Mr. Freddy is a local businessperson from whom OFI recently bought 20 hectares of forest land. He has nothing to do with my son Fred who is called Freddie by some of his friends.
Upon my return to Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), the first thing I did was check, once again, the 20 hectares of forest OFI had bought from Mr. Freddy. A small part of the 20 hectares consists of an open field with some of the tallest coconut trees I have ever seen, perhaps 50 feet tall.
The boundary of the purchased forest is in tropical peat swamp forest with some large trees, including dipterocarps, found within. The rest of the forest consists of dry ground forest. There is a footpath which makes walking through the forest a treat. As we walked there, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. There were virtually no mosquitoes, despite the presence of the swamp forest nearby.
At the end of our walk, everyone was thirsty. I had run out of water as I had brought a very small container, only half full of water. I hadn’t realized that we would be walking the forest boundary which was still ankle deep and occasionally knee-deep in water. The forest floor was soggy mud. Only at the height of the dry season does the swamp turn into solid ground. In mid-July we are still a few weeks away.
It was a hard walk. I was wearing my black Crocs, very much showing their wear and tear after three years of non-stop use. The swamp water conveniently poured out of the decorative holes in my Crocs but the age of the shoes also meant my feet had no traction and no real support as I slipped and slid on the smooth roots of trees and in the mud.
When we finally got to the clearing I was relieved. I asked if any of the young Dayak assistants could climb one of the coconut palms and toss down a few young coconuts so we all could relieve our thirst. Mr. Freddy who comes from Sumatra volunteered that he couldn’t do it. He mentioned that in Sumatra people train pig-tail macaques to climb coconut trees and pick coconuts. However, in Borneo Dayak men frequently climb trees; it is one of the cultural traits for which they are known (actually some Dayak women also climb trees fairly well).
I looked at the 67 year old Pak Ijai. “Malas” he said (which translates to “lazy” but meant he didn’t want to make the effort to do it). I guess the look of disappointment on my face, which I tried to hide, got to him as he suddenly smiled and said “I’ll do it if you take my picture!” I agreed happily.
So the 67 year old Pak Ijai climbed up a tall coconut, seemingly effortlessly. When he came down, having tossed down at least 20 young coconuts and fighting off biting red ants in the palm fronds at the top of the tree, he scarcely seemed winded. The sheen of sweat on his face was minimal. By this time I was sweating profusely.
Of course, Pak Ijai had brought a machete and we sat down, cut open the coconuts, carved out some of the delicious, fresh flesh and drank the sweet juice. There were about seven or eight of us and the coconuts we didn’t open, we took with us to give to the orangutans at OFI’s Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in the Dayak village.
What wimps we modern people are! Even the young Dayaks who could climb (I’ve seen them!) said the coconut palms were far too tall for them.
I looked at the 67 year old Pak Ijai and marvelled. He was just an ordinary older Dayak man. There was a good chance he couldn’t read or write but he could climb a coconut tree in the same manner that younger people climb stairs. I knew he had skills that we could barely imagine. I noticed that while walking in the swamp, his gait was as though he was walking on a level wooden floor. I couldn’t keep up with him.
He could probably carve a machete handle beautifully, make a fire without matches, find a vine full of water in the depths of the forest, identify all the birds he heard, find poison for the darts he made out of different forest woods to use in the blowpipe he manufactured himself, and make a hut for himself in a matter of minutes if overnighting in the forest. And he probably could do much, much more!
Yet some people might call him uneducated because he never went to school! For a few moments, I was in total awe of this traditional elder who could do so much in the forest while we could do so little. I thanked him profusely for the young coconuts we had enjoyed and showed him the photos I had taken of him climbing up the coconut palm. A slight smile curved his mouth as he watched the pictures on the screen of my digital camera.
Walking through the 20 ha.forest bought from Mr. Freddy
The main threat to orangutan existence as populations in the wild consists of deforestation. The forests of Southeast Asia, where orangutans live, are being destroyed by massive cutting and burning to establish palm oil plantations and industrial timber estates.
Orangutans are the largest arboreal frugivores (fruit-eaters) on the planet. They need vast areas of tropical rain forest to survive. So what is the point of OFI buying 20 hectares (approximately 50 acres) when an orangutan male might need 100 square kilometers (100,000 hectares) of forest to survive in the course of his long life. (Orangutans have lived more than 60 years in captivity and probably sometimes live even longer in the wild.)
An old proverb says that the longest journey begins with the smallest step. OFI is trying to initiallyaccumulate at least 1,000 hectares of forest in this area, forest that is being threatened by palm oil concessionaires who are sweet-talking, intimidating, and trying their hardest to persuade local people, including Dayaks in the area, to sell their forest land for conversion to palm oil. By buying the forest, we save it forever. A thousand hectare chunk of forest is enough to make a difference for orangutans and other wildlife.
But we know that without much financial help from the rest of the world, we will not be able to stop the palm oil concessionaires from buying much of the local forest. Even with palm oil prices down, palm oil plantations are a major driver of local economies. Palm oil plantations are machines to print money. We can’t compete with these people. But what we can do is buy forest and try to set up wildlife corridors where orangutans and other animals can escape the savage annihilation of their habitats and find a bit of respite. We are trying to link the coastal swamps to the dry ground forests in the north.
OFI needs to buy the rest of Mr. Freddy’s forest, all 80 hectares (approximately 200 acres) of it. The smiling Mr. Freddy says he prefers to sell the remainder of his centrally located forest to conservationists but has made it clear selling to palm oil concessionaires is a strong alternative if OFI doesn’t buy his forest soon.
How soon? Very soon!
The cost? $ 500 per hectare (2.5 acres). The price was less even a year ago but the palm oil companies need land. They have the seedlings and the labor. What stops their money printing machines from operating is lack of land. Many palm oil companies clear the forest, sell the commercially viable timber, and then burn the rest during the dry season, utilizing the ash as fertilizer for the palm seedlings they plant.
$500 per hectare (2.5 acres) and the land belongs to the orangutans and other wildlife forever. Please help save Borneo’s rain forests a hectare at a time. Help orangutans and all the other extraordinary wildlife found in these verdant, lush forests which are in so much danger of annihilation.
Send contributions to OFI at www.orangutan.org Find the postal address there and more information about our work. If these 80 hectares of forest are sold to the palm oil concessionaires, that forest is lost to the orangutans, and humankind as well, forever.