Turning wasteland into rainforest

July 31, 2009

The highly touted reforestation project launched by orangutan conservationist Willie Smits in Indonesian Borneo is detailed in this week's issue of Science.

The Samboja Lestari project, popularized by Smits' presentation at the TED conference in Feburary 2009, converted a "biological desert" near Balikpapan in East Kalimantan into a thriving agroforestry plot that today supports 1600 species of plants and 137 species of birds across 2,000 hectares. In the process, the initiative restored important ecosystem services, including increasing rainfall by a quarter and reducing air temperatures by 3-5°C, and created sustainable livelihoods for more than 3,000 people in an area that just five years ago suffered from a 50 percent unemployment rate and was the poorest in the province.

The project, which was launched in 2002, began with reforestation using fast-growing, "pioneer" tree species and slow-growing rainforest species, including tropical hardwoods and fruit trees. The pioneer species serve as a canopy, creating conditions ripe for growth and eventual emergence of rainforest trees. Villagers benefit from salaries for tree-planting and sustainable production of cash crops, food, timber, and ethanol as a fuel source, while a section of the regrown forest is home to sun bears and orangutans. The project is now largely managed by the community, which jointly owns the land. Peer pressure from community members keeps the operating running smoothly.

While the project didn't come cheap — Smits spent around $4.5 million ($2250/ha) setting up and administering it — he hopes it could become a model for future initiatives. Payments for reforestation — currently under consideration for the next global climate treaty — could improve the economics of such projects, which sequester carbon, house biodiversity, and restore watersheds.

Dennis Normile. Restoring a 'Biological Desert' on Borneo. Science 31 July 2009: Vol. 325. no. 5940, p. 557 DOI: 10.1126/science.325_557

mongabay.com (July 31, 2009).

Turning wasteland into rainforest.