Ray of conservation light for Borneo

25 07 2009

This was the most interesting 20 minutes I’ve spent in the last wee while.

Up until just now, I had never heard of Willie Smits or what he’s been doing in Indonesia. I’ve been fairly hard on Indonesia in some of my papers and blog posts because of the ecological tragedy taking place there. I’ve focussed on the immense rate and extent of deforestation, the oil palm explosion, peatland destruction and air pollution arising from runaway fires there – I have thus far ignored any real positives because I didn’t really believe there were any.

Then I saw Smits’ TED talk. Two words – very impressed. I usually enjoy and even barrack for TED talks, and this is no exception.

This man and his organisation have really been applying a great deal of the research mentioned on ConservationBytes.com, as well as collecting data proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you integrate people’s needs with those of biodiversity, you can restore not only entire ecosystems, you can make humans benefit immensely in the process. A chronic pessimist, I can scarcely believe it.

He talks about a whole-system approach where agriculture, full rain forest restoration, climate control, carbon sequestration, monitoring and local governance all work together to turn once bare, fire-prone, species-poor deforested grasslands into teaming jungles that support happy, healthy, wealthy and well-governed human communities. Please watch this.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

CJA Bradshaw

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7 responses

24 04 2013
Ziel Een

Perhaps now, some 5 years later, it’s time to evaluate the success of Wanariset/Samboja Lestari? Has it – and the numerous other projects piloted by WIllie Smits – passed the test of time? And what are the lessons learned?


1 01 2013
Timeline for Science Project | Feeling Tangerine

[…] Speaking of which, Erik Meijaard and Willie Smits argued about protecting rainforest vs replanting rainforest in the comments section of this piece. Very interesting: https://conservationbytes.com/2009/07/25/ray-of-conservation-light-for-borneo/ […]


5 08 2011
Margaret Moon

I don’t pretend to understand the issues as you do Erik and Willie but to me, the great work that Willie’s project is doing is making global impact in raising awareness in the next generation. He and the projects he is aligned with are harnessing the power of social networking and internet savvy children to ensure that they grow up knowing that these areas are under real threat. The bean counters can take a back seat – the real work is in getting global focus on global sustainability rather than the same old same old economies of growth.


28 10 2009
Erik Meijaard

Hi Willie,

Don’t get me wrong, overall this is a good project with some real potential benefits for people, nature and climate. But the question is how cost-effective and sustainable it is compared to other approaches. The value of the land in BOS’ 2006 annual report was stated at ca. USD 800,000, and total operation costs at ca USD 400,000. I guess this is the start up phase but, still that would translate into management costs of 400,000 / 4000 ha = USD 100 / ha, even if we do not take the land acquisition costs and building investment etc into consideration. Long-term management costs would likely be in the same range, unless significant revenue can be created. As a comparison, when I still worked for TNC, we set aside two forest areas (32,000 ha and 11,000 ha) of which the former is as safe as it gets in Indonesia. Our start up investment costs were USD 30/ha and the present annual management costs 6 years into the project are ca. USD 6/ha, most of which is paid by local government. Those forest areas contains 500-750 wild orangutans and countless other species (it is 70% primary forest). It has major buy-in from local communities, who run the project and are employed through it. This is not a competition between two projects, but it does raise the question whether the far higher costs of Wanariset Samboja justify its benefits? Or expressed differently, the onus is on Wanariset project management to really show the added benefits the project has for communities and conservation, considering that the costs are so much higher. After all conservation funds are limited and we should all ensure that these are spent most effectively. For now I remain skeptical, until I see an independent and more thorough analysis of the costs and benefits of the project. And yes, 8.5 rounded off would make 9 primates. I rest my case.

All the best



26 10 2009
Willie Smits

Homo sapiens
Pongo pygmaeus (roaming the forest schools so not wild but climbing trees)
Macaca nemestrina (very frequent)
Macaca fascularis (very common)
Hyllobates muelleri (on islands but also pontaneious sappearance of one wild individual)
Nasalis narvatus (3 Proboscis monkeys regularly in the area, photographs available as proof)
Presbytis rubicunda (one group on northern boundary with swamp)
Syndactilus siamang (yes in cages, need to be send of to Sumatra)
and the Coucan which is on a half primate (so you were right not a complete nine!)

The American Scientist has not published the corrections they were sent and have not reacted to the many inaccuracies in their article that they were informed of. Happy to send you the letter and we will keep pushing to have those corrections published.

Cloud cover, recorded and analysed by GIS methods from a long series of Ikonos images. No standard deviation just the measurements. Rainfall, based upon the weather stations in and around Samboja Lestari and the peak above the forest is as you say nothing special, was fully to be expected. So I don’t get the first part of your criticism or doubt. Ascension island in the Atlantic now has its Green Mountain which does the same as the Samboja Lestari forest and was devoid of any trees in 1831 when Darwin visited and thanks to tree planting with seeds from Kew shortly after has now the forest on what is now called Green Mountain and with it the clouds and rain.

Measurements continue and there will be some articles detailing the results in more detail.

Last comment: protecting existing forests is more important? Of course, but there are many groups trying so in Indonesia and I have still to see where we are truly successful beyond the presence of the people with money working in the field for a considerable period and for a considerable area of forest.

So why complain when I do fund raising for a trial to help people as well as nature and setting up a gene bank of Borneo’s trees so that in the future when we finally improve our act still have a chance to obtain plant material to propagate those trees from. This project will not just help the people around Samboja Lestari but also provide drinking water to the many people in need in the neaby city of Balikpapan. The project will generate more money than was invested which will be used for more conservation work including protecting the remaining forest, such as Meratus.

All the best Eric.


28 07 2009
Erik Meijaard

For a more balanced account of Willie Smits’ project see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=regrowing-borneo:
“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.”


28 07 2009
Erik Meijaard

It is indeed an impressive achievement. But it is a great shame that the science behind Willie’s Smits’ story is so poor. Which are those 9 species of primate? With this part of East Kalimantan having only 10 species of primate, of which several like proboscis monkeys, Bornean gibbon or red leaf monkey will not survive in a newly planted forests, it raises the question whether those 9 species include those kept in the cages on this facility. Could we have some details, please.
More contentious are the claims about climatic changes. I have lived closely to this area for the last 5 years, and indeed rainfall and cloud cover has increased since 2006. But it has increased everywhere in East Kalimantan because there really hasn’t been a normal, long dry season for the last 3 years. Those increases in cloud cover and rainfall have occurred but the causality with the reforestation project is highly questionable. In fact, this is indicated by the graphs in the presentation, which unfortunately do not show error bars. How significant are those changes over time and do they not simply show what we already knew: forests generate rain.
I could go on for a bit more about misleading statements made in this presentation, which I think undermine the message. Yes, making reforestation that takes social, ecological, and economic factors into consideration is a great achievement that demands respect. But saving remaining forests remains far more important and cost-effective in protecting the species of Borneo. Getting the real facts on the table that provide insight into the investments made at Samboja Lestari and the benefits that it has created would be a good first step in starting to understand the role that such projects can play in overall conservation. As opposed to many that have applauded Dr. Smits’ work, I remain unconvinced.


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