RuaiSMS: an initiative that links text messaging and local media to report forest incursions in Borneo

RuaiSMS location
West Kalimantan, East Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan, Indonesia
Forest under threat in Borneo
Key Lessons 
  • With basic training and mobile phones, members of remote communities can become 'citizen journalists'.
  • Media, such as TV and news services, are powerful and adpatable reporting tools that reach large numbers of viewers and subscribers.
  • Linking local citizen journalists to media services can create change for forest communities impacted by forest incursions. It enables communities to share their concerns with a wide audience, including people that can bring about change; for example, by strengthening community land rights or improving public services.

RuaiSMS is a non-profit citizen journalist news service. It uses mobile phone text messaging (SMS) as a way for indigenous and rural communities in remote areas of Borneo to disseminate information to national media and community members. Around 200 citizen journalists have been trained to send text messages containing news reports of one to four sentences to RuaiTV, using the FrontlineSMS system. RuaiTV is a station in the provincial capital, which may then create and broadcast a feature based on the alert; add it to the newsfeed that is read by its subscribers; or forward the SMS to power brokers in the area (such as the chief of police or local politicians).

International Forest Agenda/s 
Monitoring Theme/s 
Deforestation drivers
  • Incursion into customary land by commercial interests
Land use change
  • Oil palm concession boundaries
  • Liaison between oil palm companies and stakeholders impacted by new concessions
Policies & measures
  • Service delivery in remote areas e.g. schools, bridge repair
Wellbeing & social issues
  • Police intimidation 

Policy context 

REDD+ has the potential to impact communities in Indonesia that live in and depend on forests. In 2010 Indonesia signed a bilateral agreement with Norway, through which it could receive up to US$1 billion (in phases) to undertake REDD+ activities. So far this agreement has mainly funded action by Indonesia to prepare for REDD+. The agreement includes a condition that further payments are contingent on the enforcement of a moratorium on new forest concessions (the moratorium was established in 2011).

In 2014, the main pressure on Indonesian forests remains the expansion of agricultural land and especially oil palm, which has brought conflict within communities who are dependent on the same land. Many of these remote communities have little direct access to policy-makers. The RuaiSMS initiative is focused on reporting deforestation and issues of relevance to forest communities, not on REDD+ interventions per se. However, the team of citizen journalists collect information that is relevant for REDD+ safeguards, and are therefore well positioned to report on the success of REDD+ in future.

Community participation 

The RuaiSMS project was initiated by the journalist Harry Surjadi, through the Knight Journalism Fellowship. Although it was not initiatied directly by the communities, all of the citizen journalists who collect and submit the data are community members who live and work in the forest. They send their reports to RuaiTV, which collates and edits them. This media organisation works closely with AMAN, a coalition of indigenous peoples in the Indonesian archipelago that promotes indigenous issues.

Monitoring methodology 

Citizen journalists have submitted many SMS alerts. There is a format for submission and a process for publishing the alerts, but no set monitoring themes. Topics that frequently feature are deforestation events caused by palm oil expansion, especially if these occur in community lands; farming conflict and land conflict; and issues relating to public service provision.

A typical monitoring event (see figure 1) is as follows:

  • A community member identifies a problem and presents it to the village chief.
  • The village chief asks the citizen journalist active in the area to write the alert and send it to RuaiTV.
  • RuaiTV, as the administrator of the SMS alerts, edits the SMS.
  • The alert is then circulated to subscribers.

SMS alerts are restricted to 160 characters, and during the journalistic training, citizens learn to report in terms of what, when, where, who, why, and how an event occurred.

What is this?
Figure 1. Steps for reporting

Digital technology

This initiative is dependent on community members having access to mobile phones both to receive and transmit information. Community members often have to travel from their village to a local communications hub in order to send and receive messages, due to the remoteness of the areas in which they live. While smartphones are not necessary for FrontlineSMS, in interviews citizen journalists stated that news stories with pictures received more attention when they were transformed into TV items. Therefore, there was a strong preference for smartphones with cameras over ordinary phones.

Source of funding

The Knight Foundation funded the founder of this initiative to start the process, and it is now run on a voluntary basis by the citizen journalists. RuaiTV, that promotes news stories from the service, is funded by TV advertising.

Achievements and challenges

RuaiSMS has produced concrete results - over 2,000 new stories submitted to the news service, of which 500 have been disseminated after editing. Anecdotal evidence shows how these are having an impact. For example, in Kapuas Hulu District (Silat Hilir Sub-district), the government returned indigenous people's land, which had been under the control of a palm oil company, after it was reported that the company was making incursions. A text about a local school, which had just three classrooms for 130 students, led to the construction of a new school.

Nevertheless, the project also faces multiple challenges:

  • Coverage of mobile phone signals is patchy, meaning that the most remote, marginalised areas are unable to access the service. Pontianak City (see figure 2) has the largest number of subscribers to the service as well as the best phone signal in the area.
  • Only 10% of those who did the training have become citizen journalists, regularly submitting information, and these are rarely women.
  • The news administration service, RuaiTV, has received threats and offers of bribes to supress negative media articles, putting them in a challenging position.
Figure 2. Geographic distribution of subscribers to RuaiSMS
Figure 2 Geographic distribution of subscribers to RuaiSMS