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Scientist's Passion and an Engaged Community Restore New Life and Hope to a Ravaged Land

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Willie Smits’s passionate desire to save orangutans from extinction led to an unceasing campaign to transform the scorched earth of Borneo into a new natural habitat—one plot of land and one tree at a time.

Smits is a forestry scientist and microbiologist who emigrated from The Netherlands to Indonesia nearly 30 years ago to help the country grow trees. While advising the Indonesian government on conservation issues, he had witnessed the destruction of rain forests by logging, new roads, and conversion of wild lands to agriculture. In 1989 he saw a caged orangutan in a market place. He still remembers, "She had the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen.” He returned to the place later, and found that the creature was ill and had been thrown in the trash. He took the orangutan home, nursed it back to health, and his life was changed. He coauthored a book, Thinkers of the Jungle, about these intelligent and endangered primates. Hear him tell this inspiring story at

Borneo, the world’s third largest island, is bisected by the equator and divided into Indonesia, Malaysia, and the small nation of Brunei. It was once a land of lush rain forest and one of the world’s richest sources of biodiversity with thousands of plant and animal species. In the 1970s, loggers came for the hardwood. Oil palm was a profitable crop, and fire was a cheap and traditional way to clear the land plantations. Fires became calamitous. Smits says in his lecture that in 1998 some 5.5 million hectares (that’s nearly 13.6 million acres) were lost, a choking haze darkened the sky, and the area, which has virtually no heavy industry, became the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. And he adds that for a year, children gained no weight, and lost twelve IQ points.

Smits was undaunted. He had been researching and experimenting with ways to bring life back to the land. He formed partnerships with people of the Dayak tribe in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan, buying land from them on behalf of the nonprofit Borneo Orangutan Survival, BOS. He employed them in many projects, such as planting sugar palm trees, which do not burn easily, as a buffer against fire. The trees also yield thatch, medicine and edible fruit, and he has future plans a refining sugar and producing high energy fuel. A Scientific American story by Jane Braxton Little described dozens of specific small steps pursued consistently over the years. Planting fast growing acacia trees supplied shade eventually that killed alang-alang, a grass that secretes cyanide and makes the land toxic. Many cooperated in creating huge amounts of compost to restore the soil, and in planting trees and crops that Smits selected for their benefit to the wildlife and a recreated habitat. He calls the area Samjoba Lestari, which means Everlasting Forest.

Not all scientists endorse Smits’s project. Some biologists are afraid if people get the idea a rain forest can be "recreated”, they will be less afraid of destroying it. Smits hasn’t presented his project for scientific review. But before and after photographs are stunning, and he says in his lecture that the new vegetation has actually increased cloud cover and rain fall. And the habitat now welcomes the return of many species, including birds, as well as a growing community of orangutans. Smits says success has been possible because of the work and cooperation of members of the local community and their commitment to their own environment and economic future. Amory Lovins, chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado and an advocate of renewable energy, is quoted on the BOS website. He says Smits’s achievement is "confirmation of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy that if you look after the poorest, everything else will take care of itself.”

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  ecology 

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