Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Saving orang utans, and saving the earth

He wanted to save orang utans, but developed projects that have achieved so much more.

And if the agri-forestry and social entrepreneurshop model that Dutch-born Indonesian conservationist Willie Smits has achieved in Kalimantan is scaled up in Indonesia, the result could be the region seeing fewer haze episodes.

Dr Smits, 53, had gone to Balikpapan in East Kalimantan as a doctoral student in the 1980s. He set up the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in 1991 after rescuing a dying baby orang utan dumped at a market.

He soon realised that to truly save the red apes - whose peat swamp forest habitats are being decimated mainly for palm oil plantations - he needed to save the forests and provide the local people with viable economic alternatives.

The Foundation began buying land to rebuild the rainforest for orang utans in an area called Samboja Lestari in East Borneo in 2001. The local community was involved, combining agriculture with forestry. They also grew sugar palm on the edges of land parcels to ward off fires and for biofuel.

About 3,000 villagers have since benefited, and the microclimate of Samboja Lestari has since changed, with greater cloud cover and more rainfall, according to Dr Smits.

Dr Smits is seeking to replicate more biodiverse sugar palm forests and cooperative-run production facilities (to convert its sap into ethanol) elsewhere in the world. He has since set up a company for this, and hopes to roll it out with the support of "ethical investors". If implemented in more parts of Indonesia, he is confident they will improve the regional haze situation. Less carbon will be generated if fewer people cooked with fuel wood, and used ethanol instead, and "buffer zones" provided by the sugar palms will generate income for the people and protect forests against fire, said Dr Smits, who has been knighted in the Netherlands for his conservation work.

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