whom you have already implemented your model, in order for them to exchange on their experience?
Yes, definitely. A powerful tool that we feel is the most impactful when starting to work in a new area, is inviting community leaders and members of different programs from communities that we've been supporting over the past decade - bringing them to meet with new areas that we're targeting to work in and having them tell the story of what they've seen change, the challenges they've faced, and also the successes that they've had. Maybe it's too bold to say, but it feels like the model is going viral now, because in many of the landscapes we work in there's more communities asking to work with us than we have funding and staff to do so. We're kind of now in this scrambling mode of trying to make sure that we have the resources and capacity to work in the number of areas that are requesting the programs and support.
And are there sometimes, for example, other NGOs, willing to apply the same model and asking you to accompany them in that process?
Yes, so, that’s very in line with the next thing I was going to talk about. In 2019 and 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, we started really trying to ask this question about scalability and replication. We work in just West Borneo, which is a huge province with millions of hectares of forest, land and sea, but we were interested in expanding to other islands in Indonesia. There are 17,000 islands, so even though it's one country, a lot of the time it feels like many. We really wanted to shift the needle on how a lot of conservation is done, as a lot of large and big international NGOs often use a franchise approach, which is replicating and building offices all over a country or multiple countries. We felt that wasn't exactly in line with our values of supporting local initiatives and being more of a facilitator and a direct implementor. We made the decision to scale through partnerships, I guess you could say. Over the past three years, we’ve created six partnerships with locally based civil society organizations in other parts of Indonesia and are providing them with technical support. Additionally, we are conducting learning exchanges between these different NGOs, as they are all experts in their own areas of work and are also helping drive funding to them. A lot of the time these smaller place-based organizations have the right values, are very ingrained in local communities, and know local government officials. However, it is often the case that connecting with international donors, having the ability to write proposals and grant reports, and the English language is a major barrier for them. So, we've been helping to try to absorb some of that role and are trying to be partner first. What are their aspirations and how can we work together? We've begun replicating pieces of the model through these six partnerships in Sumatra, Sulawesi, Lombok, Sumbawa, and Flores, which are other islands panning from West to Eastern Indonesia.
Excellent, thank you. If we go back to the Pathfinder award last year where you were a finalist, have you observed any benefits from that visibility?
Yeah definitely, people had reached out, as we've mentioned it quite a bit in our eNewsletter, some of the other organizations that were also in the finals, and organizations we had met before. It was fun to reconnect with them. To be honest, I don't think we've had any new donors approach us, but existing donors have reached out and commended us, with some increasing the grant size they were providing.
Oh that’s great! And what is your vision for the future of your model? You spoke already about your six partnerships and the upscaling strategy you have in place, but is there anything else to expect moving forward?
Yes, so that's very much in line with our vision. We've made the decision that our direct implementation work is just going to focus on the island of Borneo. Our staff are indigenous, and we feel like we understand somewhat the biological and cultural aspects of Borneo, but moving forward, we are interested in scaling out to other parts of Indonesia over the next five years. We've just put together our five-year strategy and our vision really is centered on those two aspects: strengthening our direct implementation work on the island of Kalimantan, or Indonesian Borneo, and then strengthening civil society organizations in networks across Indonesia to build a movement around organizations that are advocating for the rights of indigenous people and the rights of nature simultaneously. I think long term, we have had the vision that we could potentially upscale pieces of this model to other parts of Southeast Asia or particularly the global south.
So that is definitely a vision and an aspiration of the organization. We really want to focus on Indonesia first because, for those that have worked in Indonesia before, moving from Kalimantan to Sulawesi is a massive change. Even though it's the island just next door to us, it has completely different ethnic groups, different local languages, different religions, different farming and fishing practices. Moving between islands can feel like moving between countries. We are going to trial this over the next five years and then reevaluate to see if it makes sense to move beyond Indonesia, or if there is enough work to focus on in just one country.
Do you have any message or recommendation that you would like to share? If you were given the stage to talk with global conservation actors, what would you tell them or ask them?
I think one thing that needs to happen on a global scale is the recognition and better advocacy for the rights of communities and indigenous people in the conservation space. We see it moving in that direction, but I think that there's still needs to be larger self-reflection on where we've come from. I know it's probably ironic for me, a westerner, to be talking about indigenous led conservation in Indonesia, but so much of conservation in the global South has ties to colonial past in histories. If you spend just a few weeks in Kalimantan, you can hear those stories very clearly. I think that we, as a global community, need to recognize the historical trauma that's there. There needs to be a better self-reflection on a global scale of what that means moving forward.
And then I think that after such reflection is happening and that deep radical listening is going viral, that moving forward there needs to be a recognition that we won't solve the climate crisis, we won't solve the biodiversity crisis, we won't solve the global poverty crisis without the inclusion of IPLCs in conservation at a global scale.
We are seeing things change, I do believe that. Things like 30 by 30, while there're pockets that are moving more towards F pick and things like that, and free prior informed consent and more rights-based approaches. But there's still a lot of large players that are very vocal about 30 by 30 that should just be state led protected areas.
Moving forward, these other effective conservation measures, such as locally managed marine areas, and customary forests, all these different kinds of management and governance tools that are in our disposal, they need to be talked about, they need to be recognized and they need to be pushed for at a global scale. I also think that something that really needs to happen if we're going to shift and push the needle to solve the climate and biodiversity crisis is we need to move away from a franchise system in conservation. There is such a vibrant and beautiful global society of local place based civil society organizations that exist all over the planet. Most of them are working with minimal resources but they are the right individuals with the right values. They are the best placed to solve these issues and to serve communities in helping them get back behind the wheel and in their social ecological trajectory. I think that large NGOs, funders and philanthropy need to move away from a system of supporting that self-replication, that franchise approach, and move more towards an approach that asks about how do we get funds and resources to these local place organizations who are best positioned to solve these problems.
What is the role of national governments in that regard?
It is a huge challenge, particularly for somewhere like Southeast Asia where most governments don't have clear policy pathways for recognition. Focusing on Indonesia, as of 2015 they have launched this Social Forestry Scheme within which there's five pathways that help communities secure rights and recognition over different types of forests. Some are for indigenous communities, some are for non-indigenous, and there's pluses and minuses to it. I think it's great to see Indonesia taking those steps and moving towards that type of model, but in 2015 they set the goal of 12.7 million hectares of forest and 9 million hectares of agricultural land by 2020. Right now, the national target that's been reached is 1.7 million, so they are 21 million hectares off their original target. There are a lot of challenges, but the good parts of the Social Forestry Scheme do balance sustainable use and conservation objectives quite well.
There is a lot of protection around community rights, for example, communities cannot just sell an area to an oil palm concession. However, I think it was the World Resource Institute a few years ago that did an analysis showing that on average it takes an oil Palm company between 30 or 45 days to secure access over a concession to start deforesting it and planting an oil pump, and on average, it takes an indigenous communities two to three years. While the political system is still changing, it’s nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of terrestrial systems. In Indonesia, there isn't a national policy that recognizes locally managed marine areas. If you were to compare that to somewhere like the Philippines, which has a vibrant network of LMMAs, or somewhere like Madagascar, even though Indonesia is one of the countries with the largest consumption and production of seafood and is located next to the Coral Triangle.
There's very difficult political frameworks and regulatory frameworks to navigate at this time. While Indonesia is moving in the right direction, there needs to be a particularly larger amount of work done, both for terrestrial and especially for marine ecosystems. National governments have a huge role to play, and I believe they are the best connector between local initiatives and global stakeholders because they have the power to elevate the voices, needs, and aspirations of local communities through regulatory frameworks. They are able to bring those to a global platform and explain how their country, whoever it may be, is taking steps to solve this climate biodiversity and poverty crisis.
Every country seems to be on a different pathway. There are some very interesting case studies from around the world that show how some countries, like Madagascar, are faced with intense levels of social economic inequality but have relatively decent policy pathways for things like locally managed marine areas and community forests. There are other countries that are doing much better from a GDP perspective but do not have any clear policy pathways. Southeast Asia, compared to Africa or South America, seems to be particularly behind that regional movement towards multi-stakeholder management of biodiversity and natural resources, like Indonesia despite having the Social Forestry Scheme.
I think our experience is still an authoritative top-down system. There’s still quite a bit of conflict in most of the state led protected areas that we work in, conflict between management authorities and indigenous people and local communities in that area. While things are getting better, I would still say that there's quite a bit of work, that needs to be done, decades of work in Indonesia. There’s a long history of challenges in Indonesia, with its colonial past, and a history of dictators that were Java-centric. There is a big imbalance between the different ethnic groups and the wealthy government folk that come from the one island, as most government officials, management authorities, and health departments are all located in Java. The other islands are seen as more rural and uneducated, although the situation is improving. There is still a lot of distrust between the general civil society and the Indonesian government, so the Social Forestry Scheme was a big win for many NGOs, and that was before Planet Indonesia existed. A lot of NGOs had worked for decades to get that policy and regulatory framework across the board, so this movement is great to see. It needs to be improved upon but there are a lot of groups working to do so. When it comes to marine ecosystems in Indonesia however, it’s quite challenging to secure exclusive rights for communities and small-scale fishers across the country.
Do you engage with the government to promote this?
Absolutely. We have many MoUs with different management authorities, things from the governor's office, to the department of fisheries, to the natural resource management society, to the environmental law enforcement agency. We have multi-year MoUs with all these organizations, it's very important to us. It's a value to us to really respect the government and work closely with them. There are other groups that take a different approach and are more aggressive. That’s fine, we don't shame or say that that's not a good approach. For us however, it's important to have positive and challenging conversations with the Indonesian government about that balance between the requirement of state led management and the basic right of local management. Bringing those two things together is very important to us, but it is often difficult.
The local authorities where you work in Kalimantan, do they see the impacts of your model and recognize that it is a good thing?
Yes, one of the main management authorities has somewhat certified the approach. In other words, the toolkit and manual are certified and recognised by the Indonesian government as a rights based approach to human rights and the rights of nature conservation. With that certification, it makes it much easier for us or other NGOs to enter a national park or protected area, somewhere owned by the state, and use pieces of the model in the management of that protected area.
Yeah, exactly. At least, within IUCN, to reassure you, this is really what we promote, i.e. recognition of indigenous rights and local communities, and that the 30 by 30 doesn't mean only, state led protected areas. And also regarding financing, it is a big challenge. And we try for example, to have sub grant mechanisms, meaning we get a pot of money from a big donor and publish calls for proposals for locally based organizations to apply. But it's very difficult to get that because a lot of donors actually don't allow this in their policy. This is also something we would like to advocate for more. And I think what you are doing with your partnerships will also help making these locally based organizations more visible at some point. I think it has to go somehow in two directions, from the bottom up and from the global to local, and somehow meet in the middle.
Yes. I completely agree. That's one thing we've also been looking at moving forward, because we're a medium sized NGO, but we do have strong grassroots. But we also do have some expats on staff that can help with things like networking internationally. We've also been looking at moving forward, how can we position ourselves as an intermediary as well for some of these larger funders, how do we kind of act as a connector and facilitator between these place-based civil society groups and larger family foundations or government foundations or multilaterals, like, excuse me, the IUCN.