Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Willie Smits is saving Borneo, one orangutan at a time

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Willie Smits lives in Borneo, Indonesia, where he works as a forrester and microbiologist. But he’s better know as the guy who saves orangutans. And if his projects continue to succeed, he may be known as the man who saved Borneo.

Smits tells us about seeing “the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen” on the face of a baby orangutan in a cage in a Borneo market. Later that day, he found the animal, half dead, on a gargae heap – “of course, the cage had been salvaged.’ He nursed the orangutan back to life, and she lives in the sanctuary he maintains, with her children and grandchildren, some of the almost a thousand orangutan he cares for.

When Smits tells us that his project protects a thousand orangutans, the audience erupts into applause… which makes him extremely angry. “No, no! Don’t you understand? I care for more orangutans than all the zoos in the world because we’re so bad at protecting them in the wild.”

Orangutans are losing habitat to deforestation, and the deforestation comes from clearing old-growth rainforest and building oil palm plantations. Indonesia is madly planting oil palms to sell biofuels, and may be creating an environmental disaster in the process. The country is now responsible for more CO2 emissions than any nations but the US and China… and Indonesia has virtually no heavy industry. The damage comes simply from removing forests.

To save orangutans, Smits needs to save forests. To save forests, he’s trying an incredibly ambitious experiment – rebuilding a forest in Samboja Lestari, an area in eastern Borneo that had been turned into a biological desert through deforestation. With all large trees gone, all other plants died, leaving a waste of dry grasses… and desperate human poverty.

In cooperation with the Indonesian government, Smits has transformed the environment and created over 3000 jobs. The project has reintroduced bird, lizard and primate species, and has mitigated both floods and fires. But it hasn’t been easy.

This area of Borneo is farmed using slash and burn techniques. These fires often spiral out of control, and at this point, much of the area is plagued with underground fires. When the earth dries, these fires can come to the surface and rapidly burn millions of hectares. In 1998, a fire burned 5.5 million hectares.

The key to preventing Borneo rom burning is the sugar palm. Smits discovered them because he was required to give six to his father in law as the dowry for his wife, an Indonesian princess. Not only are the trees fire and flood resistant, they produce sugar water every day, which can be tapped and used as a biofuel. Smits calls them biological PV cells, which yield three times as much fuel per hectare as any other crop.

To rebuilding these forests, Smits is trying recreate the complexity of nature – Acacia mangium trees help shade out grasses, protect soil and allow microclimates to form. Banboo can be used with Acacia timber to build structures… but the bamboo can burn unless it grows along waterlines. They can help filter the water, helping mitigate pollution. Eventually, Smits throws his hands up and says, “It’s complicated.”

It is, but it’s also very simple. Working closely with people in the local villages, farmers are planting crops like beans and pineapples between palms, giving the farmers free land. The crops feed the orangutans, and everyone makes money… by avoiding monocultures and figuring out how forests are actually made by nature, it may be possible to rebuild the forests and save our primate bretheren.

It gets even better. Smits now sees evidence that trees are rain machines. Despite widespread drought in the area, there’s now dramatically increased rainfall over the land he’s helping rehabilitate.

5 Responses to “Willie Smits is saving Borneo, one orangutan at a time”

  1. Hi Ethan,
    Thanks so much for blogging about Willie and his amazing work saving orangutans and reforesting Borneo. As you learned in his TED talk, orangutans are critically endangered. To learn more about them and see how you can help protect them, I invite you and your readers to visit the Orangutan Outreach website. We work directly with Willie and are doing everything we can to spread the word on his remarkable achievements in Samboja.

    Keep up the great work!

    Richard Zimmerman
    Director, Orangutan Outreach
    http://redapes.org
    Reach out and save the orangutans!
    Join our Facebook Cause: http://causes.com/redapes

  2. Dear Ethan,

    Thank you so much for writing about Willie and his amazing, pathfinding,inspiring work in Borneo!

    His talk was one of my top 3 favorites at TED this year, and I’ve been forwarding this blog of yours to EVERYONE I know. Willie proves in concrete terms that one person really can make a difference in the world in a very huge and concrete way. He is my new hero!

    Thanks again (and great writing as always).

    all the best,
    Deborah

    Deborah Scranton
    Director/Producer

    Clover & a Bee Films

    UNTITLED RWANDA PROJECT (2010) — BAD VOODOO’S WAR (2008) — THE WAR TAPES (2006)

  3. Tami Koestomo says:

    Dear Mr.Zuckerman,
    I just read the above on June 18, 2009, but it’s never to late to read – and praise! – a wonderful article about a wonderful man. This I believe! Thank you very much for your excellent description about Willie Smits and all he stands for.As an Indonesian, I am grateful to Willie that he chose Indonesian citizenship, and proud of him. And as one who can be justifiably decribed as a primate, I thank him for his gallant and unceasing efforts to save our fellow primates, the Orangutans! God bless Willie Smits and all of you who help save this planet earth.

    Tami Koestomo, Bogor, Indonesia.

  4. ravikumar says:

    Its an eye opener for everyone what willie has done.

    I am guilty of not doing anything.

    I will make the best effort.

  5. william bradford says:

    Damn, good for him. This makes me very, very optimistic, which is can be a very frightening thing to do. Seems he’s essentially created a “trap” in which the forest depends on local jobs, and the jobs depend on the forest.

    Since last fall I’ve made an effort to try and minimize how much palm oil I eat, if not entirely remove it from my diet. It’s kinda gross, anyway, or maybe that’s just cause I haven’t had it in a while…

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