As life-changing experiences go, spending 100 days in a Borneo forest rescuing orangutans ranks high up for Liza Heavener, a former political lobbyist from Washington before she joined an NGO called DeforestAction.
“You can’t go through an experience this intense and not have it change you,” said the 27-year-old American.
Last year, the NGO enlisted Ms Heavener as one its ‘eco-warriors’, a group of 11 volunteers from eight different countries who represent the eyes and ears of an international movement to stop illegal deforestation and protect forest communities and wildlife.
DeforesAction is a non-profit that emerged from a brainstorming event for students and educators organised in Singapore in 2010 by a Microsoft programme called Partners in Learning. Participants decided to start a pilot programme to harness the energy and enthusiasm of students world-wide to protect orangutans and stop illegal deforestation in remote areas of Indonesia.
The resulting partnership combined the expertise of conservationists with online education experts TakingITGlobal, Dutch geographical data specialist Geodan and global education organisations such as The Centre for Global Education, the Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation and The International Society for Technology in Education.
One aspect of the project is the Earthwatchers programme developed by Geodan. The programme uses crowd-sourcing – in this case, students from all over the world – to monitor changes in the forest using satellite photos and other geographical images. If the Earthwatchers flag changes in an area, Eco-Warriors will inspect it on the ground before handing over relevant evidence to local villages and authorities.
The Eco-Warriors’ first trip was a brief, 20 day orientation last September that included visits to indigenous Dayak villages, talks with officials and learning about deforestation and wildlife problems. Armed with their new insights, the volunteers returned to their homes to raise funds and build support for DeforestAction.
By March, they were back in Borneo for an 80 day stint based in Tembak, a remote Dayak village near Sintang in West Kalimantan, where the Eco-Warriors divided into teams to pursue four work programmes.
Ms Heavener shared with Eco-Business in a recent interview that she had been part of the orangutan rescue and rehabilitation team, which rescues the animals from captivity and teaches them to survive in the wild.
She recounted her first experience of driving for two to three hours through sprawling palm oil plantations to reach the village.
“We really felt we’d been taken to the frontlines in the fight for the forest,” she said.
The wildlife rescue and reforestation programme is run by the Kobus Foundation, which has a memorandum of understanding with the Indonesian forestry ministry and the local wildlife conservation agency to rescue orangutans that are kept illegally or in poor conditions.
Orangutans are currently kept at the nearby Sintang Orangutan Centre, but the foundation has permits to move the animals to a new site once it can fund and build a new clinic. Located on 63 hectares of forest designated by the Tembak community, the site will serve as a rainforest school for the creatures before their eventual release into the wild.
Other Eco-Warrior teams visited local schools with interactive messages about conservation, helped with a reforestation programme and worked on a local mapping project.
Their efforts will feature in a movie – due out next year – by independent filmmaker Virgo Productions. Director Cathy Henkel has termed the film an action adventure movie because its goal is to gouge people into action on the global problem of deforestation.
While the Eco-Warriors have been the focal point of DeforestAction, the key to its long term success is the local community, noted Ms Heavener.
She said that she and her teammates had had to resist the urge to dive into the work at their own enthusiastic pace - particularly in political matters such as land rights and wildlife permits – so that the local community could decide and act on its own behalf.
“If the locals don’t care to protect the forest, then our work is not useful,” she added.
Conflicts over land rights are common in Indonesia where government-granted forest concessions to industries frequently overlap with forests held by the unofficial system of traditional – or adat – land rights. Despite promises from the national government to strengthen adat land rights, problems remain widespread.
Tembak, which hosted the Eco-Warriors in its traditional longhouse, has a strong history of protecting its forest - having several times fended off companies that sought to use its land for timber or palm oil plantations.
Villagers grow food in community gardens and in fish ponds, and harvest natural rubber from surrounding rubber trees for income. They use a homemade mini hydro-electric power system installed in a nearby stream, along with solar panels, for their scant electricity needs.
“Existence in Tambak is the epitome of living off the land,” Ms Heavener noted. More importantly, they value their land and pass on forest knowledge to their children, she said.
The Eco-Warriors plan to help Tambak develop a small eco-tourism programme that will provide extra income for the village and teach visitors about the plight of the orangutans and other deforestation issues.
The group hopes the work done in Tambak will serve as a model to other villages, where residents often turn to forestry industry jobs after their traditional way of life has been disrupted. But they know that, while Tambak’s villagers made it clear they wanted the Eco-Warriors’ support, not every village welcomes outside help.
One village the Eco-Warriors plan to help is Ensaid Panjang, a village which recently discovered that someone had cut down 70 per cent of a forest shared by Ensaid Panjang and a neighbouring village, said Ms Heavener.
The Eco-Warriors tapped into their Earthwatchers programme to provide satellite images dating back to 2007, which they gave to the villagers as evidence for the authorities.
As of April, over 100 Earthwatchers from around the world had signed up to help with cases like these, with more volunteers expected as the project gets underway and more schools and teachers join the DeforestAction movement.
The schools stay informed about the project through webinars that draw as many as 30,000 viewers at a time, social media and through private correspondence with the Eco-Warriors. Meanwhile, the schools hold activities and events to raise funds and awareness about deforestation.
Orangutans and threats from palm oil plantation expansions have captured the attention of the schools. Many students and other members of the DeforestAction movement fault the palm oil industry for destroying the orangutans’ forest habitat.
Ms Heavener is no exception, and said she is sceptical of attempts to green the industry.
“I wish it worked, but I don’t think it does,” she said of an initiative to increase certified sustainable palm oil.
She noted that, while the Earthwatchers programme could help by putting the companies’ activities under a microscope, the real change would have to come from consumer demand for non-palm oil products.
For her, the importance of her personal choices as a consumer hit during a distressing moment when she realised that her previous purchases of palm oil products had contributed to the problems around her: On a visit to a village, the Eco-Warriors stumbled upon the community’s cemetery, which was surrounded by trees that had been marked for felling. The villagers all stood around with tears in their eyes, vowing to fight for their land.
“They’re just asking to be left alone,” she said.
Now that the 80 days is up, most of the Eco-Warriors are returning to their home countries to continue the advocacy work with DeforestAction as spokespeople and board members. Some have stayed on in Indonesia.
Ms Heavener noted she hopes to work full time at the organisation - if they can find funding – so that she can help the group build relationships with other NGOs, communities and government authorities.
Looking back on her experiences, she said she is now more realistic and not quite as naïve as when she first arrived in Borneo – but she is still just as hopeful.
When the group left Borneo, they left behind two orangutans - caged in appalling conditions – which they had been unable to rescue during their stay because of bureaucracy.
“That keeps me going – thinking of them still sitting there waiting,” she said.
This article is brought to you by Microsoft.