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Swiss woman steps in to protect the Indonesian rain forest

Regina Frey has committed herself to saving the last remaining stands of Sumatra's rain forest and its wildlife. Peter Jaeggi

A woman living in the heart of Zurich's wine-producing region is the last person one would expect to be playing a key role promoting nature conservation in Indonesia. But Regina Frey is very much involved.

This content was published on August 27, 2000 - 09:48

Frey lives in the village of Berg am Irchel, about 30 kilometres north of Zurich. Vineyards cover the rolling hills surrounding the community, but her house backs onto a river gorge, protected by thick vegetation and tall trees.

"It reminds me a lot of my days in Sumatra," Frey says, "we lived on the banks of the Bohorok river and from our hut we could see the opposite river bank, which was very steep and overgrown with high trees. It's very similar here."

A biologist, she first went to Bukit Lawang on the edge of the Gunung Leuser national park in the early 1970s to launch a Swiss-sponsored project aimed at reintroducing captured orangutans to the wild. A photo album documenting that period of her life has pictures of her holding baby animals, which had been kept illegally as pets.

"This little orangutan was called Gamat. We got her as a one-year-old baby and here I'm trying to feed her some banana. That was in 1973 when we first started the rehabilitation project," she explains.

"We only had a few animals then and were trying to get more confiscated in cooperation with the Indonesian nature conservation authorities. We tried to convince the owners of orangutans to donate them to the station.

"We thought this was better than taking the animals away by force. So by trying to explain our aims we could often convince them to voluntarily give the animals to our project, and sometimes they would visit the centre and get very excited to see their animals moving around freely in the rain forest."

After a few years, Frey handed over the running of the centre in Bukit Lawang and it eventually came under the control of the Indonesian authorities. It's the only one of its kind in Sumatra, and has developed into a popular tourist attraction.

However, its very popularity has nearly derailed the project, while illegal logging threatens to destroy the surrounding rain forest, one of the orangutan's last natural habitats.

"It was primarily the rain forest that attracted me," Frey recalls. "Later on I observed orangutans in the zoo and I thought they looked very sad and lethargic, and when I heard about this project I knew I had to get involved."

Even though she left Indonesia nearly 20 years ago, she kept informed of developments and was shocked by stories she has heard over the past few years that the orangutans were being exploited for, and by tourists.

Guides allowed the animals to be fed and held. The apes no longer had any incentive to break from their dependency on humans, fewer managing the difficult transition to the wild.

From her home in Switzerland, Frey got involved again. "I still feel responsible for Bukit Lawang," she says, "because we started the project I feel I should at least try to get it back on the right track."

She believes tourism is the answer to nature conservation in the region, despite the way the trade has been handled. She has set up an environmental organisation, PanEco, which counts a local NGO in Sumatra as its main partner promoting eco-tourism and sustainable development.

The organisation has won the approval of the local authorities to set up another rehabilitation project, far from prying tourists, while maintaining the existing centre which Frey wants to transform into an eco-friendly orangutan viewing station.

"The people involved in tourism have to understand why people go to Bukit Lawang, and then hopefully they will start to understand why it's important to develop eco-friendly tourism. Education is the key word."

PanEco has initiated plans to help hotels develop a waste management system to stop sewage and rubbish being dumped in the Bohorok river. It has also started a volunteer exchange programme, and sponsors the development of an environmental education centre in co-operation with the local communities.

It also supports a training programme for organic agriculture in Java - the first of its kind in Indonesia.

The task is huge. In 1997, Worldwatch Report said: "The earth's ecological fate lies in the hands of eight nations, one of which is Indonesia." Many foreign observers believe the environment has been the big loser since the fall of the Suharto regime two years ago.

The watchdog organisation, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, says illegal logging now outstrips legal timber production in the country.

Frey agrees with the gloomy forecasts, saying that almost all lowland rain forests, which are the most biologically diverse, have disappeared. But she remains hopeful that the new government represents a new beginning.

"It was very difficult for NGOs to speak out under the old regime and to talk about threats to the environment. This has now changed," she says. "As an NGO, one feels free to talk about the negative aspects of public policy, and the negative aspects of foreign organisations and companies active in Indonesia."

A butterfly, its wings captured in the sunlight, flutters past Frey's veranda. It brings her attention back to her Swiss home. Berg am Irchel is where she grew up. She says that the surrounding forests are home to rare orchid and butterfly species as well as squirrels, lizards, songbirds and birds of prey. She has banded together with locals to protect them.

"My mother set up a rehabilitation centre for birds of prey," she says. "She has been rehabilitating birds of prey for the last 50 years. Maybe that's why I was fascinated by the idea of rehabilitating orangutans."

And also why she can't turn her attention away from the rain forests of Sumatra.

by Dale Bechtel

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