1 September 2015

Mandi under the Full-Moon

"The birds are silent in the woods.
Just wait: Soon enough
You will be quiet too"

- Robert Hass

Last night whilst taking a shower out in the garden under the big old full moon - a gorgeous little owl appeared just meters away - silhouetted atop a bamboo trellis cloaked in tomatoes. 

No words can explain the significance and beauty. 

For a moment in time just me and this quaint little owl - Eye-to-eye - both naked - inhabiting the same ecosystem.

The last few times I’ve seen owls this year have been in the main city of Jogjakarta - tied up by the feet on a display perch for local tourists to take photo’s with... :(

One of the most challenging aspects of living in Indonesia is the 'in-your-face' degradation of the natural world - when we first moved into our place, in South Jogja, there was a gorgeous urban forest out back - sadly after 6 months this was chopped down – with plans to build another housing development still in limbo 2 years on.

 the view from our back window shows the small forest I first fell in love with in 2012

In the meantime the forest is now regenerating and remains a refuge for birds, bats and other resilient urban wildlife – I’m forever dreaming to somehow get this land secured as a kind of nature refuge / urban food forest / permaculture hub (woni piro mas - cuma 1.5 juta per meter!).

Every morning a couple of little forest quails duck under the bamboo fence and timidly walk through our garden - tiny dinosaur ancestors inhabiting an increasingly urban ecology.

Survivors in every sense of the word.

I often see men walking through the forest regrowth with trap cages to catch birds for selling at the local animal market - I'm still too culturally sensitive to confront them - there is nothing in their body language that reveals a sense of guilt or shame - just business as usual. 

My language skills aren't good enough to explain the theory of shifting baseline syndrome. 

Birds in tiny cages are a cultural staple across Asia - as wild populations plummet in even the most remote 'wilderness' areas. 

There's rubbish strewn along the side of the road, waterways clogged with single-use plastic, burning hazes, pollution, traffic.. Java is one of the most densely populated regions on our planet.

Illegal hotels are popping up like magic mushrooms on a humid summers afternoon - pembangunan terus!

No one I’ve met has any respect for the latest Sultan of Yogyakarta who seems to have completely sold out, increasing his loot by issuing dodgy permits to property developers.

I've had several close friends comment recently - echoing my own inner struggle with living here - 'I don't know how you do it Paul' living over here - and that is a question I ponder daily.

I'll admit - it is a struggle. 

I am outside my habitat, learning the language has not been smooth and swift as it has been for some. Understanding, and perhaps more importantly, connecting with the broader local cultural paradigm has not always clicked - as it does for some (although can't say that has ever happened in Australia). There's plenty I love and there's plenty that challenges me.

The honeymoon is most definitely over - and yet there is a deep love and connection I feel with this place and her people. 

Mostly I miss my family back home and green tree frogs croaking on a summers afternoon.

The question remains whether the struggle and sacrifice is worth the yield, and determining the yield on this journey is an increasingly challenging thing to do. 

With Saturn return confronting me with those socially conditioned voices; capital, competition, career.. and a deeper soul voice whispering poems of passion and purpose from a place of peace and playfulness - polycultural plentitude places Paul in the perfect playground.

Yep, classic saturn return symptoms.. Thank god for my bamboo ladder which allows me to sit on the roof and watch the mist dance around the moon.

And yet...

there is something special about this place and time – the little old lady who gets up before sunrise to make jambu – riding her bicycle with a rack of glass bottles full of ancient medicinal turmeric brews, I pull her over for a shot, 20 cents - the shared connection and smile equally as medicinal.

A car, several motorbikes, a horse and carriage and a couple of becat's (bicycle taxi) all drive past as I down the last of my yellow brew.

Road rage does not exist here. Greeting people with a warm smile is common courtesy - even if you just about ran into each other!

This place is such a melting pot of old and new – modern and ancient - cheesy, fake, plastic - authentic, raw and real. 

It is the ultimate land of contradictions.

Religious preachers project their call to prayer through red-lining speakers - voice out of tune - and people who humbly live their spirituality like the old ways - walk their talk, eyes glowing wisdom that need not be spoken about or else it is lost.

chop wood - carry water...


The Javanese culture, as much as I truly don’t understand much at all about it’s hidden depths and lineage - embodies a humbleness that can be felt most deeply in the gap between the ‘Mong’ and the ‘Goooo’ – 'Monggo' a phrase or greeting commonly used with genuine warmth and love. For no matter what demons we carry inside, a smile and a hello to your neighbour is the foundation of community over here.

And yet - there are seeds of change sprouting in some slow and soulfully cultivated soils - they say it takes a few years to transition a degraded farm into fertile abundance - and for sure the same goes for regenerating a forest ecosystem - where much of the core change is taking place underground - in the dark and increasingly diverse soil ecology - out of site from the world above - not posted on Instagram - new life sprouts from the realms of the unseen. 

140 million Javanese and 57 wild Rhino’s on one island that was once inhabited by Javanese Tigers...

And here I am in 2015 wondering if this is my 'spirit of place'?

It most certainly is right now - at this moment in time.

6 November 2014

Return to Kalimantan

3 years ago I traveled for the very first time into the interior of West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, with a team of young 'Eco-Warriors' - guided by the legendary rainforest ecologists Dr Willie Smits (TED). We were on a mission to confront the devastating palm oil industry carving its way into the heart of Borneo. By putting a spotlight on tangible community driven economic alternatives, our aim was to empower local communities resisting the invasion of industrial monoculture into their ancestral lands.

As a child of the information age, my pre-saturated mind had polarized visions of David Attenborough's steamy Bornean jungle vistas - contrasting starkly with the emerging stories of an epic deforestation crisis laying waste to some of the oldest rainforest on our planet.

The documentary based on our project in Borneo - Rise of the Eco-Warriors - explores the trials and tribulations of this group of young global citizens coming into a completely foreign bio-cultural landscape for the duration of 100 days. 

The original Eco-Warrior team with Dr Willie Smits under the honey tree of Tem'bak in 2011.

The film was finally released earlier this year and the response has been hugely positive - with a handful of vocal haters - by and large the reaction and impact has reached people in ways that none of us expected. We've had everything from people offering $10,000 donations to build local high-schools in Borneo - to pro palm oil associates waging online public hate wars under false facebook accounts. (Who was it that said, 'If You’re Not Pissing People Off, You're Doing It All Wrong!)

The impact in schools has been astounding - this is where the real leverage to create change is taking off.

For me personally - the project was an extremely challenging experience - on every possible level - failure, disappointment, heartbreak, dengue-inducing-hangovers.. you name it.

They say 'the tree of expectation is laden with the fruits of disappointment'. Well, my tree had a bumper crop that year - thankfully all the rotten fruit made for some fabulous compost - and thus the garden keeps growing..

'You come to Borneo - you face your fears' 

I hate to use the old cliche 'it changed my life' - but it really did. It was strangely through this deeply confronting experience that I fell in love with the Indonesian archipelago and it's bio-cultural extremities.

My advice to young people today would be - go out and fail, make mistakes, learn from them and keep growing. Life truly begins when you leave your comfort zone - discard societies ridiculous guidebook (it's horribly out of date - and was never very relevant anyway). 

When we look back on life years from now - I'm almost certain we'll gauge 'success' and 'achievement' in very different terms than how we may view it right now. In fact, it may not even be something we think about at all... 

When you first enter this new world, there is an inevitable confrontation of ones extensively pre-programed 'cultural baggage' which sets the standard of how things should be done in community development. Coming from a western mindset - we are so geared towards outcomes and "deliverables" that we often overlook one of the most important elements of this journey- relationship building.
After the initial project ended in June 2012 - I tried to remain engaged on the ground - however doors were not opening and I ended up going with the flow and working on other permaculture and reforestation projects in Java and Sumatra - slowly developing my language skills and understanding of Indonesian culture.

The calling to return to Borneo was seeded back in August whilst in the Yogyakarta airport when my partner and I randomly bumped into Disrekia Rimba - an inspiring young Dayak woman from Tem'bak in West Kalimantan. She had literally just finished 7 years studying English in Jogja and was now returning home to Tem'bak - the same village our project was based - to inspire a new generation of empowered Dayak leaders.

Disrekia with her students in Tem'bak junior highschool - plans are underway to build a jungle highschool in Tem'bak - one that preserves dayak culture and the local ecology.

About a month after that, while visiting my family in Australia - another Dayak friend, Agung Seberuang - was also in Australia doing a speaking tour. We caught up and explored some of the lush sub-tropical rainforest where I grew up and hung out with some friends in a secret cactus garden on the edge of the Border Ranges National Park. Agung even thought he heard a monkey - but it was just a laughing Kookaburra (Australian bird).

I assured him there are no wild monkey's on this side of the Wallace Line.

Agung and myself in the foothills of the Border Ranges National Park, Australia. Photo by Eli Fuller.

Agung shared his peoples story of the recent palm oi invasion into their neighbouring lands - the divisive tricks and techniques used by the oil palm companies to cheat the local people and gain ownership of the forest. He also told me how they eventually halted the destruction of some of the last virgin forest in the Tempunak region of West Kalimantan. Incredibly these two palm oil companies are members of the RSPO (Rountable on Sustainable Palm Oil) - an official complaint process is underway and I'll be following this one very closely.

the devastating aftermath of palm oil expansion - by RSPO member companies - 100% certified conflict palm oil.

Agung was glad to hear that I could finally speak some decent Indonesian and asked me to return to Borneo - there was work to be done and a lot had happened since 2012 - I had been summoned by the Dayaks...

flying back into the interior of Borneo - 3 years after our first expedition.

The return to Kalimantan was a bit like returning home - re-uniting with all our Dayak families. Each and every program that Willie Smits and his team had set out to initiate was being implemented - thousands of sugar palm and other species had been planted all over the land - grown in the nursery we helped to build back in 2012.

The programs were all driven by local people and their commitment to retain their local culture and livelihood - which is intrinsically linked to the surrounding hutan adat (ancestral forests).

There is a saying in Indonesia - Sedikit Sedikit - Lama Lama - Jadi Bukit

Translation: Little by little - with time - it becomes a hill. 

Or in other words; a little effort put forth consistently will add up to something greater.

The 2014 team consisted of a few of the original Eco-Warrior crew; Ben Dessen, Kodi Twiner, Tony Allison and Mark White, plus another group of passionate supporters and philanthropists from Australia - and of course the every smiling Danu.

Our first outing was to visit the new Orangutan Forest School in the Tem'bak community forest where 5 rehabilitating Orangutans - including JoJo - are now leaving their sleeping cages each day to enter the forest and learn how to be real, free living, tree climbing Orangutan again.  A further 14 Orangutans await transfer from the Sintang Orangutan Centre.

As Willie Smits himself says "I know of no other project that has not just a rescue center and virgin forest orangutan training facility but also a release area protected by all the local people around it."

Although it looks like a scene from Jurassic Park, the above photo is actually the construction of a 2.5 hectare Orangutan enclosure inside the Tem'bak forest - Much better than being kept in a cage all day long! - the water is pure drinking water from the local spring - It's the only tap in Indonesia I've ever drank from directly - without having to boil first. So fresh and so clean, exactly how it should be.

On the edge of town a new zero-waste factory has just processed it's first 9 tonnes of 'Tengkawang' oil, a locally occurring and superior alternative to palm oil from the Tengkawang Tree - the difference being that the trees don't grow in a monoculture plantation but in a mixed agro-forestry system; allowing for the preservation of eco-system services and other non-timber forest products to be used locally.

the raw 'Tengkawang' nuts being sun-dried before processing

The Tengkawang oil after processing - a high quality local alternative to palm oil - now in full production.

The factory also produces bio-char, animal feed and compost from the 'waste' of the Tengkawang nut shell. Once the sugar palm ethanol factory is operational early next year - the factory itself will be fueled by local 'sugar palm' bio-fuel - a fully closed loop zero-waste system. 

This is the development of community level permaculture at its finest - systems like this are the only way we can truly sustain our presence on this planet beyond the 21st century.

And of course the kids have all grown up a lot - still as cheeky, free-spirited and delightful as ever. We washed in the river each afternoon and sometimes collected snails for dinner. It was a completely different experience being able to communicate with them in Indonesian.

Something I notice in this village is a great deal of pride in being a dayak - in their culture and in their forests.

I feel like their future is so bright - if they can retain their forests they will retain their rich culture - These communities truly are creating a model for an ecologically regenerative village system.

Disrekia took us to a secret waterfall - where her brother Tesedia lives nearby - located right next to the most recent destruction of forest for palm oil expansion. Her brother had successfully defended his ancestral land from further encroachment, however it is an ongoing threat and they are taking the appropriate action to organize their communities against further exploitation.

Agung Seberuang and Disreki Rimba - local Dayak youth activists inspiring hope, belief and action for the integration of Dayak culture to preserve their ancestral forests and local lore.

This was by far the most devastating forest destruction I had seen so far in Indonesia - although millions of hectares of degraded land is available for monoculture palm oil expansion - the companies target the last of the primary rainforest to make use of a common legal loophole for exploitation of lucrative timber resources. Incredibly this is an RSPO member company (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil).

Although it was a shitty feeling to see so much fresh destruction in such a beautiful region of West Kalimantan - This recent invasion has led to the formation of a local organization;


Which translates to something like

'The Seberuang Dayak Traditional Community Fellowship"

The Dayaks in this region are standing together in solidarity. 100% initiated by the local people. This is the only way they will win. outsiders can help, but it has to be driven by local unity and perseverance.

Ben Dessen exploring Disrekia and Tesedia's family 'hutan adat' forest - a hidden gem in the heart of Borneo.

I plan somehow to return in the not-too-distant future - it feels like things are only just getting started in this community - the question I am asking myself now is, how can we spread the word to other villages in Indonesia?

For a fully detailed update from Dr Willie Smits - check out this link HERE - Where Willie explains in detail how the Dayaks are self-organizing and taking on the palm oil companies. As well as a full update on all orangutans at Sintang Orangutan Centre (SOC).

"Already the news was spreading through the local TV broadcasts and other Dayak villages were contacting Antonius Lambung how they also could use the approach of the Seberuang Dayaks to defend their lands that were being encroached upon by oil palm companies! Something is brewing amongst the Dayaks. This time it is not a desperate revenge action carried by deep emotions, leading to human deaths as has happened before, but a strategic approach based upon hope and belief."

- Willie Smits,  2014

The Eco-Warrior project is now spreading awareness overseas - with a handful of Indonesian screenings - how can we now show the story of Tem'bak and Ensaid Panjang to other struggling communities within Indonesia as a beacon of hope and an example of community self determination and empowerment?

19 August 2014

International Orangutan Day 2014


Although today we celebrate the survival and resilience of critically endangered Orang-utan, the iconic flagship species and ambassador for the ancient forests of South East Asia, let's also acknowledge the deep loss of life this species continues to endure as human populations and economies develop in such a way that pushes them closer and and closer to the brink of extinction.

Orangutan supporters may have noticed lots of photo's in social media today of the lucky few orangutans who have been rescued - refugees of forests which often no longer exist, victims of industrial monoculture expansion - most of whom are now on their way back to the forest thanks to the tireless efforts of rehabilitation centers across Borneo and Sumatra.

Often the situation can feel so overwhelming that we forget to celebrate the smaller grass-roots victories, so today I want to share a unique story of an encounter with a young, fully wild Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii), just one of a few thousand individuals hanging on to survival on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia...

For the past 12 months I've been based in the most easterly section of the globally significant Leuser Ecosystem in North Sumatra - with the Orangutan Information Centre - we've been working on a Forest Restoration program, restoring and protecting a 500 hectares of the Gunung Leuser National Park which was destroyed by palm oil companies looking to expand into the last of Sumatra's lowland tropical rainforests. 

When one day the call came that their was an Orangutan just 100 meters from the restoration cabin - not far from the tent where I was sleeping the night before - a few of us eagerly took flight in his direction, bare-foot, quietly approaching in a state of sheer excitement..

A blur of deep maroon-red, and a sway of the branches in the canopy above, gave him away. I guess it's natural to presume that in bahasa orangutan he was thinking "who's that down there?"

Seeing wild orangutans in their natural habitat is an extraordinary experience - but seeing them return to a forest that is being actively restored and protected by a local grass-roots NGO is another experience altogether - it was the first time I'd seen them on the restoration site and the ultimate indicator of a healthy regenerating forest..

It was a fruiting Ternangka Tree (Artocarpus dadah) - a relative of the Jackfruit - that brought him so close to our cabin, and over the next few weeks we saw 5 more individuals (2 mothers and their young, one baby and one very curious juvenile) 2 of which had been trans-located by OIC-HOCRU from ever shrinking isolated patches of forest outside the national park. 

How they all knew about this fruiting tree is a mystery to me - as Orangutans are not usually very social. Some kind of advanced internal fruit mapping system...?

One afternoon I went down by myself to hide out by the fruiting Ternangka tree, I guess he knew I was there but accepted my presence without any of the earlier signs of distress (they usually make a kiss-squeak call if threatened).


Watching him eat was such a fascinating experience - my mind exploding with all kinds of thoughts surrounding plant-animal co-evolution, distribution and dispersal patterns, what and how exactly he is thinking...? with the occasional zen-moment of primate-to-primate connection, breathing-the-same-air which is coming-from-the-same-trees and all that jazz..

And then I witness something really cool, it was late afternoon and the light was beginning to fade, he decides it's time to find a tree to build his nest for the evening. Before heading off he grabs one more Ternangka fruit, 'one for the road'!

Incredible, I had know idea they did this.

In what I could only describe as some kind of primitive display of delayed gratification, he travels gracefully through the tree-tops, carrying his ripe fruit in one hand and comfortably cruising along with his other 3 hands.

Just as the last light fades away, and he skillfully sets himself up with a fresh nest about 100 meters from the fruiting Ternangka tree, there he hangs-out in his nest and enjoys a freshly picked organic Ternangka fruit as the sun sets over the forest. 

Suffice to say we collected and germinated the seed from this guys dung and are now planting these trees all over the restoration site.

As the fight for his species survival heats up to the north in the Leuser Ecosystem of Aceh (where 85% of the Sumatran Orangutans are found outside of the National Park), we are reminded that their is still so much to fight for and that collaboration is crucial in preserving these globally significant landscapes.

And finally I want to share this short little video clip which is a tribute to all the staff, students and global supporters of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) - grass-roots action inspiring a new generation of conservationists and earth lovers :)