Touched by the expression of a dying baby Orangutan, Willie Smits and the Orangutan Survival Foundation regrew a destroyed rainforest in Borneo using satellite imagery and permaculture (though he doesn’t use the word in his TED talk). Why was the project so successful and long-lived (still going after twenty years)? The key, according to Smits, is not to swoop in like an environmental missionary with no regard for the economic plight of local people, but to factor human economic activity in the complex ecological solution.


By piecing together a complex ecological puzzle, biologist Willie Smits has found a way to re-grow clearcut rainforest in Borneo, saving local orangutans — and creating a thrilling blueprint for restoring fragile ecosystems.

Willie Smits has devoted his life to saving the forest habitat of orangutans, the “thinkers of the jungle.” As towns, farms and wars encroach on native forests, Smits works to save what is left.

To provide native Borneans with an alternative to destructive slash-and-burn or biofuel agriculture, Smits planted crops in succession–as though mirroring the “stacked” layers of the rainforest–that could be harvested by Borneans without damaging the ecological web. In addition to a source of income, Smits guaranteed Borneans a voice in decision making:

But whatever you do in that program, it has to be fully supported by the people, meaning that you also have to adjust it to the local, cultural values, There is no simple one recipe for one place.

You also have to make sure that it is very difficult to corrupt, that it’s transparent. Like here, in Samboja Lestari, we divide that ring in groups of 20 families. If one member trespasses the agreement, and does cut down trees, the other 19 members have to decide what’s going to happen to him. If the group doesn’t take action, the other 33 groups have to decide what is going to happen to the group that doesn’t comply with those great deals that we are offering them.

Curiously, this sort of “terraforming” was an experiment by none other than Charles Darwin:

“BBC writes of ‘terra-forming’ Ascension Island, one of the islands Charles Darwin visited. He and a friend encouraged the Royal Navy to import boatloads of trees and plants in an attempt to capture the little bit of water that fell on the island. They were quite successful. The island even has a cloud forest now. From the article: ‘[British ecologist] Wilkinson thinks that the principles that emerge from that experiment could be used to transform future colonies on Mars. In other words, rather than trying to improve an environment by force, the best approach might be to work with life to help it “find its own way.”‘”

If Restoration Ecology is the artform of the 21st century, then perhaps Darwin was one of its artistic forefathers.

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