With orchids in hand and a bamboo ladder slung over his shoulder, farmer Musimin scans the forest at the foot of Indonesia’s most active volcano to point out clusters of native flowers he’s been saving for years.
The 56-year-old, who, like many Indonesians, has a name, is an autodidact in nature conservation with no formal background in botany.
He has devoted his career to cultivating plants, which he likens to precious stones, and has been on a one-man mission to save the exotic blooms unique to the country on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, on the island of Java.
His work began after lava and ash ripped through the area following the massive eruptions of Mount Merapi, the last major eruption in 2010.
“I remember orchids used to be plentiful in the forest,” he said.
“Local people from the surrounding villages could take any orchid they wanted and they would sell the flowers at nearby tourist destinations.”
However, many were destroyed by the plumes of ash that fell on the land below the volcano.
So he set out to salvage their wilting fortune by building two bamboo greenhouses over the years in which to conserve their very special species of orchids.
The volcano killed about 60 people and destroyed thousands of hectares of forest when it erupted in 1994.
Another eruption in 2010 killed more than 300 and devastated the country.
“The forest near my house had burned out and the orchids that I used to be able to find easily were gone. I regretted not keeping one or two of them,” Musimin said of the 1994 tragedy.
That encouraged him to join local government efforts to find the surviving orchids while he and his neighbors explored the remains.
They managed to revive at least 90 orchid species that would also survive the 2010 outbreak, he said.
Today, Musimin mostly works alone and wants those who enter the forest to let the orchids bloom instead of trying to benefit from them.
“Many people are now choosing to pick orchids from the forest and sell them. Personally, I think the orchids are better off in their habitat where they can live as the crowns of the forest,” he said.
Other orchid centers, run by locals who learned about conservation from Musimin, have sprung up in the forest surrounding the volcano, said Akhmadi, spokesman for Mount Merapi National Park.
“He is indeed the pioneer of orchid conservation on Mount Merapi. His work has become an example for other groups we work with who have imitated and evolved his programs,” he said.
The father of two, who is now taking over Musimin’s leadership, wants to continue his legacy of orchid rescue by passing on his self-taught botanical knowledge to his grandchild, whom he often takes with him into the forest.
“I’ll show him orchids as soon as possible,” he said.
“Who knows, he could become my successor.”