Rainforests, orangutans get focus in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Rainforests, orangutans get focus in Aspen

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” When Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins talks to an audience, he’s usually speaking about energy efficiency or the profitability of going green.

But on Wednesday in Aspen, the founder of the Old Snowmass-based environmental think tank and his wife, Judy, spoke about orangutans in Borneo.

Using slides and videos, they described a highly successful project by Dr. Wille Smits, a Dutch tropical forest ecologist and Indonesian orangutan protector, to regrow the rainforest on the world’s third-largest island. The Lovinses traveled to Borneo to visit the project last May.

The lecture and slideshow was part of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ long-standing Potbelly Perspectives series, in which local residents share their travel experiences. But it was also a teaser for an Aspen Institute lecture on Sunday night featuring Smits.

The crux of the problem, Lovins said, is this: The orangutan, which once ranged from Australia to China, is now predicted to go extinct within 20 years. And within three years, the population could shrink beyond the point of no return.

“This is a desperate situation for a most remarkable animal which is a keystone species in that forest,” Amory Lovins said.

In part, the orangutan has been endangered by the pet trade. But mostly it has suffered from the loss of its habitat, which is being logged and burned, ostensibly to grow palm oil, but also because wood from the forests is valuable. In fact, as they traveled down the canals of Borneo, the Lovinses took videos of waterways clogged with logged trees.

“All of these areas are protected, and logging is illegal,” Amory Lovins said as he showed the videos. “But as you can see, there’s no rule of law.”

The two also described how, as peat moss swamps have been drained for agriculture, the carbon-rich peat moss has dried out and burned in raging fires. In 1997, the fires from the peat moss in Borneo were so intense they released two-fifths of the total carbon released on Earth that year ” contributing significantly to global warming, Lovins said.

But Smits was determined to figure out how to reverse the deforestation, and he has. Most importantly, he started in one of the most devastated parts of Borneo ” an area where the lush forest had been replaced by acres and acres of toxic, cyanide-secreting alang alang grass.

“It’s inedible even to goats,” said Smits on a Lovins video. “It has no use whatsoever.”

If he could regrow the Bornean rainforest there, Smits thought, he could do it anywhere.

Planting over a thousand species of trees, he killed the alang alang grass by shading it out. Six years later, he’s regrown over 7 square miles of lush rainforest, attracting 137 species of birds and nine species of primates, among other animals.

He’s also figured out a way to provide jobs to those who previously logged the forest, Amory Lovins said. On the outer perimeter of the forest, Smits has created an area for agrobusiness, in which residents can grow plants and trees for their own use and sale. Between the agrobusiness and the rainforest that houses the orangutans, he’s planted an impenetrable wall of brambles that keeps loggers out and orangutans in.

And while Smits’ specific mission to reforest Borneo and save the orangutans diverges from RMI’s energy work, their philosophies are not so different, according to Lovins.

“Applied hope is the theme of the RMI ” as opposed to theoretical hope or mere glandular optimism,” Lovins said. “Times are really desperate for people and orangutans in Borneo. But there’s also some hope.”

Smits will speak at 5 p.m. on Sunday at Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen.


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