Borneo is the third largest island in the world, and is home to the largest surviving tropical forest in Asia. Nevertheless, only half of the original forest-cover remains, and it is shrinking every day due to deforestation. But there’s one man who has vowed to fight back for the preservation of his natural heritage; a man who is perhaps the most unlikely of people to take a stand against deforestation, because this particular man was once an illegal logger.
Pak Bastarian was responsible for cutting trees in the forests of West Kilimantan, Borneo where he grew up. He recalls those days with humble contrition now. “I don’t know how many trees I cut down… countless numbers,” he says.
Now, Bastarian is a conservationist, leading his village of retired headhunters in the fight against deforestation, and namely the efforts of palm oil plantations.
His mind first changed after talking to members of a local NGO established by a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Cheryl Knott.
In 1994, Knott, a biological anthropologist founded the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program (GPOCP). The program works closely with locals that live in villages bordering the Gunung Palung national park, encouraging environmental stewardship through outreach and education. Bastarian developed strong relationships with the NGO workers, who provided information about the orangutans and the forest. He comments, “ I personally grew very close to the NGO workers. They became like brothers and sisters to me.”
The GPOCP workers urge that the loss of habitat due to deforestation not only threatens orangutans, but other wildlife. Borneo is home to proboscis monkeys, flying snakes, pygmy elephants, and clouded leopards. And according to Adam Tomasek of World Wildlife Fund, an average of three new species is discovered every month in the island’s forests.
But the orangutans are the primary focus of GPOCP. Knott says, “Because orangutans spend 99 percent of their time in the trees, deforestation has devastating effects on their ability to survive. They eat, sleep, nest, and travel in the rain forest’s leafy branches, totally dependent upon the fruits, leaves, seeds, bark, and insects the trees provide. And since orangutans only bear young about once every eight years, they can’t replace their numbers fast enough.”
Orangutans only live in Borneo and Sumatra, a neighboring Indonesian island. About twenty percent of their original habitat remains.
Heavy logging driven by the Malaysian plywood industry was once the primary cause of deforestation in Indonesia, but now the ever-expanding palm oil industry has been responsible for the bulk of clear-cutting for plantations. Oil is harvested from palm trees’ fruit for use in consumer products like soap, chocolate, cookies, and cosmetics. Indonesia currently produces fifty percent of the world’s palm oil, and demand is increasing. Palm oil has also played a part in the growing biofuel industry, as crude oil prices go up. The consumption of palm oil has doubled in the last four years in the United States alone, according to David McLaughlin, a former palm oil executive who now works for World Wildlife Fund.
Palm oil is where Bastarian’s efforts currently enter into the equation. PT Kayung Agro Lestari is an Indonesian-Australian company that has proposed building an oil palm plantation on land owned by Bastarian’s village. And as the elected leader of the 1,600 members of the Dayak tribe, Bastarian is heading up the opposition against the company’s deforestation plans.
Bastarian faces opposition of his own, not only from PT Kayung Agro Lestari, but from local officials, who see the proposed plantation as a source of jobs for local residents. The company has enhanced its offer with promises of improved health care and education for the villagers. But Bastarian is holding his ground. He says the negative impact of the plantations on other villages in the area has bolstered his decision to reject the proposal.
Some of the members of Bastarian’s village have begun to farm and make crafts that rely on the resources of the forest, like bamboo, as an alternative to engaging in logging and palm oil industries.
Bastarian and his village continue to work with GPOCP to promote sustainable living, and his views on the forest remain strong and reverent: “A forest is more than just trees and timber. A forest can save the people living around it.”
Photo credit: nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=105688