How A Primatologist, An Industrialist, And An Ecosystem Entrepreneur Took On Big Palm Oil And Won

Misc Image
By Steve Zwick

When world-renowned primatologist Biruté Galdikas learned that palm oil company PT Best was about to destroy Borneo's Seruyan Forest, she thought all was lost. Then she met ecosystem entrepreneur Todd Lemons and industrialist Rusmin Widjajam. Here's how they blended cutting-edge finance and old-fashioned moxie to outmaneuver Big Palm Oil and save the forest.

23 June 2014 | Pak Ahmed has a little game he used to play, sometimes by himself, and sometimes with friends.

He'd begin just after the sun woke the sky above his village of Telaga Pulang, which stands on stilts along the eastern bank of Borneo’s Seruyan River. He'd continue as he rolled his first cigarette of the day and traversed the wooden bridge to the boardwalk that serves as the village's spine. Then he'd climb into his hand-hewn klotok, fire its engine, and klatok-tok-tokk out into the broad, dead river – where he knew the game would end, and not the way he hoped.

Soon, children would be clattering along the elevated structure in their school uniforms, and their mothers would gather outside the two shacks that serve as general stores, each stocked with soaps, salves, and other sundries derived from the product that was slowly enslaving them.

“Before Palm Oil came, we fished from about 6am to noon, and then relaxed,” he says. “Sometimes, we hunted in the woods in the afternoon."

Like most of the people of Telaga Pulang, he speaks of the product as if it were a sentient entity devouring the forest. For them, Palm Oil isn't just a fatty acid used in toothpaste and cereal. It's a proper noun encompassing the product, the plantations, the imported workers, and the dead river.

Palm Oil, he explains, came to this part of Borneo in 2005, when workers carved shallow drainage canals into the soft peat soil on the western bank of the river, across from Telaga Pulang. Then they strategically removed teak and other choice timbers before grinding 10,000 hectares of forest into pulp, murdering any orangutans who got in their way and kidnapping the now-homeless sun bears, clouded leopards and gibbon apes, which they sold as exotic pets.

After dispatching the forest and its inhabitants, the workers inserted palm saplings as far as Pak Ahmed could see. Then they fertilized the saplings, and the fertilizer dribbled down the canals and into the river, where it fed massive algae blooms that killed the fish and destroyed the economy of his village. Mines came, too, and their poisons killed more fish, so upstream fishermen began dropping explosives instead of nets, depleting the stocks even further.

Yet, as he pulled his bamboo cage up out of the water on this day in 2007, Pak Ahmed still indulged that little tingle of hope that kept him coming back day after day, week after week – for months after the rest of his family and most of his neighbors had gone to work for Palm Oil. That tingle was to him what the unturned card was to the blackjack addict, and it was the only prize his game ever yielded anymore, because the game was this: as he awakened and rowed and worked, Pak Ahmed tried to pretend that he didn’t know what he’d find when he pulled his bamboo traps up from those dead waters.

Before the mud parted and the cage emerged into the light, he could still imagine it was 2005 instead of 2007.

Read the full story from Ecosystem Marketplace