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Samboja Lestari

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Title: Samboja Lestari  
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Samboja Lestari

Yellow-vented bulbul, one of the 137 species of birds now found at Samboja Lestari

Samboja Lestari is an area of restored tropical rainforest near the city of Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia, created by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS) led by Dr Willie Smits, with the aim of providing a safe haven for rehabilitated orangutans while at the same time providing a source of income for local people. According to Smits' talks for Qi Global[1] and TED,[2] Samboja Lestari has evolved on the principles of People, Planet, Profit, linking community and empowerment and capacity-building with promoting economic development and conservation. Located about 38 kilometers from East Kalimantan's capital, Balikpapan.[3]

The project covers nearly 2,000 hectares (7.7 sq mi) of deforested, degraded and burnt land. In 2001 BOS began purchasing land near Samboja that, like much of the deforested land in Borneo, had been by impoverished by mechanical logging, drought and severe fires and was now covered in alang-alang grass (Imperata cylindrica). The name Samboja Lestari roughly translates as the "Samboja Forever".[4] Reforestation and orangutan rehabilitation is the core of this acclaimed but controversial project,[5] with hundreds of indigenous tree species planted. By the middle of 2006 over 740 different tree species had been planted;[6] by 2009 there were 1200 species of trees, 137 species of birds and nine species of primates.[7]

History of Samboja

The small town of Samboja was founded about a century ago in what was then rainforest when oil was discovered in the area. The first drilling began in 1897 near Balikpapan Bay.[8] Dutch oil workers moved into the area to work for a company that was later taken over by Shell and later still by the national Indonesian oil company Pertamina. The oil company began cutting wood in the 1950s and as people came flooding into the booming oil town of Balikpapan they cleared the surrounding forest.[9]
Smog in October 1997
With the pronounced El Niño of 1982 and 1983 the worst firestorms then known in a tropical forest ravaged the area, destroying what small pockets of forest that remained.[10] Following the pattern of deforestation in Borneo as a whole, the area was now vulnerable to the dry years that followed. In 1997 and 1998 the fires enveloped the region in smoke. The thick choking smog darkened the sky and caused respiratory problems throughout the region and beyond.[11]

According to Smits' 2009 TED talk,[2] Samboja in 2002 before reforestation was the poorest district of East Kalimantan, with 50% of the population unemployed and a high crime rate. There had been climate change, with severe droughts resulting in crop failures, along with almost total extinction of plant and animal life. Flooding occurred five or six times a year and there were annual fires. Almost a quarter of average income went on buying drinking water. The land no longer sustained any agricultural productivity and was covered with alang-alang grass (Imperata cylindrica) which produces hydrocyanic acid that prevents the germination of tree seeds. There were many nutrition and hygiene related health problems and life expectancy was low, with high infant and maternal mortality.

The project

Land Purchase

In 2001 BOS began purchasing land near Samboja. It was insured that the purchase of each plot of land was in accordance with regulations and documented by letter, official seal and security copy, that the land was free from foreign influence and that its protected status would be permanent.[12]


Conditions were not favourable: aside from the land degradation, the soil itself was not promising - predominantly clay, with hard plinthite clods. Not far beneath the surface there were coal seams that in the dry periods opened up to the air and caught fire. In addition there were concerns whether the area would be sufficient for the population of 1000 orangutans that was deemed to be viable over 500 years in the absence of logging or hunting.[13] Land prices were rising and it would be impossible to buy enough land to support such a population in normal rainforest. The possibility of increasing the number of orangutans per hectare by increasing the density of fruit-bearing trees above the normal figure, in particular the density of wild fig trees. Despite this, forestry experts were sceptical: they believed that once the rainforest was cut and burned down, it would never return.[5][14]

Tree Planting

In May 2003 BOS bought 1,200 hectares (4.6 sq mi), most of it with credit from the Gibbon Foundation, also under the management of Smits. In a tree nursery of 3 hectares, 250,000 small trees of about 400 species were waiting to be planted. Of particular importance were the 500 or so species that bore fruit eaten by the orangutan. Many of the seeds of these had been recovered from orangutan faeces all over Borneo.

As soil-forming pioneer trees the drought-resistant Sungkai (Peronema canessceus) and legumes such as Acacia mangium which fix nitrogen through symbiotic Rhizobium bacteria in their root nodules.[15]

Smits drew on his background in microbiology and his doctoral dissertation on [5]

Orangutan rehabilitation

The drive to secure the future of the Bornean Orangutan was the central concern of the project. Smits' Orangutan Rehabilitation Project at Wanariset was moved to Samboja. "Forest Schools" were established, areas that provide natural, educational playgrounds for the orangutans in which to learn forest skills. Here the orangutans roam freely but under supervision and are returned to sleeping cages for the night. "Orangutan islands" were created where the orangutans and other wildlife that cannot return to the wild are nevertheless able to live in almost completely natural conditions.

Sun bears

At the request of the Indonesian Government, Samboja Lestari became home to 52 sun bears, confiscated from the illegal pet trade or rescued from deforested areas.

The sanctuary includes a 58 hectares (0.22 sq mi) area put aside for the bears including a 55 hectare patch of fenced secondary forest with maturing fruit trees and a river and a second area of approximately 3 hectares.[17]

Return of biodiversity

Although there is not yet a return to the biodiversity of the species-rich rainforest of Borneo, a young forest is quickly emerging which it is hoped will evolve over time into such a rainforest. In the tropical climate of Borneo plants grow much faster than in Europe. A tree may reach a height of up to 17 metres within four years. Already dense forest surrounds the headquarters of BOS in the Samboja Lestari area. In addition to the return of bird species (such as the rare Hornbill), 30 species of reptile,[2] Porcupines, pangolins, mouse deer and many other animal species have returned. The endangered Proboscis monkeys are one of seven primate species to be found at Samboja Lestari.


The local population around the area is a crucial part of the project. Planted around the perimeter of the rainforest is a belt of sugar palm (Arenga pinnata) trees. This serves both as a protective barrier against fires and as a source of income for over 650 families. Samboja Lestari enjoys the support of the local people through its creation of employment such as in the fire protection program and maintaining the security of drinking water resources.

Alongside the orangutan reintroduction work, BOS has promoted forms of farming that do not involve burning and destroying forests, by switching to agriculture combining rattan, sugar palms, pineapples, papayas, beans, and corn along with other fruits and vegetables. A community of 2,000 Indonesians is developing that can now support itself on the land.[18] Smits believes that to develop the orangutan population, their forest habitat must first be built; also, to achieve sustainable solutions the root social problems must be addressed by empowering local communities to take up livelihood options that are more rewarding than logging.[19]

The contract to supply food for the orangutans is worth 125 million Indonesian rupiah (about $14,000) a month for 150 farmers (the estimated average monthly income for a worker in the villages is between one and two million rupiah).[18]


"Create Rainforest"

To finance the nature reserve, BOS created a system of "land-purchasing", a "Create Rainforest" initiative where donors can symbolically adopt square metres of rainforest[20] and are able to view and follow the progress of their "purchase" in the project area with Google Earth satellite images from 2002 and 2007 with additional information overlaid.[21]

Samboja Lodge

The Samboja Lodge[22] was established to provide accommodation for visitors and volunteers at Samboja. Its design was based upon local architecture and its interior and exterior walls are made of recycled materials.

Environmental impact

In his 2009 TED talk Smits claimed there had been a substantial increase in cloud cover and 30% more rainfall due to the reforestation at Samboja Lestari.[2]


The SarVision[23] Satellite Natural Resources Monitoring Centre was established to monitor deforestation and illegal logging and the relentless growth of palm oil in unsuitable locations. A study commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature Netherlands with SarVision showed that almost half of present oil palm plantations are not located on suitable land.[24] The use of satellite technology and GIS has enabled SarVison to monitor forests down to the individual tree level, to develop accountability in the management of the forest and identify where palm oil plantations are destroying areas of forest illegally.[25]


Amory Lovins, renewable energy advocate and chief scientist at Colorado's Rocky Mountain Institute claimed Samboja Lestari was possibly "the finest example of ecological and economic restoration in the Tropics."[5] In 2009 Smits was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship. Ashoka Fellows are leading social entrepreneurs who are recognized to have innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society.[26]


Some, like Erik Meijaard, say that it remains unclear whether Samboja Lestari is a good idea that achieves results, and that the success will ultimately depend on the extent to which it can improve community livelihoods and achieve long-term financial stability: "That question remains unanswered, and will remain so for a few years, because that is the kind of time such projects need to be evaluated." Meijaard also questions the enormous cost of projects like Samboja, and their financial sustainability, saying, like others, that it is better to concentrate on projects that attempt to protect those remaining areas of forest rather than trying to create new ones from scratch.[18]

For Francis E. Putz, botany professor at the University of Florida, there is another concern: what if Smits successfully demonstrates that devastated lands can be turned into multilayered stands supporting a mixture of plant and animal species? In the eyes of developers and policymakers, will that then justify destroying existing rain forests?[5]

See also


  1. ^ Willie Smits' presentation at Qi Global 2009
  2. ^ a b c d February 2009  
  3. ^
  4. ^ BOS Australia website
  5. ^ a b c d e Braxton Little, Jane (7 January 2009). "Regrowing Borneo's Rainforest--Tree by Tree". Scientific American. Retrieved 22 May 2010.  Full text
  6. ^ Samboja Lodge website
  7. ^ Thompson 2010, p193
  8. ^ Intermediate Cities in the Resource Frontier: A case study of Samarinda and Balikpapan Ph.D dissertation by William Bruce Wood, University of Hawaii, 1985, p63
  9. ^ Schuster 2008, p300
  10. ^ Schuster 2008, p301
  11. ^ Pearce, Fred (12 August 2002), "'"Borneo fires may intensify 'Asian brown haze, New Scientist, retrieved 11 April 2010  The smog from fires killed "as many as a million people a year from respiratory diseases" according to UNEP director Klaus Toepfer.
  12. ^ Schuster 2008, p304
  13. ^ Singleton, I., S. Wich, S. Husson, S. Stephens, S. Utami Atmoko, M. Leighton, N. Rosen, K. Traylor-Holzer, R. Lacy and O. Byers (eds.). Orangutan Population and Habitat Viability Assessment: Final Report 2004. IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, Apple Valley, MN. p35
  14. ^ Schuster 2008, p305
  15. ^ Schuster 2008, p311
  16. ^ Smits WTM, 1994, Dipterocarpaceae: mycorrhizae and regeneration. Thesis. Tropenbos Series No. 9. Backhuys Publishers. Lead.
  17. ^ BOS Sun Bear Sanctuary at
  18. ^ a b c Shawn Thompson (17 May 2010). "Borneo experiment shows how saving the apes could save ourselves". This Magazine. 
  19. ^
  20. ^ "Create Rainforest website
  21. ^ on YouTube"Google Earth Hero: BOS, Borneo rain forest"
  22. ^ "About BOS". Retrieved 27 March 2010. 
  23. ^ Sarvision website
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ "Ashoka Fellowship profile of Willie Smits". 2009. Retrieved 3 April 2010.  "Dr. Willie Smits is a rainforest inventor who has revolutionized reforestation techniques and policies worldwide and is also the world’s most prominent protector of orangutans and their natural habitat."


External links

  • Borneo Orangutan Survival International
  • Borneo Orangutan Survival Indonesia
  • Orangutan Outreach
  • Documentary on Samboja Lestari on YouTube
  • Create Rainforest
  • TED talk: "Willie Smits restores a rain forest"
  • Google Earth Hero: BOS, Borneo rain forest on YouTube

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