Project Green Life
The time I spent in Indonesia made me feel a million things – exhilarated, confused, challenged, invigorated – but discovering Project Green Life invoked feelings that went beyond me. I felt connected to the world in a way that I never have before. All because my mom can be a little nosy sometimes. 🙂
We were on our way out for the day without any plans. We finally had time to relax and recuperate, but I couldn’t help feeling like things might get boring in this little town. By the river just outside our hotel, we saw two very pale-skinned people crouched by the water. Closer inspection revealed that one was giving the other a haircut! We were looking for a few tourists who would share a taxi ride with us, and the white skin was usually a dead giveaway…so Mom marched over to them to say hello. She soon found out that they were not, in fact, tourists. Zuzana and Milan were from the Czech Republic, and they spend half of the year living in Sumatra on their 27 hectare wildlife reserve and the other half living in the Czech Republic.
They explained that back in 2009, they started Project Green Life, a non-profit organization that works to protect the critically endangered Sumatran tiger. They do this in three ways: 1) Conserving land and protecting the habitat of the tiger, 2) Educating children about the importance of wildlife and nature, and 3) Raising awareness about the importance of the tiger in the communities surrounding Gunung Leuser National Park, one of the species’ last strongholds.
The Javan and Balinese tiger have both become extinct due to high levels of illegal logging and poaching to meet the demands of worldwide paper production and the black market. The Sumatran tiger looks to be headed down the same path if something isn’t done to combat the loss of habitat and the rampant poaching.
The Sumatran orangutan is the main focus of conservation and tourism groups in Bukit Lawang, because people are less prone to want to save something they have never seen. On any given day, a tourist can take a “jungle trek” and come face to face with a semi-wild orangutan in the national park. But very few have ever had the honor of meeting the elusive Sumatran tiger in the wild. So orangutans populate the glossy pages of brochures and posters feature their expectant, human-like faces, as if begging for donations from passing tourists. Tigers are lucky if they even make an appearance. And for exactly this reason, Zuzana and Milan decided that someone needed to stand up for this powerful yet vulnerable king of the jungle.
Fascinated by their story and their passion, we asked if we could tag along on their trip to a nearby village, where they planned to launch their newest program, the green patrol, to protect the oft-ignored border of the national park.
The village was just a short drive out of town, but first we had to make a quick stop by the ranger station.
The rangers of the national park have the final say about anything that goes on within the park borders. They are a little understaffed, so poaching prevention crews can’t do enough to catch all of the poachers in the park – most of whom are young boys simply looking to make money.
Milan brought copies of their flyer advertising paid positions with the green patrol, and the rangers looked it over, evaluating how it would come across to the locals they were targeting.
A little discussion, a few tweaks, and it was ready to present to the public. When we arrived in the village, Milan, Zuzana and Ali (their local partner in the non-profit) gathered leaders from the military, the police, the park service and the community.
We sat down in a roadside cafe. Once refreshments and cigarettes had been distributed, Milan began the meeting. He explained the goal of the green patrol: to build a community unit that would guard the border of the national park to prevent poachers from entering. If successful, the green patrol would benefit the community on several levels. Not only will it prevent poaching, but it will also provide jobs for locals and build accountability in the community, to foster a “see something, say something” mentality about illegal rainforest activity. If the community has an active role in protecting the national park, the hope is that each member will have a sense of pride and ownership that will compel them to defend the park, rather than try to illegally profit from it. In addition, Project Green Life has been raising money to send volunteers to live in the local villages to teach English in exchange for cooperating with the green patrol initiative. Milan and Zuzana plan to expand this model and build green patrols to surround the entire perimeter of the park.
Several speakers voiced their support and their concerns, and Ali translated between English and Indonesian. When it seemed a consensus had been reached, they adjourned, feeling hopeful that these local leaders would spread the word and help to build a trustworthy and powerful green patrol.
In a final act of friendship and conservation, they distributed a huge bag full of stuffed animals to the local children. These stuffed animals had been collected from children in the Czech Republic who participated in the educational programs Zuzana and Milan hosted as part of their Forests for Children project – the predecessor to Project Green Life. They started Forests for Children in the Czech Republic in order to educate students about the importance of forests and other wildlife habitat around the world. Through countless school visits, Zuzana and Milan have reached thousands of kids, hoping to inspire them to be a part of a better future – one that appreciates the inherent value of nature, rather than it’s value as a product for sale. Zuzana started collecting toys to distribute because she felt that giving children a stuffed animal to love and nurture would translate to a connection to these animals in real life when the children grew up.
The kids crowded around as Ali explained that he was giving them each their own animal to care for. It was wonderful to watch their faces light up as they each met their new furry friend.
(Pictured above: Zuzana on the far left, Milan kneeling in the front row on the left.)
The children happily returned home with their stuffed animals – and no one seemed to mind that the orangutan had dyed its hair pink!
I truly admire the hard work that Zuzana and Milan do. It’s not often that people give up their lives and the comforts of home to spend their time living and working in a foreign country to protect wildlife and improve our planet for the next generation.
It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the bustle of the every day – between a job, a social life, family, hobbies, bills, and who knows what else, life can get in the way of getting out there and truly making a difference. I found myself wishing that I had the courage to pick up and move to a reserve in the middle of the Sumatran jungle.
When chatting with Zuzana and Milan later that evening, they showed us photos from the camera traps on their reserve – including one of a Sumatran tiger. Just seeing a photo of this terrifying predator, and knowing that one could be roaming in the park during my hike the next day, gave me chills. Milan looked on with friendly jealousy when Zuzana told her story of her brief encounter with a tiger a few months ago. Her eyes lit up with a blend of fear and awe as she recounted hearing the soft thud of the tiger’s footsteps as it leapt away when she approached.
Zuzana and Milan have dedicated their lives to protecting the rainforest. While most of us won’t end up doing quite that, there is something we can do. We can spread the word about their important fight, donate to the cause, or volunteer on an alternative break or summer trip. I am excited to continue working with Project Green Life to produce educational videos in English to carry their mission to the US and around the world.
If you are interested in getting involved in any capacity, please comment on this post! I’d be happy to help you figure out how to contribute in a way that works for you – whether that be in time, talent or money. I can’t wait to hear from you!
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