Greenpeace calls the Indonesian archipelago one of the "richest biological heritages on Earth," home to between 10-15 percent of the planet's species of plants, mammals and birds. But palm-oil plantations (which not only destroy the indigenous forest, but involve burning the CO2-rich peat that the forests grow in) are taking over, threatening that invaluable biodiversity and hastening climate change. About 50 percent of those forests are already gone.
The good news is that forest preserves exist throughout Indonesia. The bad news is that some people don't respect that those lands have been set aside as wild places. Gunung Leuser National Park is one such area, where palm oil plantations abut the preserve — and dishonest, greedy (and powerful) plantation owners have illegally planted oil palms in national park land, looking to further increase profits.
So in the mid-2000s, Rudi Putra, a biologist by training, took the problem on. (Previously, he had challenged poachers who were threatening the survival of one of Putra's favorite animals, the endangered Sumatran rhino, so he had some experience in this area.)
Putra and his team used technology, including GPS software and smartphones, to compare what the maps indicated was national park land, and where palm oil plantations were encroaching. Then, he took that information to plantation owners to show them, in real time, where their boundaries were. The fact that he challenged the plantation owners at all led many to see him as a hero (and also a bit crazy.) Many plantations returned the land they had been using illegally for restoration, while others weren't so eager to follow the law and felt protected by political allies.
Putra doesn't just work with government and plantation owners. He also coordinates with the local people who live in the area around the forest and who depend on it for fresh water, and to protect them from flooding events. “There have been many unconvinced at first,” Putra told Mental Floss. “But when we sit together in a local house and talk, eventually they support my work.”
So far, with the help of local authorities, Putra has taken more than 1,200 acres back from illegal plantations and restored native forest. He and his team go into the forest with chainsaws and remove the oil palm trees one-by-one. The first areas that were cleared in 2009, have already regenerated, and critically endangered orangutans have returned to the habitat.
Last year, Putra won the Goldman Prize for his work. The site sums up the magnitude of his efforts: "The rehabilitation of these forests after the clearance of the oil palm has recreated a critical wildlife corridor now used by elephants, tigers and orangutans for the first time in 12 years. The Sumatran rhino population in the Leuser Ecosystem has also inched up in the past decade."