The rainforest as a living machine, is quite possibly the most sophisticated technology on the planet. It produces oxygen, emits chemicals that produce rain, sequesters carbon dioxide, fixes nitrogen and other nutrients, creates watersheds by stabilizing the soil, and supports life for thousands of species including our own. Though the services it provides are inestimable, in places like Borneo the human hunger for fuel (largely palm oil) is turning lush forests into barren wastelands.

One biologist Willie Smits was working in Borneo to save the orangutans from extinction, and realized that his only hope was to "reinvent" the rainforest form the ground up, and by doing so create both a safe habitat for the orangutans and a model for how local villagers can be prosperous while conserving the forest.

He presented the results a few weeks ago at the TED conference. Here's the story.

In 2002, his team began a project in East Borneo called Samboja Lastari in what Smits called "a biological desert." Deforestation and fires had transformed the once-lush rainforest, the native home of the red ape, into dry grasslands that stretched for miles and were essentially devoid of life, safe for 5 species of migrating birds.

His idea: "If i can do this on the worst possible place that I can think of, where there is really nothing left, no one will haver an excuse."

Six years later this place, once the poorest region in Borneo, is now thriving with a sugar palm plantation that sustainably produces ethanol (by tapping the trees) without the dire consequences of monoculture plantations. The many improvements that resulted include:

  • jobs for 3,000 people
  • no more fires (the region was plagued with underground fires that arise during drought)
  • restored biodiversity -- over 1000 tree species, 137 bird species, and 9 primate species
  • mean temperatures dropped 3-5 degrees
  • Humidity up 10% & Cloud cover up 11.5%
  • Rainfall up 27%
Smits developed a brilliant scheme for the reforestation project -- a unique type of agroforestry suited specifically for the needs and conditions of the region. It is organized around 3 concentric circles:

The outer ring serves as the economic base for the villagers, providing the sugar palm to produce ethanol, and creating a firebreak that protects the rainforest contained inside. The villagers are all trained in the sustainable method for harvesting the sap, and anyone attempting to fell the trees is taken to a court which is run by the collective of villages.

A second circle contains the restored rainforest and within that is the orangutan sanctuary. The concentric circles are protected by a living fence made of thorny palms, which keeps the orangutans in and the people out.

You can learn more (and adopt an orangutan) on the RedApes website. Now that the Samboja Lastari project has proven itself as both environmentally and economically feasible, he wants to create more sanctuaries. By some estimations, the orangutans are within a few years of extinction, and he hopes that integrative reforestation could save the species.

Shout out to Ashton Kutcher whose twitter feed pointed me in the direction of these great videos from TED.

Willie Smits reconstructs the 'rain machine' of Borneo
The rainforest as a living machine, is quite possibly the most sophisticated technology on the planet.