Earth defenders

Every year, smoke haze drifts over Singapore from Indonesia, posing respiratory risks to our infants and elderly. Our tourism industry takes a hit when visitors leave disappointed, going home to tell their friends that Singapore’s air is unbreathable.

Our foreign ministry makes appeals to the Indonesian government, satellite images are sent to them urging action on the forest fires identified from space orbit. And then we wait. For results. Any small result.

As private citizens, we feel helpless and frustrated. It’s a government-to-government matter, we think. Nothing we can do to make a difference.

But I have long thought that so long as it stays a government-to-government matter, progress will be extremely slow. Illegal logging and burning to clear land will only end when all the forests are gone, by which time, the lovable orang utans too will be extinct.

The problem is that the people who want to destroy the virgin forests are organised into commercial entities with the profit motive. On the other side, the people who have the most to lose from their rapacious activities are the small folk — indigeneous Dayaks who have lived symbiotically with the forest for generations,  billions of people all over the world (like you and me) who will pay the price of climate change and atmospheric pollution, and our children who may never know a living orang utan post-extinction. While numerous, this side is an atomised lot, relying instead on governments to take the necessary steps to stop a steady destruction.

Change will come when the losers can find a way to organise themselves to defend what is precious.

Technology is now making it possible. Those who destroy forests must no longer be permitted to do so unseen. Their actions must be given the glare of publicity, which in turn can mobilise public opinion. That in turn prompts governments to give the matter higher priority. Worldwide public awareness and support empower the Dayaks to defend their ancestral lands; with friends, technical support and resources, they are less weak when confronting the loggers.

At the same time, the damage done can be reversed. Cleared and scorched areas can be reforested. Orphaned orang utans can be saved, nourished and released.

And that is THE PLAN. And THE MOVIE.

* * * * *

Say what? Movie?

Cathy Henkel (pic at right) was in the Singapore this week to talk about her latest project. As a documentary filmmaker, she’s become very knowledgeable about Indonesia, having made the acclaimed The Burning Season, a film about forest fires and Australian entrepreneur Dorjee Sun’s efforts to establish carbon credits as a way to save the natural environment.

Her latest project, whose working name seems to be Project Borneo 3D, has a similar objective: not just a movie about a problem, but a movie that showcases a possible solution. It’s no use having a movie that leaves everyone feeling depressed; better to show a way forward to solving it, preferably one that lots of people can participate in and so feel they aren’t helpless after all.

And that’s where it is not just a movie; in fact the movie is almost the icing on the cake. What is important is the action to help the villagers, save the forests and orang utans. And then there’s the movie: a documentary — in 3D of course, I mean we’re talking state-of-the-art technology, no? —  that documents the efforts involved and helps spread the faith.

The clever thing is that Project Borneo 3D does not fight capitalism. On the contrary, it harnesses the capitalistic impulse to do good. First of all, she is canvassing for investors who will put in the money for the pilot scheme to save the forests and orang utans, reforest 46,000 hectares and make the film. As an established filmmaker, she is confident the film will travel and sell, and investors will not only get their money back, but a handsome return too. However, since  investors are unlikely to be many among the readership of Yawning Bread, I won’t go into details — you can contact Virgo Productions/Project Borneo 3D directly if you’re interested.

Where I will go into a greater level of detail is in the project’s call for volunteers and supporters. The project needs ten volunteers and hope for millions of supporters.

What’s the difference between the two?

The plan is for the ten volunteers to be based in the Sintang area, about 200 kilometres inland from the town of Pontianak in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan. There they will work with Dr Willie Smits (Wikipedia entry) of Orangutan Outreach. Rather than try to explain the fantastic work he has done, I’ll let him do it himself through the 20-minute TED talk he gave in 2009.

(If that video does not automatically load, go to video.)

In that talk, Smits was speaking about his first project at Samboja Lestari. Now he’s got 46,000 hectares (i.e. 460 square km, about two-thirds the size of Singapore) in Sintang slated for rejuvenation. It will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness and be part of this project.

However, while the project (you can get a glimpse of the issues here) will take many years, the volunteers will only be based in Sintang for five months from around July to October this year. During this period, besides learning about and helping with the reforestation exercise, they will be equipped with video camcorders and satellite equipment to collect evidence of illegal logging and burning. The volunteers are the eyes and ears for the project, or as Cathy Henkel envisions them, the “action heroes” of her documentary.

Her film will follow the volunteers, charting their adventures, obstacles, achievements, emotional highs and lows. The plan is that the film will end with the release of orang utans into the new wild and a emotional, but very satisfying farewell.

As you will have guessed by now, volunteers will live among the Dayak communities of the area, but using technology, will be communicating loquaciously with the outside world. It’s a bit like the reality show Survivor, except that this is not fun and games; it’s doing something worthwhile for ourselves and future generations. The Dayaks are already resisting the poachers and illegal loggers, but they need tech-savvy people to communicate their plight and their efforts to the world at large.

And that’s the other big job for the volunteers: to communicate their daily experiences and findings to the millions of supporters out there. The supporters contribute a little, even as small an amount as US$10, but more importantly, help in the dissemination of evidence of illegal logging or burning, and raising awareness of Smits’ work. In effect, they become mission advocates, and with the aid of social networking and other technologies, help raise public awareness that hopefully will result in corporations behaving better and governments doing more.

Cathy Henkel would love it if you would either apply to be a volunteer (age 18 – 35) or sign up as a supporter for her multi-layered project, at If you wish to be considered as a volunteer, you’ll need to submit a 90-second video in which you say why you’re interested in being part of the project. Closing date: 18 March 2011.

* * * * *

She has already lined up an impressive list of corporate supporters. Microsoft Partners in Learning, a scheme dedicated to enabling access to technology, has signed on. Ninety thousand Microsoft employees have committed to raising US$1.5 million and Microsoft itself will match it. In her talk, Henkel mentioned something about a few million students from North Carolina signing up and raising funds too.

National Geographic will be releasing the film. Advertising agency Leo Burnett is behind it, as is the Indonesian government. Willie Smit himself is close to the Sultan of Yogyakarta, who fully supports the reforestation and orang utan project.

And I hope, you do too.

4 Responses to “Earth defenders”

  1. 1 eco-keng 3 March 2011 at 14:22

    i expect the environment is far down the list of concerns for most singaporeans.

    research shows that singaporeans are the world’s worst polluters on a per capita basis.

    perhaps thats the result of combining first world economic purchasing power with third world social awareness.

    the only time we are concerned about the environment is when the haze drifts over from indonesia and affects us. other than that, people don’t really care. does this selfishness reflect more on mankind or on singaporeans? i am not sure

  2. 2 Orang Utan lover 5 March 2011 at 00:12

    You know. The sort of people these days who go for slash and burn, do so for only one reason. This is the cheapest way to fertilize the land. When you consider one 50 kg bag of fertilizer produced by Monsanto or Ben Meyer retails for SG$35++ and one acre requires abt 3 bags, manpower and know how. If you happen to be a plantation owner which option will you go for? The worse part is traditional planters have of late been replaced by a new breed of gentlemen farmers. These pirates who once preyed with impunity by manipulating stock prices have now muscled their way into plantations. They are not so different from those Spanish conquistadors who once searched for gold. Only they are a doing it this time with paper instruments by gobbling up crops by converting them into futures. Since most small holders are only too willing to be paid in Jan for their expected harvest. These new breed of pirates have been going deep into the Borneo and Kalimantan forest to cut deals with the local orang asli who are only to eager to trade with them. Unless there is a way to cut these middlemen from the plantation supply chain. How do you expect things to ever change?

    Do you think Cathy and her do gooders are going to make any difference? I do not think they have any idea what type of people they are really up against. Neither does she really understand how hardy, motivated and well organized these privateers really are let alone even begin to fathom how much risk they are prepared to take. These new breed of stock market farmers are so versatile, they can even be air dropped into the thickest jungles and within weeks, they have formed alliances with the local orang asli’s and in a month, they can even speak their language fluently and assimilated their tribal customs to trade. That is how proficient these privateers are.

    If you just take a look at oil palm prices for example, it has rocketed from 500 FFM to 800 FFM. As for the CPO it has tripled last and this year alone! With that sort of financial incentive do you think a villager is going to even give two hoots abt some abstraction like a hole somewhere in the Artic. Or do you think he will be more concerned abt the hole in his stilt atap house?

  3. 3 Orang Utan lover 5 March 2011 at 00:42

    The good news is these bunch of people are all privateers. They are soldiers of fortune. If the price is right they can even turn poacher to be game keeper to effectively push Cathy’s mission.

    You should see how these privateers operate in the jungle, it is in Youtube.

    When I see well educated people jungle trekking, surviving on tapioca grub and trading in their Rolex’s, iPad and gizmo for skins and feathers, it can only be from one group.

    Talk to them. As for the Leo Burnets and Bill Gates foundation, those things are great, but what is the point of getting people who are sitting in some air con cubicle trying to change the world with glossy brochures and bleeding heart ads. At the end of the day, nothing beats a team who can spend months in the deep jungle. They can accomplish miraculous feats in one week with one thousand parts of the resources allocated to Cathy and her team of weekend warriors can ever do.

    I can post the Youtube flicks if you want? You will be surprised who is there!

  4. 4 eco-keng 6 March 2011 at 21:01

    hey orang utan lover, please post those youtube clips you are referring to. sounds interesting!

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