Constructive Reforestation: Lecture by Willie Smits

Willie Smits

A colleague pointed me to a lecture on TED given by conservationist Willie Smits who organized an effort to regrow a site of clear cut rain forest and restore a population of orangutans that had been threatened by deforestation. I was left thoroughly impressed with not only the level of task that he had taken on, but his striking process in approaching, analyzing and then attacking a complex problem. There are many activists and organizations trying to stem the damaged caused by deforestation around the world, but far fewer are finding ways to repair the damage that has already been done. Dubbed Samboja Lestari, this testing ground has found staggering results in turning a swath of fire-ridden, Indonesian grasslands  into a new budding forest landscape in under five years. His efforts have renewed levels of biodiversity, increased local rainfall and cloud cover, and provided a new industry base that has given jobs to hundreds of people.

“The real key to doing it, to give a simple answer, is integration.”

He says “integration,” I say “interconnection,” but the minor difference in semantics points to the same result of recognizing the vast number of reactions that comes from any one event and how integral, but sometimes difficult, it is to strike the important level of environmental balance.  Smits’ words and anecdotes highlight many valuable perspectives concerning sustainability and the tackling of large, seemingly insurmountable issues, but Smits’ is not just throwing around theory for the proof of his success in Borneo bears a complexity and resilience that few have been able to achieve. Within, there are a number of lessons that can be extracted and used for addressing our own series of dilemmas on any scale.

“It is the diversity that makes it work.”

Willie walks through the complicated task of creating a base of permaculture by integrating hundreds of species of plants so that each will offer a reflexive benefit to the others planted around it. Some plants are fast-growing to offer shade. Some are fruit-bearing to yield food for animals. Some are small but integral for rejuvenating nutrients in the soil. This kind of integration cannot be achieved without thoroughly analyzing the problem and all the components of each option for a solution.

The current state of our economy and the desire for progress has made the risk of throwing money at problems with the goal of reaching solutions as fast as possible. Healthcare, transportation, education, the environment; all complex issues for which hasty action could lead to short-lived relief. Throwing wind turbines everywhere to combat global warming without developing viable means of power storage is what leads to rolling blackouts in Germany. The real energy answer is a combination of renewables (with storage), coal conversion to biomass, nuclear, natural gas, a smarter grid system and increased efficiency to lower our national consumption.

There are few simple problems and even fewer simple solutions. At all scales we should be taking the time to study the solution as much as the problem to increase the likelihood of meaningful, lasting results.

“At every step of the way the local people were going to be fully involved”

Willie Smits decided early on that any chance on true revitalization of this landscape could not simply be his grand vision imposed on an indigenous society. Even if his test was successful, he alone could not maintain the project indefinitely. The rebuilding of a rainforest had to be inextricably tied to the local people who would share both the costs and rewards of the effort. Those that helped plant and manage the forest found jobs, land for homes and eventually crops as the beginning of a new life seamlessly tied to re-growth. The success of the forest became the success of all participants.

A devastated rainforest is only separated by a few degrees from many of our post-industrial cities around America. These small cities that exploded in the first quarter of the twentieth century had their momentum crash with the evaporation of domestic industrial production. These urban ecosystems failed—leaving streets of vacant homes, deflated populations and depleted tax revenues that left them struggling for survival. New efforts to rehabilitate our ailing cities must include and utilize local citizens, yielding them a stake in both the risk and reward of a new cityscape.

“If I can do this on the worst possible place that I can think of, where there is really nothing left, no one will have an excuse to say, ‘yeah but….’”

It is important to note success stories like this one to recalibrate our own idea of challenges that need to be overcome. If Smits can find progress in a society with 50% unemployment where 22% of the average income is spent on fresh water then we are without room to give the “it cannot be done” rebuttal to any dilemma that we currently face in the U.S..