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One-Time Illegal Logger Fights to Save the Forests of Borneo

Pak Bastarian was once an illegal logger, cutting trees in the forests of West Kalimantan, Borneo where he grew up. He sits cross-legged on the tile floor of his tidy house recalling those days. “I don’t know how many trees I cut down… countless numbers,” he says.  Today he is a conservationist, leading his village...

Pak Bastarian was once an illegal logger, cutting trees in the forests of West Kalimantan, Borneo where he grew up. He sits cross-legged on the tile floor of his tidy house recalling those days. “I don’t know how many trees I cut down… countless numbers,” he says. 

Pak Basarian - Village Head of Riam Barasap Jaya in West Kalimantan - Photo by Ben Shaw

Today he is a conservationist, leading his village of former headhunters in the fight to prevent oil palm plantations from clearing the forest around his village.

Bastarian says that conversations with people from a local NGO, started by a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, changed his mind.

Cheryl Knott, a biological anthropologist, founded the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program (GPOCP) in 1994 as an extension of her scientific work. The program works with residents of the villages that border the Gunung Palung national park, encouraging environmental stewardship through education and community outreach programs. Bastarian says the program works with the villagers to provide information about the forest and orangutans. “I personally grew close to the NGO workers,” says Bastarian. “They became like brothers and sisters to me.”

Borneo, the world’s third largest island after Greenland and Papua New Guinea, contains Asia’s largest surviving tropical forest. But only half of the island’s original forest-cover remains. According to the Forestry Ministry of Indonesia, the country loses up to 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of forests and peatlands to deforestation each year.

International Animal Rescue Indonesia cares for and rehabilitates Orangutans displaced by deforestation - Photo by Ben Shaw

Borneo is home to proboscis monkeys, clouded leopards, pygmy elephants, and flying snakes. And an average of three new species are discovered every month in the island’s forests says Adam Tomasek of the World Wildlife Fund.

But the loss of habitat is threatening the island’s wildlife – especially the iconic  orangutan, which lives only in Borneo and the neighboring Indonesian island of Sumatra. Only twenty percent of original orangutan habitat remains. 

“Because orangutans spend 99 percent of their time in the trees, deforestation has devastating effects on their ability to survive,” says Knott. “They eat, sleep, nest, and travel in the rain forest’s leafy branches, totally dependent upon the fruits, leaves, seeds, bark, and insects the trees provide. And since orangutans only bear young about once every eight years, they can’t replace their numbers fast enough.”

Logging was once the primary cause of deforestation in Indonesia, but land is increasingly being cleared to make room for lucrative palm oil tree plantations. Oil from the tree’s fruit is used in consumer products such as chocolate, soap, cookies and cosmetics. Indonesia produces fifty percent of the world’s palm oil and demand is on the rise. The price of crude oil has created a growing market for palm oil biofuel. In the U.S. alone, consumption of palm oil has doubled in the last four years, according to David McLaughlin, a former palm oil executive who now works for the World Wildlife Fund.

PT Kayung Agro Lestari, an Indonesian-Australian company, has proposed building an oil palm plantation on land owned by Bastarian’s village. But as the elected head of 1,600 Dayak tribal members, Bastarian is leading the fight against the plantation.

A Palm Oil Plantation in West Kalimantan, Indonesia - Photo by Emily Schultze

Bastarian’s stance is not popular with local officials, who see the proposed plantation as a source of local jobs. The company has promised improved health care and education for the villagers. But Bastarian says the negative impact of palm oil on other villages in the area has solidified his decision to reject the plantation.

As an alternative to logging or palm oil, some in the village are turning to farming or crafts that rely on the forest, such as building furniture and other products from bamboo. Bastarian says GPOCP is working together with his village to promote these sustainable livelyhoods.

“A forest is more than just trees and timber,” he says. “A forest can save the people living around it.”

Ben Shaw, Producer of National Geographic Weekend, traveled to Indonesia on an International Reporting Project (IRP) Gatekeeper fellowship.

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Meet the Author

Benjamin Shaw
Benjamin Shaw produces the weekly radio program National Geographic Weekend with host Boyd Matson. Hear it on on XM/Sirius satellite radio (XM channel 133 Sundays at noon), subscribe to the iTunes podcast, or get the show streamed to your iPhone, Blackberry, Palm, or Android OS phone with Stitcher Radio.