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Borneo – ‘Foundations’

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benworangutan

 THE FIRST 20 DAYS: September 2011

Back in 2008 I remember reading a review in my local newspaper about a book which told the story of the orangutan.  Like so many other wildlife species, I knew that the future for orangutans wasn’t looking very positive, however that was the extent of my knowledge about them and the issue’s they faced.  The book was called Thinkers of the Jungle and was written by a man who has dedicated his entire life to protecting orangutans and the forests they depend on. That man is Dr Willie Smits. I was drawn to find out more….

If someone had of told me then, that in three years time I would be working in Borneo on the frontline of some of the most extreme environmental devastation on this planet, as one of 15 young Eco Warriors featuring in a documentary movie alongside Dr Willie Smits himself I would have said they were out of their mind!

Reading Thinkers of the Jungle inspired me into action to try and help the orangutans in any way I could.  Over the next few years with the support of many amazing people, I managed to raise a few thousand dollars which was donated to the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS), founded by Willie Smits.  My family and I even travelled to Borneo to try and get a better understanding of the situation.  My goal was to raise awareness about the plight of the orangutan.

On the 14th of March 2011, which also happened to be my birthday, I discovered the DeforestAction project.  What an awesome birthday present!  I was at home researching orangutans (as you do on your birthday) and came across a website with a call to young people all around the world to apply to be a part of the project on the ground in Borneo.  I remember the exact second when I felt like my entire life and everything I had done so far had been leading up to that moment.  This project is the last stand for the orangutan, and I was going to be a part of it in one way or another.  It was fate.

The DeforestAction project has an infectious ‘buzz’ and energy surrounding it.  The project is completely solution driven and aims to engage young people from all over the world to come together and fight for something they believe in, bringing an end to deforestation.  While the many facets of the project focus on various practical solutions, I believe the sense of hope the project brings is critical.  The task at hand sometimes seems overwhelming, but whilst ever there is energy and hope, we will continue to fight.  Together we will work with the local people to win this life or death battle for them, their children, their culture, the wildlife and the environment.

The crisis in Borneo is truly a global issue.  We have fuelled the destruction which directly affects us all and we must all be part of the solution.

The Team

Eco Warriors

borneo group photoIt is not very often in life that one feels a deep connection with another person the instant they first meet, let alone with fifteen people!  But, that is exactly what happened when the eco warriors met at the beginning of this trip.  While we are a diverse group, we share a deep and driving passion to make a positive difference for this planet.  As a ‘family’ we shared so many amazing experiences that made us laugh, cry and above all inspired us to continue this important work together.  Each one of us is aware of the responsibility that comes with the title of eco warrior.  We are the voices for so many young people and it is important that we let their words be heard. This is only the beginning of our journey and of what we are going to achieve together over the coming months and years.

Dr Willie Smits is truly the most inspirational person I have ever met in my entire life.  He is a formidable force who does not allow anything or anyone to come between himself and realising his incredible visions.  His immense passion which is a raging untameable fire, for the people, forests and wildlife of Indonesia fuels everything he does.  Willie has a deep connection and understanding of all aspects of nature and a knowledge that surpasses any encyclopaedia.  He can be fierce and powerful if required but will also openly weep for the suffering of the people and wildlife.  Willie has an infectious warmth that surrounds him and touches the hearts of every person he meets.  What this man has achieved in 32 years living in Indonesia surpasses what most people would achieve in three lifetimes and he’s still going!

One of the most special moments for me during the first 20 day’s occurred as we cruised up the Malawi River into the heart of Borneo.  The boat we were travelling on was powered by an extremely loud diesel engine which pumped the cabin with suffocating fumes.  Most of the eco warriors migrated onto the roof of the boat in order to appreciate the magnificent surrounds and escape the conditions down below.  I decided to walk to the front of the boat to have a quiet moment and soak up the true beauty of this place, one of the last untouched areas of virgin forest in Borneo.  Willie Smits must have had the same idea as I found him perched right on the front of the bow with his legs hanging over the edge.  I joined Willie and we sat side by side and discussed our mutual love of nature and wildlife and how we were going to protect it all.  I honestly could not think of a better way of entering the heart of Borneo, than sharing it with the man who had given his heart to this troubled land.

 

Willie Smits

After the first 20 days filming Rise of the Eco Warriors, I have come to understand how critically important the medium of film can be.  Visual storytelling has the power to reach and move the largest possible global audience, motivating people everywhere to come together to bring an end to deforestation in Borneo. I have enormous respect for the film crew capturing this important and emotional story.  They are extremely skilful and dedicated people who are just as passionate about making a difference to the environment as the eco warriors.  Each has made huge personal sacrifices, some even putting everything they own on the line, to document this journey. Like Dr Willie they are visionaries, driven by the belief that there is indeed hope and together we can make a difference by sharing this story with the world.

The People

I learnt more about myself in the first 20 days in Borneo than I have in 19 years living on this planet.  I attribute this directly to the incredible beauty of the local people and the times we shared. They are some of the strongest individuals on this planet and they continue to fight against all odds to protect their homes, their forests and their children’s futures.  We were welcomed into their lives and communities with a warmth and generosity that is often forgotten in modern society and we listened to their moving stories for hours on end.  The strength and courage of these people in the face of such adversity was nothing short of extraordinary. In one sense the Dayak people have nothing, least of all a certain future, yet they were peaceful, happy and totally at one with nature.  My past ‘worries’ seemed so trivial in comparison.  They taught me a new appreciation of every day, they are who we will fight for.

 

Kids on shoulders

Ambalau and Serawai

We departed Sintang in a convoy of 11 speed boats and travelled nine hours up the Malawi River, the longest river in Borneo, to the sub-districts of Ambalau and Serawai.  The intention of the four day journey was to visit as many villages as possible to speak with the local Dayak’s and get their perspective on what was going on in this part of Borneo.  The welcoming ceremonies and hospitality we experienced at every village we visited was unbelievable.  We were even honored with an invitation to a traditional ceremony which is only held once every ten years.

Boat

One moment that stands out for me was our arrival at the village of Ambalau.  We were welcomed into the home of the chief of the village and offered some cool drinks and snacks.  For many of the children in this village we were the first foreigners they had ever seen.  A group of about 20 inquisitive children had gathered at the front door and were peering in trying to get a glimpse of us, the interesting new people.  We welcomed them in and began introducing ourselves before one of the eco warriors mentioned the word ‘football’.  This universally recognised word caused an eruption of cheers and excitement amongst the kids who proceeded to usher us out the door chanting the word ‘football’, ‘football’!

Next thing I knew, we were literally running barefoot through the village surrounded by about a hundred screaming Dayak children, dodging chickens and puddles heading for the village football field. On arrival at the field we attempted to kick around a half inflated ball, however the number of children seemed to have quadrupled in a matter of minutes and we could barely even move, let alone kick a ball.  Within five minutes it seemed the entire village had emptied onto the field and we found ourselves surrounded by no less than a thousand people!  There were literally 40 or 50 people lining up to get their photo taken with us. I remember looking out over a sea of heads, after all I was a whole head taller than everyone there.

Shoulders 2

During our four day trip we attended many village meetings where the locals spoke of their circumstances and gave us first-hand accounts of their interactions with the palm oil companies.  Everywhere we went, every person we listened to, the story was the same.  The palm oil companies would come in and bribe the village leader or plant spies in the community to cause conflict between the people.  They would basically coerce the village leaders into unwittingly selling their land for a small fraction of its true value.  The timber companies, also owned by the palm oil companies, would then come in and illegally clear the land making millions from the timber.  The displaced people were left without the forest they totally depended upon for survival.  We met a man who took a stand in his village and resisted the palm oil companies and encouraged his people not to give up their land.  The palm oil company paid the army to beat him almost to death as a warning to anyone who dared to resist them.

Tembak

About three hours journey by bus from Sintang stands a village that is completely at one with nature and at the forefront of living sustainably from the forest.  The village is Tembak, where we stayed for two days and even after such a short period of time it really felt like home.  The people of Tembak were extremely environmentally aware and had a genuine love of nature and wildlife.  They had designed and constructed their own micro hydro system to provide fresh drinking water and power to the whole village.  The village elders took us for a walk into their virgin forest and showed us many edible and medicinal plants and fungi.  We even discovered a species of fungi which Willie believed was new to science.  The people cultivated their own fish in an aquaculture system, to minimise the pressures on the local streams and rivers from over-fishing.  These people were amazing!

Our departure from Tembak was highly emotional and we were farewelled by dozens of crying children who simply did not want us to leave.  The children made many small bracelets and necklaces as gifts for the eco warriors and I was even presented with a traditional, handmade Dayak shield from one of the elders in appreciation for our visit.  A few days after leaving Tembak, Willie received a letter with the signatures of every single person in the village who was of age, giving us 63 hectares of their remaining virgin forest to be used as a forest training school for rehabilitated orangutans!

Ensaid Panjang

Living inside one of the last remaining traditional Dayak longhouses in Borneo for an entire week was an honor and an incredible experience.  I never realised how long a longhouse really was.  It is huge! The longhouse at Ensaid Panjang houses over 100 people and was made completely by hand.  The house consists of a large communal area with doors off to separate homes where each family lives.  During our stay at the longhouse, we lost all sense of time and connection with the outside world.  The people in Ensaid Panjang were among the happiest we had met and we spent our days working with them, planting rice, cooking, swimming and exploring the forest.  The children of Ensaid Panjang made our stay truly special.  Not a single day went by where the children weren’t smiling from ear to ear, laughing, playing and just overjoyed to have each other’s company.  During our stay I also made friends with one of the men in the longhouse who was undertaking a biodiversity study in the surrounding forest.  Each day he would bring back a different species of snake that he had found for us to photograph including a Pit Viper and Mangrove Cat Snake.

SleepingTowards the end of our stay at Ensaid Panjang, Pak Sembai the village leader took us on a walk into the peat forest surrounding the longhouse.  Things were not as perfect as they had seemed over the past week.  There in the forest, only a few hundred meters from the longhouse was a blood red mark scarred on the side of a large tree.  The palm oil companies had been here only weeks before and had marked the entire forested area to be cleared for plantations.  This land was legally owned by the people of Ensaid Panjang, yet the palm oil company intended to take it regardless.  The following day a few of the eco warriors took some motor bikes and discovered only 3km away, a number of excavators already clearing the peat forest!  The longhouse of Ensaid Panjang, the people and the children we had lived with for an entire week were under imminent threat.  Leaving the longhouse was absolutely heartbreaking, knowing that those children’s futures were so uncertain, as the ever present threat of palm oil closed in on everything they had.

The Environment

The island of Borneo is one of the most bio-diverse and naturally rich places on the planet.  Many of the animal and plant species there are found nowhere else in the world and new species are discovered every year.  What amazed me about Borneo’s environment was the stark contrast evident almost everywhere we travelled.  There was extreme natural beauty and biodiversity side by side with complete and total environmental devastation.

The Forest

We were extremely fortunate to visit some of the last remaining virgin forest in interior Borneo.  Here, the forest was truly alive with the sounds of insects and birds.  The Dayak’s showed us a 600 year old tree which was 100 meters tall.  I was enraged by the thought of someone taking to such a magnificent living, breathing beauty with a chainsaw.  The water was so pure in the virgin forest that we could drink it straight from the stream. Everywhere you looked there was a new species of plant that had some sort of use, whether edible or medicinal or even to keep the mosquitoes away.  It was so easy just to lose yourself in the beauty of the moment and forget about the unthinkable destruction that was going on so close by.

The Destruction

During our 20 day trip we witnessed some of the worst environmental destruction occurring in our world today.  You can’t go far in Borneo before you find yourself confronted by palm oil plantations, often as far as the eye can see.  They are a cancer consuming the landscape.  Willie took us for a walk into a plantation which was about 15 years old.  It had an eerie almost deathly silence like being in a graveyard, you couldn’t even hear the sound of an insect.  As we travelled up the Kapuas River we came across illegal goldmines every few hundred metres.  These goldmines were powered by extremely loud diesel engines and used huge amounts of mercury to separate the gold from the rocks and silt.  This mercury was pumped directly into the river, poisoning the fish and the people who depend on the river to survive.  The water wasn’t even safe to swim in anymore.  We spoke to a man who worked on one of these goldmines.  He was almost deaf from working so close to the roaring diesel engine blasting all day and he showed signs of severe mercury poisoning.  Willie estimated that he probably had a year or two to live.  The man said that his village had been taken over by a palm oil company and the only way for him to make a living for his family was to work in the mine.  He was literally killing himself in order to provide food for his family.

 

Ezther

The Wildlife

For as long as I can remember I have always had a driving passion and interest in the natural world, in particular wildlife.  From an early age I knew that I wanted to spend my life learning about animals, protecting them and educating others to care for them too.  Nothing could have prepared me for what we saw during those 20 days.

In the Sintang district alone, there are currently 60 orangutans which are known to be being held illegally as pets in the most unimaginable conditions.  That’s not to mention the sun bears, gibbons, scaly ant eaters and various birds and reptiles and other primates in horrendous circumstances. Many of the local people simply lack an understanding about their needs.  Once we explained that these animals were going to die if they continued to live in these conditions, many of the people were horrified and readily offered their animals for us to rehabilitate.

The Kapuas River is the largest wildlife trafficking route in Indonesia with many animals being hunted and trapped in the forest and kept in cages along the river, awaiting transfer by illegal wildlife traders.  Animals are smuggled across the border into Malaysia where they are then sent off and sold around the world.  One of the many successes of our trip came from a meeting with the head of the police in Sintang, Colonel Firley.  The Sintang district spans right to the border of Malaysia and the Colonel promised he would set up two new permanent police posts at the border solely to catch the wildlife traffickers.  Colonel Firley also pledged to clean up his police force and get rid of any corrupt officers involved in smuggling.  This initiative represented a huge step forward in tackling the illegal wildlife trade, however, there are still so many animals in need of immediate rescue in the area.

Bear

On our very first day in Sintang Willie took us to a small abandoned ‘fun park’ where two orangutans had been living in appalling conditions since the park had closed.  It was more like a ‘house of horrors’.  The two orangutans were inside a small, rusty cage underneath a metal awning which magnified heat onto them, literally cooking them alive.  They stood ankle deep in their own filth with no food or water.  The only way they had survived was from the aid provided by a caring local who had been giving them the odd banana.  They had patches of hair missing and scabs on their faces caused by the parasites that riddled their frail bodies.  One of the orangutans looked me directly in the eye and reached her hand out through the bars with the palm up.  She was literally begging for help.  Leaving her in that state was the hardest thing I have ever had to do, the look in her eyes still makes my heart ache.  The saddest part was, these weren’t even the worst off orangutans in Sintang…

My Girl, JoJo

Every person you speak to who has had a personal encounter with an orangutan is struck by just how like humans they really are.  You honestly cannot appreciate this until you look into the eyes of an orangutan for the first time.  You find yourself looking at another person, one who understands you, maybe even better than you do yourself.  Their intelligent, gentle eyes don’t just look at you, they look into you.  They read your every thought and feeling and can sum you up in a few short seconds.

JoJo is a three year old female baby orangutan whom we rescued during our 20 day trip.  She was kept inside a small wooden box and fed chocolate, coffee and rice.  After Willie explained to her owner that she was full of parasites, needed proper medical care, a better diet and ultimately to be returned to the wild, the owner willingly offered her to us to rehabilitate.  We brought JoJo back to Sintang to the wildlife centre where she was given a full medical assessment from the local vet, had blood samples taken, was treated for worms and given a huge enclosure filled with branches, climbing platforms and tyre swings.  She was placed under 24 hour care and it was reassuring to see the local staff tend to JoJo with such genuine love, dedication and commitment.  One of the wildlife carers even set up a tent next to JoJo’s cage and slept there every single night to keep her company.

Orangutan cage

My Girl, JoJo

Every person you speak to who has had a personal encounter with an orangutan is struck by just how like humans they really are.  You honestly cannot appreciate this until you look into the eyes of an orangutan for the first time.  You find yourself looking at another person, one who understands you, maybe even better than you do yourself.  Their intelligent, gentle eyes don’t just look at you, they look into you.  They read your every thought and feeling and can sum you up in a few short seconds.

JoJo is a three year old female baby orangutan whom we rescued during our 20 day trip.  She was kept inside a small wooden box and fed chocolate, coffee and rice.  After Willie explained to her owner that she was full of parasites, needed proper medical care, a better diet and ultimately to be returned to the wild, the owner willingly offered her to us to rehabilitate.  We brought JoJo back to Sintang to the wildlife centre where she was given a full medical assessment from the local vet, had blood samples taken, was treated for worms and given a huge enclosure filled with branches, climbing platforms and tyre swings.  She was placed under 24 hour care and it was reassuring to see the local staff tend to JoJo with such genuine love, dedication and commitment.  One of the wildlife carers even set up a tent next to JoJo’s cage and slept there every single night to keep her company.

Jojo

On the first night we brought JoJo home we didn’t arrive back to the centre until well after dark.  JoJo clutched Willie’s chest tightly and Perry, Liza, the vet and I sat inside her new enclosure with her to try and help her settle in.  It didn’t take long before she started looking around and playing with our hair.  We attempted to leave her in the enclosure, however she really wasn’t ready to be left alone inside an unfamiliar new environment which she had never even seen in full daylight and cried when we tried to leave.  Willie and the vet suggested that we stay with her until she fell asleep, so Liza and I spent the night with JoJo inside her enclosure.  I have to say that was an experience that I will keep with me for the rest of my life.  JoJo ended up falling asleep, lying on my stomach with her head resting on my chest.  I remember watching her gorgeous little face as she slept so peacefully and innocently.  Giving up the fight for the orangutans, people, forests and wildlife of Borneo is just not an option.

Working Towards

After spending 20 days living side by side with the local people, hearing their stories, seeing the environmental devastation firsthand and witnessing numerous animals in desperate need of help, I remain more committed than ever to start tackling these issues head on.  The task at hand is enormous.  There is so much that needs to be done.  I acknowledge the many extremely dedicated and hardworking people and organisations who have dedicated sometimes decades of their lives to make a difference in Borneo.  I look up to these people with complete respect and admiration.

Coming home from Borneo and having to leave our new friends in such vulnerable circumstances was very hard.  I have found it difficult to try and convey what we saw to other people.  Word’s simply cannot describe the desperation, pain and devastation that we witnessed.  After seeing and feeling so much together with the 14 other eco warriors, I felt like we needed to stay in Borneo and start working immediately.  However, what we witnessed during the first 20 days has armed us emotionally and strengthened our resolve to return better resourced to do the hard work needed.  We are already busy spreading the word far and wide and raising the funds to make our visions possible.

These first 20 days the eco warriors have spent in Borneo, on behalf of millions of youth around the world and the 80 days to follow next year, mark the beginning of a new movement and era in environmental awareness, understanding and action.  When passionate young people from around the world come together to work for something they believe in, anything is possible.  Whilst ever there is hope, not just for the people of Borneo, but for all of us and for our planet, we will fight.  We can do this if we work together.  I know we can. BD

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