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Borneo project restores orangutan habitat and generates income for locals

The Borneo Orangutan Survival project in Indonesia could be a blueprint for saving habitat, cutting greenhouse gases.

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“This is proof of our failure to save them in the wild,” says Smits in a TED talk about Samboja Lestari. “Deforestation, especially for oil palm to provide biofuel for the Western countries, is what’s causing these problems… [These are] peat swamp forests, on 20 meters [65 feet] of peat, the largest accumulation of organic material in the world. When you open this for growing oil palm, you’re creating CO2 volcanoes,” he says.

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Smits says he believes that the only way to help the orangutans is to integrate local people in the restoration of their habitat.

“We have to make sure that local people are the ones that benefit,” he says. “We set up the infrastructure and management and monitoring [of the project]. 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.”

When the project began in 2002, Smits says, the area had experienced a near total extinction of plant and animal life. It was covered with alang-alang grass, which is prone to fires. The area was experiencing increased flooding because of the loss of foliage and topsoil, as well as increased droughts due to the loss of cloud-producing forest.

About 50 percent of the people were jobless, the crime rate was high, and there was zero agricultural productivity, according to Smits.

Smits devised a recipe for reforestation that incorporates agriculture at each stage and ends with a functioning sustainable agroforestry system. First, short-lived, acacia trees (Acacia mangium) are planted to improve the quality of the soil and shade out the grasses.

Acacias can grow on marginal land and are leguminous trees that fix nitrogen to the soil, improving fertility. The pioneer tree species also helps to put more water vapor into the air and blocks direct sunlight, lowering temperatures on the ground and creating local climate conditions that will be more conducive to forest growth.

After grasses are reduced, bamboo is planted along waterways, which filters the water and can be harvested. Underneath the acacias, diverse types of slower-growing, indigenous rainforest trees are planted. Forest fungi and bacteria are reintroduced to ensure that nutrients are recycled from falling leaves and returned to the soil.

Crops such as pineapples, beans, and ginger are planted between the trees. The farming activities keep the land around slow-growing hardwood trees free from competitor species, and the trees benefit from nutrients added to crops. The crops provide income and healthy food for both orangutans and the community.

Fires are rampant in the region around Samboja Lestari. To protect the reforested area, a 100 meter (328 foot) wide buffer of fire-resistant sugar palms was planted. The sugar palms provide over 60 useful products, including a sugar water that can be turned into biofuel.

“Sugar palms produce nearly three times more energy per year than oil palms because they can be tapped on a daily basis,” Smits says. Sugar palm trees are also incorporated throughout the reforestation area to provide long-term income opportunities.

As the forest grows thicker and taller, agriculture activities change with it.

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