Environmental Hero – Willie Smits
Environmental Hero – Willie Smits
by San Lo
You know you’re making an impact when you have had 1,156 death threats and counting. Willie Smits is an Environmental Hero for the thousands and thousands of animals he has rescued, cared for and built habitats for; for the thousands of villages and local communities he has saved and brought together through sustainable industry; for the attention and scientific rigor, he has raised in the fight to stop deforestation, and so much more..
Passing through Singapore on his continued mission to save the world I was lucky to get a couple of hours with Willie Smits. Here are some of his comments and notes.
Who are your heroes in life?
Amory Lovins, Al Gore, Herman Wijffels
What’s your greatest fear?
To die before unloading all this responsibility
What do you say to others who want to make an environmental difference?
Everybody and anyone can make a difference, every little thing or positive act counts. Contribute to environmental causes, raising awareness and publicity about environmental issues, lobbying your government, turning off your air-con, … it all helps
What drives or inspires you?
Anger and Injustice. I can make more money doing the Right thing. This is not what drives me but what I am forced to do to make a difference!
Willie Smits was first inspired to make a difference when he rescued a starving Orang-utan in 1989. Rainforest destruction (80%) has caused tremendous habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity. He founded the Borneo Orang-utan Survival Foundation to save them from extinction and thereafter created a new rainforest Samboja Lestari (meaning “everlasting forest”). Samboja Lestari was initially nearly 2,000 hectares of unwanted denuded land destroyed by fires. 6 years on it now has developed enough to become through a special water project a forest that can yield an annual profit of US1m/year and hosts over 1,200 different plant species, and is the only place that does so.
Now Willie and his teams have taken on an additional 262,000 hectares not far from Samboja Lestari, where the same principle will be applied on much larger scale. Over 100 Orang-utans now use Samboja Lestari to roam through the trees. When needed because of loss of the natural forest, this area of regenerating forest may have to become their permanent home and given the density of fruit trees in its reforestation it has the capacity to carry 10 times per square kilometre what a normal rainforest can sustain which is 3 Orang-utans.
Willie Smits then set up Sarvision Indonesia that operates an advanced tool for the European Space Agency inside the Samboja area. The radar satellite monitoring systems are crucial in countering the corruption involved in Indonesia’s deforestation and its connection with illegal logging and the relentless growth of palm oil in unsuitable locations. A study commissioned by WWF Netherlands with Willie’s company showed that almost half the present oil palm plantations are not located on suitable lands and that these lands happened to have good forests on them! It is a compounded and sad truth that palm oil plantations in Borneo have been used in many locations to lay the hand on the last intact forests for timber, rather than the palm oil. These forests formerly were commercially less attractive for the timber industry but since there are now almost no alternatives anymore for logging in the depleted forests of Borneo they are now still taken. In a few regions in Borneo some 80% of the plantations are located on land where they will be unproductive, but where the removed timber and land rights gained already has made it worthwhile for the investors.
SarVision Netherlands, a company established and run by Dr. Dirk Hoekman from Wageningen with whom Willie has worked together for many years, is developing spectacular mapping and monitoring tools that can even show precise tree crowns and their location of every larger canopy tree. They are also developing the techniques for biomass monitoring that will hopefully one day soon become the standard to deal with excesses in environmental destruction.
How concerned are you about Climate Change and the potential outcomes from the Copenhagen Summit?
I have no expectations on Copenhagen but know that there are real costs to biodiversity if Climate Change is not addressed Now. Everywhere diversity has been replaced with monoculture. We are truly gambling. Did you know that 60% of the world’s calories are based on 3 grasses! (corn, wheat, and rice). Palm oil is a monoculture in Malaysia, Indonesia and Latin America. In Columbia they have lost tens of thousands of hectares to disease. The risks of monoculture are too high. Another example, if Mahogany is planted as a monoculture in Indonesia it is 100% guaranteed to suffer from Hypsophylla beetle infestation but if it is planted alongside the Neem plant it will survive. This is merely a simple manifestation of the bigger truth that biodiversity is an important component for stability in our natural systems.
And so we now are developing Sugar Palm projects. Sugar Palms don’t need fertiliser (unlike corn and other biofuels), it is 5 times more efficient in producingsugar than sugar cane and it grows best on slopes or critical lands. Employment ratio is high and it can’t be monocultured. According to Willie Smits, 80% of production cost is labour, which is probably the main reason why bigger companies so far have shunned planting mixed sugar palm forests. It grows best in secondary mixed forest and provides over 60 different products. Our operation in Indonesia employs over 6,250 families.