About this talk
By piecing together a complex ecological puzzle, biologist Willie Smits has found a way to re-grow clearcut rainforest in Borneo, saving local orangutans -- and creating a thrilling blueprint for restoring fragile ecosystems.
I was walking in the market one day with my wife, and somebody stuck a cage in my face. And in between those slits were the saddest eyes I've ever seen. There was a very sick orangutan baby, my first encounter. That evening I came back to the market in the dark and I heard "uhh, uhh," and sure enough I found a dying orangutan baby on a garbage heap. Of course, the cage was salvaged. I took up the little baby, massaged her, forced her to drink until she finally started breathing normally.
This is Uce. She's now living in the jungle of Sungai Wain, and this is Matahari, her second son, which, by the way, is also the son of the second orangutan I rescued, Dodoy. That changed my life quite dramatically, and as of today, I have almost 1,000 babies in my two centers.
No. No. No. Wrong. It's horrible. It's a proof of our failing to save them in the wild. It's not good. This is merely proof of everyone failing to do the right thing. Having more than all the orangutans in all the zoos in the world together, just now like victims for every baby, six have disappeared from the forest.
The deforestation, especially for oil palm, to provide biofuel for Western countries is what's causing these problems. And those are the peat swamp forests on 20 meters of peat, the largest accumulation of organic material in the world. When you open this for growing oil palms you're creating CO2 volcanoes that are emitting so much CO2 that my country is now the third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world after China and the United States, and we don't have any industry at all. Only because of this deforestation.
And these are horrible images. I'm not going to talk too long about it, but there are so many of the family of Uce which are not so fortunate to live out there in that forest that still have to go through that process and I don't know anymore where to put them. So I decided that I had to come up with a solution for her but also a solution that will benefit the people that are trying to exploit those forests, to get their hands on the last timber and that are causing, in that way, the loss of habitat and all those victims.
So I created the place Samboja Lestari, and the idea was, if I can do this on the worst possible place that I can think of where there is really nothing left, no one will have an excuse to say, "Yeah, but ..." No. Everyone should be able to follow this.
So we're in East Borneo. This is the place where I started. As you can see there's only yellow terrain there's nothing left, just a bit of grass there. In 2002 we had about 50 percent of the people jobless there. There was a huge amount of crime. People spent so much of their money on health issues and drinking water. There was no agricultural productivity left. This was the poorest district in the whole province and it was a total extinction of wildlife. This was like a biological desert. When I stood there in the grass, it's hot -- not even the sound of insects -- just this waving grass.
Still, four years later we have created jobs for about 3,000 people. The climate has changed. I will show you: no more flooding, no more fires. It's no longer the poorest district, and there is a huge development of biodiversity. We've got over 1,000 species, we have 137 bird species as of today. We have 30 species of reptiles.
So what happened here? We created a huge economic failure in this forest. So basically the whole process of destruction has gone a bit slower than what is happening now with the oil pump. But we saw the same thing -- we had slash and burn agriculture; people cannot afford the fertilizer so they burn the trees and half the minerals available there. The fires become more frequent and after a while you're stuck with an area of land where there is no fertility left. There are no trees left. Still, in this place, in this grassland where you can see our very first office there on that hill, four years later, there is this one green blop on the Earth's surface ...
And there is all these animals, and all these people happy, and there's this economic value.
So how's this possible? It was quite simple if you look at the steps: we bought the land, we dealt with the fire, and then only, we started doing the reforestation by combining agriculture with forestry. Only then we set up the infrastructure and management and the monetary. But we made sure that in every step of the way the local people were going to be fully involved so that no outside forces would be able to interfere with that. That the people would become the defenders of that forest. So we do the "people, profit, planet" principles, but we do it in addition -- a sure legal status -- because if the forest belongs to the state people say it belongs to me, it belongs to everyone. And then we apply all these other principles like transparency, professional management measurable results, scalability, reprocability, et cetera.
What we did was we formulated recipes how to go from a starting situation where you have nothing to a target situation. You formulate a recipe based upon the factors you can control. Whether it be the skills or the fertilizer or the plant choice. And then you look at the outputs and you start measuring what comes out. Now in this recipe you also have the cost. You also know how much labor is needed. If you can drop this recipe on the map on a sandy soil, on a clay soil, on a steep slope, on flat soil, you put those different recipes; if you combine them, out of that comes a business plan, comes a work plan, and you can optimize it for the amount of labor you have available or for the amount of fertilizer you have, and you can do it.
This is how it looks like in practice. We have this grass we want to get rid of. It exudes compounds from the roots but the Acacia trees are of a very low value but we need them to restore the micro climate, to protect the soil and to shake out the grasses. And after eight years they might actually yield some timber, that is, if you can preserve it in the right way, which we can do with bamboo peels. It's an old temple-building technique from Japan but bamboo is very fire-susceptible. So if we would plant that in the beginning we would have a very high risk of losing everything again. So we plant it later, along the waterways to filter the water, provide the raw products just in time for when the timber becomes available.
So the idea is: how to integrate these flows in space, over time and with the limited means you have. So we plant the trees, we plant these pineapples and beans and ginger in between, to reduce the competition for the trees, the crop fertilizer -- organic material is useful for the agricultural crops, for the people, but also helps the trees, the farmers have free land, the system yields early income, the orangutans get healthy food and we can speed up ecosystem regeneration while even saving some money.
So beautiful. What a theory.
But is it really that easy? Not really, because if you looked at what happened in 1998, the fire started. This is an area of about 50 million hectares. January. February. March. April. May. We lost 5.5 million hectares in just a matter of a few months. This is because we have 10,000 of those underground fires that you also have in Pennsylvania here in the United States. And once the soil gets dried, you're in a dry season, you get cracks, oxygen goes in, flames come out and the problem starts all over again.
So how to break that cycle? Fire is the biggest problem. This is what it looked like for three months. For three months, the automatic lights outside did not go off because it was that dark. We lost all the crops, no children gained weight for over a year. They lost 12 IQ points; it was a disaster for orangutans and people. So these fires are really the first things to work on. That was why I put it as a single point up there. And you need the local people for that because these grasslands, once they start burning, it goes through it like a windstorm and you lose again the last bit of ash and nutrients to the first rainfall going to the sea killing off the coral reefs there.
So you have to do it with the local people. That is the short term solution but you also need a long term solution. So what we did is we created a ring of sugar palms around the area. These sugar palms turn out to be fire-resistant also flood-resistant by the way. And they provide a lot of income for local people.
This is how it looks like: the people have to tap them twice a day, just a millimeter slice and the only thing you harvest is sugar water, carbon dioxide, rain fall and a little bit of sunshine. In principle you make those trees into biological photovoltaic cells. And you can create so much energy from this because they produce three times more energy per hectare per year, because you can tap them on a daily basis. You don't need to harvest organs or any other of the crops.
So this is the combination where we have all this genetic potential in the tropics which is still unexploited, and doing it in combination with technology but also your legal side needs to be in very good order. So we bought that land and here is where we started our project, in the middle of nowhere. And if you zoom in a bit you can see that all of this area is divided into strips that go over different types of soil, and we were actually monetarily measuring every single tree in these 2,000 hectares, 5,000 acres. And this forest is quite different.
What I really did was I just followed nature, and nature doesn't know monocultures, but a natural forest has multilayers. That means that both in the ground and above the ground it can make better use of the available light, it can store more carbon in the system, it can provide more functions, but it's more complicated, it's not that simple and you have to work with the people.
So what we do is also, just like nature, we grow fast planting trees and underneath that we grow the slower growing, primary-grain forest trees of a very high diversity that can optimally use that light and then what is just as important: get the right fungi in there that will grow into those leaves, bring back the nutrients to the roots of the trees that have just dropped that leaf within 24 hours. And they become like nutrient pumps and you need the bacteria to fix nitrogen, and without those microorganisms, you won't have any performance at all.
And then we started planting -- only 1,000 trees a day. We could have planted many, many more, but we didn't want to because we wanted to keep the number of jobs stable. We didn't want to lose the people that are going to work in that plantation. And we do a lot of work here. We use indicator plants to look what soil types, or what vegetables will grow, or what trees will grow here. And we have monitored every single one of those trees from space.
This is what it looks like in real, you have this irregular ring around it, with strips of 100 meters wide with sugar palms that can provide income for 648 families. It's only a small part of the area.
The nursery, in here, is quite different. If you look at the number of tree species we have in Europe, for instance, from the Urals up to England, you know how many? 165. In this nursery, we're going to grow 10 times more the number of species. Can you imagine? You do need to know what you are working with, but it's that diversity which makes it work. That you can go from this zero situation, by planting the vegetables and the trees, or directly the trees, in the lines in that grass there, putting up the buffer zone, producing your compost, and then making sure that at every stage of that upgrowing forest there are crops that can be used. In the beginning, maybe pineapples and beans and corn. In the second phase, there will be bananas and papayas. Later on, there will be chocolate and chilis. And then slowly, the trees start taking over, bringing in produce, from the fruits, from the timber, from the fuel wood. And finally, the sugar palm forest takes over and provides the people with permanent income.
On the top left, underneath those green stripes, you see some white dots -- those are actually individual pineapple plants that you can see from space. And in that area we started growing some acacia trees that you just saw before. So this is after one year. And this is after two years. And that screen, if you look from the tower, this is when we start attacking the grass. We plant in the seedlings mixed with the bananas, the papayas, all the crops for the local people, but the trees are growing up fast in between as well. And three years later, 137 species of birds.
So we lowered air temperature three to five degrees Celsius. Air humidity is up 10 percent. Cloud cover -- I'm going to show it to you -- is up. Rainfall is up. And all these species earn income.
This ecolodge that I built here, three years before was an empty, yellow field. This transponder we operate with the European Space Agency that gives us the benefit that every satellite that comes over to calibrate itself is taking a picture. Those pictures we use to analyze how much carbon, how the forest is developing, and we can monitor every tree using that satellite images through our corporation, but we can use these data now to provide other regions with recipes and the same technology. We actually have it already with Google Earth. If you would use a little bit of your technology to put tracking devices in trucks and use Google Earth in combination with that, you could directly tell what palm oil has been sustainably produced, which company is stealing the timber, and you could save so much more carbon than with any measure of saving energy here.
So this is the Samboja area, you measure how the trees grow back, but you can also measure the biodiversity coming back. And biodiversity is an indicator of how much water can be balanced, how many medicines can be kept here, And finally I made it into the rain machine because this forest is now creating its own rain. This nearby city of Balikpapan has a big problem with water, it's 80 percent surrounded by seawater, and we have now a lot of intrusion there. Now we looked at the clouds above this forest, so we looked at the reforestation area, semi-open area and open area.
And look at these images. I'll just run them very quickly through. In the tropics, raindrops are not formed from ice crystals, like is the case in the temperate zones, you need the trees with (unclear), chemicals that come out of the leaves of the trees that initiate the raindrops. So you create a cool place where clouds can accumulate, and you have the trees to initiate the rain. And look, there's now 11.2 percent more clouds, that was already, after three years. If you look at rainfall, it was already up 20 percent at that time. Let's look at the next year, and you can see that that trend is continuing. Where at first we had a small cap of higher rainfall, that cap is now widening and getting higher. And if we look at the rainfall pattern above Samboja Lestari, it used to be the driest place, but now you see consistently, a peak of rain forming there. So you can actually change the climate. When there are trade winds of course the effect disappears, but afterwards, as soon as the wind stabilizes, you see again that the rainfall peaks come back above this area.
So to say it is hopeless is not the right thing to do, because we actually can make that difference if you integrate the various technologies. And it's nice to have the science, but it still depends mostly upon the people, on your education. We have our farmer schools. But the real success of course, is our band because if a baby is born, we will play, so everyone's our family and you don't make trouble with your family.
This is how it looks. We have this road going around the area, which brings the people electricity and water from our own area. We have the zone with the sugar palms, and then we have this fence with very thorny palms to keep the orangutans -- that we provide with a place to live in the middle -- and the people apart. And inside, we have this area for reforestation as a gene bank to keep all that material alive, because for the last 12 years not a single seedling of the tropical hardwood trees has grown up because the climatic triggers have disappeared. All the seeds get eaten.
So now we do the monitoring on the inside from towers, satellites, ultralights. Each of the families that have sold their land now get a piece of land back. And it has two nice fences of tropical hardwood trees, you have the shade trees planted in year one, then you underplanted with the sugar palms, and you plant this thorny fence. And after a few years, you can remove some of those shade trees, the people get that acacia timber which we have preserved with the bamboo peel, and they can build a house, they have some fuel wood to cook with. And they can start producing from the trees as many as they like. They have enough income for three families. But whatever you do in that program, it has to be fully supported by the people, meaning that you also have to adjust it to the local, cultural values, There is no simple one recipe for one place.
You also have to make sure that it is very difficult to corrupt, that it's transparent. Like here, in Samboja Lestari, we divide that ring in groups of 20 families. If one member trespasses the agreement, and does cut down trees, the other 19 members have to decide what's going to happen to him. If the group doesn't take action, the other 33 groups have to decide what is going to happen to the group that doesn't comply with those great deals that we are offering them.
In north (unclear) it is the cooperative, they have a democratic culture there so there you can use the local justice system to protect your system. So in summary, if you look at it, in year one the people can sell their land to get income, but they get jobs back in the construction and the reforestation, working with the orangutans, they can use the waste wood to make handicraft. They also get free land in between the trees, where they can grow their crops. They can now sell part of those fruits to the orangutan project. They get building material for houses, a contract for selling the sugar so we can produce huge amounts of ethanol and energy locally. They get all these other benefits environmentally, money, they get education, it's a great deal.