Just below the equator, on the island of Borneo, a tropical rain forest is rising out of a logged, charred wasteland. Dawn mists cling to the leaves of ginger and mango trees erupting out of a tangle of ferns, rattan and yam vines. A sparse canopy of white-barked acacias shelters them in filtered shade as the sun burns through the haze. From deep in the distance a tuneless chorus of gibbons booms over the clamor of cicadas, while a white-bellied sea eagle soars silently above.
For Willie Smits, this is a miracle in a moonscape. Emerging from what was a biological desert, it contradicts everything most forestry experts have long believed about rain forests. Smits has named it Samboja Lestari, “Everlasting Forest.” It gives hope to this ravaged landscape and the thousands of species that depend on it. Most important for Smits, the forest growing before his very eyes is the promise of a future for the world’s few surviving orangutans.
“Orangutans are ambassadors of the remaining biodiversity of the Bornean rain forests. If I could re-create habitat for them here, you could do it anywhere,” he says.
Smits, 51, is a forester, a microbiologist and the most passionate advocate for that endangered primate. Charismatic and outspoken, for two decades he battled deforestation, fire and conversion of orangutan habitat to oil palm plantations in a desperate attempt to save these animals on the brink of extinction. His efforts won him countless death threats but not the safe haven he sought for orangutans. Today, out of sheer frustration, Smits is re-creating new orangutan habitat one square meter at a time. His partners are the 600 families of the local Dayak tribe in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan. The welfare of their village is so integrally linked to the success of Samboja Lestari that Smits refers to it as “the people’s forest.”
The partnership Smits has forged with the local community is key to his success, says Amory Lovins, a renewable energy advocate and chief scientist at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Institute who recently visited Samboja Lestari. “This may be the finest example of ecological and economic restoration in the Tropics.”
It is a gutsy experiment that has drawn criticism from both scientists and conservationists. Smits has not presented Samboja Lestari for scientific review, leaving rain forest experts to wonder what he has actually accomplished on the ground. Many of his peers in the conservation community believe his money would be better spent protecting habitat than reconstructing it from scratch. For Smits, a veteran of political controversy who has often been at odds with other orangutan rescue projects, the controversy is familiar. He ignores it.
A native of the Netherlands, Smits traveled to Borneo in 1981 as a tropical forester and microbiologist in quest of a place few others had seen. The world’s third-largest island is bigger than Texas and is largely divided into the territories of Indonesia and Malaysia and also the small nation of Brunei. Bisected by the equator, Borneo is a treasure of biodiversity with 15,000 plant species, 222 mammal species, and hundreds of species of birds, amphibians and freshwater fish. When the last ice age ended and glaciers receded, sea levels rose around the island, cutting it off from the Asian continent and leaving its flora and fauna to evolve in isolation. Borneo hosts more than 6,000 species found nowhere else on earth.
It was here in 1858 that Alfred Russel Wallace pondered life across time and space as he wandered alone among dipterocarp trees that towered 60 meters above him. He encountered orangutans and wondered why they were found only in these forests and in neighboring Sumatra. Surrounded by wild nature—drinking the insect-laden liquid of pitcher plants, rhapsodizing over the taste of the durian fruit—Wallace worked through the logic of how every species has come into existence with a preexisting closely allied species. The paper he wrote and sent by slow boat to London spurred Charles Darwin to publish at last his own thoughts on the origin of species. Later Wallace would draw the line east of Borneo that separates the biological realms of Southeast Asia and Australia, a distinction verified a century later as scientists understood the mechanics of plate tectonics.