Interview with Conservation Biologist and Islamic Leader, Dr. Fachruddin Mangunjaya

Fachruddin Mangunjaya is a well-known Indonesian Islamic leader and conservation biologist. He has helped train and mobilize more than 1000 clerics in delivering sermons that connect science and religion with environmental content.  He is also a Senior Lecturer at the School of Graduate Program Universitas Nasional and Chairman of the Centre for Islamic Studies Universitas Nasional.

Dr Fachruddin Mangunjaya, at his Project site Rimbang Baling Wildlife Sanctuary, Riau Sumatra

What issues are you (as a faith and environmental leader) working on that are the greatest priority for your community? 

Indonesia has 27.4 million hectares of protected areas – an area that is as large as the country of New Zealand – with 552 protected areas. They contain important habitats for tigers, leopards, and primates including orangutans, gibbons, and proboscis monkeys. Of course, they harbor thousands of other protected wildlife species, some of which science has yet to discover. However, extreme poverty in our country has meant that there is constant pressure to convert these areas for cash crop farming and other economic growth schemes. That means that local communities that have lived in these areas for centuries and who have traditions that protect nature are under pressure to give up their long standing moral values. I have a great deal of sympathy for poor people, who struggle in their daily lives and live a subsistence lifestyle. Many of them are dependent on a healthy environment from which they can gather and use natural resources. There is a great deal of tension between the needs of such people and the needs to also protect nature and wildlife so that all life can thrive.

These days, mass communication has reached all corners of every village and people have access to television, the internet, and social media. They have desires and aspirations that previous generations did not have, while at the same time, they lack basic needs such as education for their children. It is important that we create initiatives that can benefit these people even as we work towards protecting conservation areas. We also must underpin conservation work as falling into line with tradition and our religious beliefs so that people apply their ethics and beliefs into supporting such initiatives. My life’s work has been to take an Islamic approach as the ethical basis for caring for nature. This is the kind of education I have provided for over a thousand religious leaders in the areas adjacent and surrounding conservation areas in Indonesia. It is important that religious leaders become allies in environmental and conservation efforts and I hope others also use similar methods so this can happen.

How does your faith/ spiritual beliefs influence what you do?

I grew up in Central Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, in a town on the edge of a rubber forest. My family members were pious Muslims, and my grandfather was a qadi, or Islamic law expert. I was, however, sent to a state school and not a pesantren (an Islamic boarding school). I always had a deep love for nature and wildlife and was a guide in the Tanjung Puting National Park when I was young. Not surprisingly, I decided to study conservation biology further and eventually got a PhD and became an environmental professional working for several international NGOs. However, I was always frustrated because I had to leave Islam at the door when I entered that world. 


One of my favorite Quran verses is: “And there is no creature on the Earth or bird that flies with its wings except that they are umma [the community of believers] like you (6:38).” To me, it was always obvious that the Quran calls us to be conservationists and to care about other species besides our own. And, coming from a country with the largest Muslim population, I knew that taking a faith-based approach would mobilize action and make it easy to get attention. Islam has followers, institutions, and financial resources that can increase collective action in a much greater way than if conservation initiatives go it alone.

Therefore, it has been important to me that I take an approach where I display the insights of the religious community while also emphasizing that no single approach can solve all problems. This means that we can appreciate diversity in our strategies and approaches and open our eyes to the fact that Islam can provide solutions and answers, especially for human beings who want to be guided by the spirituality of revelation or guidance from God.

What has been successful in your approach, and where do you see challenges?


Ekopesantren and Clerics Training in Bandung 2022

The greatest challenge in this work is that environmental efforts are always a long-term endeavor and not easy to achieve. We are often at odds with corporations, with governments, with political leaders and even one another. It is easy to feel tired or to feel like giving up because the wins are incremental and small. However, we must look at short term indicators to understand that there is a constant movement towards success, towards sustainability, no matter how slow. We have no choice given climate-caused disasters and ecological collapses and sooner or later, all of these entities have to acknowledge that. 

I see and am hopeful of peoples’ growing interest to involve religious leaders in environmental and conservation approaches over the past two decades. When I started this work, people often questioned the rationale and efficacy of this approach. However, in the last two decades, there have been numerous studies and papers by academics that have acknowledged that working with Islamic leaders and moral ethics has had long standing beneficial results in the environmental world. My work with the Center for Islamic Studies at Universitas Nasional has been partly to provide such evidence. There are more activists each year that want to use this approach, especially after the successful work we did in implementing fatwas against wildlife trade. That division between religion and conservation is no longer impenetrable like it used to be. I am especially proud of the way we used sukuk and wakaf (Islamic finance) to mobilize resources for environmental actions in Indonesia. 

What gives you the most hope? (Alternately, what gives you the most courage?)

We have an old proverb: “Disitu langit dipijak, disitu juga langit dijunjung” (Direct translation: Where the earth is stepped on, there the sky is also upheld) meaning that we must understand the local culture and apply their values to our efforts. Therefore, if we want to do something we must consider what the community already has and apply their cultural values to identify approaches that are mutually beneficial. For a long time, this was exactly the opposite of how conservation and environmental initiatives were carried out. Today, however, we have come a long way and many of our global approaches exhibit this teaching; the concept of community-based conservation is one example of this way of living in harmony with local customs. I find a lot of hope in this change, which has happened within a couple of decades. It gives me hope.

How can someone reading this newsletter support you and your work?

Please visit our website for the Center for Islamic Studies, and support us by subscribing to our social media and other outreach programs. (Website: You can email us at, or me directly at  Thank you!  

This article taken from Loka Initiative Newsletter March 2023h