16 October 2011

DeforestAction: 20 days in the Heart of Borneo

As I fly home over the driest continent on Earth, passing an almost endless sea of desert known as the Australian outback, I ponder the ancient network of dormant river systems beneath me...

Those massive veins formed through countless rain events which bring this quiet world to life as soon as the waters begin to flow again.

As I integrate back into Australian life, I notice old patterns emerging just like the water flowing back into these dry riverbeds, following the familiar pathways across the landscape.

After 10 hours of beautiful deep sleep I awake to hear a pair of Hornbills flying above the canopy... 

'Oh wait that's just the chickens in my friends backyard

a little confused and dazed, I awake for the first time in months in a real bed with my partner snuggled up next to me. 

My body is finally home in Australia whilst my heart and mind is still pulling itself from Borneo.

It feels almost like the start of the movie 'Avatar' when he wakes from 6 years sleep leaving one world and entering another. 

Or 'The Wizard of Oz' when Dorathy awakes back home in Kansas, was this journey just a dream?

Images of the Dayak kids flash into my consciousness... 

Those free spirited earth children who's future is being decided by our collective actions, or inactions...

Visions of the Dayak warriors fighting for their ancestral lands.

Images of 2 and half year old JoJo, our first Orangutan rescue.

Vivid memories of Willie Smits and my fellow eco-warriors.

That 20 Days in Borneo was the single most dynamic 3 weeks of my life. So rich in experience, so many story's shared, so much laughter, such raw inspiration and yet so many tragic scenarios unfolding imminently before our eyes. 

Stories that epitomize a planet in crisis, ripe for lasting change...

Moments that leave you quietly crying on the bus while you look out at the endless sea of monoculture Palm Oil plantations thinking of those beautiful little Dayak children and what the future may hold for their ancestral forests.

The questions I am so often asked upon return to Australia, 

'So what was your highlight? 

'was it just amazing?'

Questions like these are so difficult to answer when your mind is still swirling visions of ancestral burial grounds being bulldozed by unscrupulous palm oil companies.

Feelings are mixed. Emotions are mixed. It's not black and white. It's not always rainbows. 

It hurts ...

and sometimes you don't feel at all.

but it's good to feel the pain....

Burn through that layer of conditioned numbness, cry off that shell of self-protection that separates yourself from the rest of life on our planet. 

If your hand was numb and you couldn't feel the pain whilst leaving your arm on a hot stove-top, it would certainly burn off if you weren't paying attention.

If humanity can't feel the pain of our planet in crisis and it's people suffering, how are we supposed to respond to the problems and discover the abundant solutions? 

If we don't feel connected to our planet and its people, then how can we behave like global citizens and act on behalf of the well-being of all life on Earth, not just a small fraction of humanity?

It's our 'responsibility' to feel what's happening and respond.

Responsibility = Ability to Respond

 Willie Smits is our leader and mentor for the DeforestACTION project in Borneo. A forest ecologist, inventor, microbiologist, conservationist and animal rights activists. 

He has lived in Indonesia for over 3 decades, was born in the Netherlands and is now an Indonesian citizen. Willie is certainly the most passionate human being I have ever met in my entire life.

He lives and breaths for the rainforest, the wildlife and the people of Borneo.

Willie's first encounter with an orangutan in the market-place of Borneo was a life-changing event:

"Somebody stuck a crate in my face at the market in Balikpapan. Looking out between the slats were the very, very sad eyes of a baby orangutan. I couldn’t forget them. That evening I went back after the market closed. Walking around in the dark, I heard a horrible gasping sound. The baby in its crate was on the garbage dump, dying. I picked her up."

After nursing her back to health and with the help of thousands of school children, Willie was able to set up what became the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation to rehabilitate orphaned and abused orangutans and return them to a safe place in the wild. 

And so on Day 1 Willie showed us some of the captive Orangutans that needed our help. It was an incredibly confronting experience to witness these intelligent beings locked up in cages away from their natural forest homes. 

The majority of my Orangutan experience up until now have been of free living and wild ones. 

The contrast is stark. 

60 other Orangutans in the Sintang district, many in much worse condition, are also in need of rescue. They need our help!

Although difficult to bear witness too, it was the ultimate leveler for our first day on the ground in Borneo. A reminder of the scale of the challenge ahead and the tragic circumstances of many Orangutan and other wildlife in Borneo.

Along with Willie, I shared the journey with 14 other Eco-Warriors from all around the world. All of which I have developed the deepest love, respect and admiration for.

Although it was a full-on 20 days, we did laugh a lot. Laughing is a great release. It's a beautiful way to connect.

We are a mixed-bag of passionate, determined and ultimately optimistic young people who temporarily left behind the comforts of the western lifestyle and our loved ones to join this exciting and audacious project in Borneo for a chance at making real and lasting change on the 3rd largest Island on Earth.

We are volunteers and our ultimate goal is to lay down solid foundations for a long-term program that achieves our objectives.

Dr Cathy Henkel is the director of the film being made about the DeforestACTION project, pictured in the heart of interior Borneo on our up river journey into West Kalimantan where the only way in and out is by boat.

The Virgo film crew, led by Cathy, joined us for the adventure with an important mission of documenting the first 100 days of the DeforestACTION project.

They became like family too and all very passionate about the cause of forest conservation and social justice. Their job is critical, sharing the story with millions around the world, connecting hearts and minds to what's happening right now in Borneo.

As eco-warriors we are the ears, eyes, voice, heart and hands, representing the youth of our world by working within the communities of West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, to help conserve the rainforest, rescue Orangutan and protect ancestral Dayak lands.

We cannot sustain the DeforestACTION project alone. We need back-up, we need global support. 

Success will only flourish when we're united with the support of millions of young people around the globe, millions of 'action agents' working to raise awareness and funds for tangible conservation and community development goals. 

It's more then just a conservation program. The vision is for the next generation to reclaim stewardship of planet Earth. 

We don't own this planet, we borrowed it from our children.

And right now, ecologically speaking, we are heading into the redzone. Change is imminent, its up to us how this unfolds.

Unlike the old, dying paradigm of 'power over' the planet and its people, our generation is rediscovering the true power in working 'with' the natural world to create a sustainable system for all life on Earth. 

Working WITH communities.

This is all about working together for a common vision. 

Community = Common Unity 

Above all we need to collaborate with our Dayak kin on the ground in Borneo and listen to their needs, help them achieve a sustainable livelihood so they can protect their lands from the big companies. 

Empower the local people to protect their own way of life. They are the ones who still have knowledge of their forest and its many food and medicinal resources. 

Our role is centered around capacity building and helping them achieve an alternative to palm oil, illegal logging and toxic gold mining.

In 20 days we achieved a great deal more then I expected. Most importantly we formed bonds and connections with the Dayak people, local government, law enforcement authorities and other conservation activists on the ground. 

Collaboration is key.

For a detailed report of the outcomes achieved during the 20 days check out Dr Willie Smits Report 'More then I dared hope for'

Also check out the Collaborate For Change Blog by Sean Tierny from Microsoft 'Partners In Learning'.

Below is a short photographic diary of our Journey into the Heart of Borneo.

We spent nearly a week in the Longhouse of Ensaid Panjang, although it felt like a month. This was a traditional Dayak longhouse, over 100 meters in length and home to 30 families.

 First night introductions where we shared our journey so far.

The ultimate communal living space, a 120 meter longhouse.

The Dayak kids are the most beautiful little creatures.
So free spirited, happy and completely oblivious to what's going on right now on the edge of their last forested lands.

Our first pure nature experience in Interior Borneo as the local Dayak guides take us on canoes into their protected Peat Forest that we later discovered was under threat from Palm Oil expansion. 

Tom drinking from a 'water vine'

These forests are Dayak peoples pharmacy, their supermarket, their hardware store, ancient burial grounds and the ultimate temple for  connection to the Earth and to God.

The forest is everything for them, not unlike the Movie 'Avatar'.

In their ancestral forest, the first signs of Palm Oil encroachment is the pink spray paint. Often this is the first sign that their land is about to be cleared for a new Oil Palm plantation.

We saw recent counter-attacks by local people burning Palm Oil plantations that were wrongfully planted on traditional lands.

Eco-warrior Emily Hunter, Neo Chai Chin and myself standing in solidarity with the Dayak people reclaiming their land from illegal Palm Oil expansion. Direct Action Dayak style.

A mangrove snake that was discovered by the biodiversity research team from Pontianak university.

And a gorgeous Sabah Pit Viper. Highly venomous.

We attended nearly a dozen meetings with Dayak people in the heart of Borneo. 

They've never seen so many foreigners before, and never any outside support for their struggles against the big companies.

Some villages literally believed we were angels sent from God to help them in their struggle to protect their lands.

Sweet JoJo who we rescued from a wooden enclosure. There are hundreds of Orangutans just like her that need rescuing right now.

River adventures deep in the heart of Borneo on the way to a magical waterfall. Amongst all the intensity we were able to spend a little time in natures playground to connect with the Earth.

The tropics can make you go a little 'Troppo'

Heading up river with 11 speedboats to some of the most remote regions of West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, where some of the last big stands of forest are still under threat from logging, palm oil and mining companies.

Endless examples of illegal logging as forests are cleared.

Palm Oil plantations now cover 6 million hectares on the island of  Borneo. It is a monoculture plantation that devastates the rainforest eco-system. Huge amounts of pesticides and artificial fertilizers are needed to make them productive. They provide only 0.11 jobs per hectare and often these will go to Javaness workers who have been brought in for cheap labour.

The Palm Oil companies are unscrupulous big business multi-national corporations who care only for maximizing profit and little for community welfare or biodiversity conservation.

The Sugar Palm solution. Virgo camera crew filming a local villager who is tapping the indigenous 'Sugar Palm' (Arenga pinnata). There are over 60 different products and uses for this amazing palm and, unlike the monoculture Oil Palm, they must grow in a mixed forest system, which allows nature to flourish as well as local people to make a sustainable livelihood.

We are greeted by literally hundreds of school kids wanting to play football with us. This was a major highlight of the trip being welcomed into Dayak communities and connecting with the youth.

B i O D i V e R s i T y 

Amazing millipede that rolls into a ball as a defense mechanism against hungry eco-warriors.

Another beautiful critter of the forest.

A striking cicada.

The great power engine of our solar system shining through the tropical clouds, magical moments of natural beauty keep us grounded in these challenging times.

The young people of Tembak playing a game where they have to climb a bambo pole covered in oil to reach the prize up the top!

And so that is a peak into our first 20 days in Borneo.

Thank you for reading this far and caring about the plight of the Dayak people and the forests of Borneo. 

The DeforestACTION initiative was established by school students in order to empower all young people worldwide to: • become inspired, engaged and excited by working collaboratively across the planet on meaningful projects that halt or limit deforestation • become informed and critical consumers and creators of information relating to the issues and politics of deforestation • become actively involved in finding, implementing and owning solutions. 

The DeforestAction website (http://www.deforestaction.com/) is the action centre for students, and for teachers, the Taking IT Global (TIG) Educator Zone or teacher workspace (http://www.tigweb.org/tiged/projects/deforestaction/) contains the curriculum material / support for implementing the program into your class. 

 It’s really easy to get started. Simply follow these steps: 

1. Register for DeforestAction at http://www.deforestaction.com 

2. Spread the word to young people in your family, community and networks. 

3. Support the students in your community by following their personal links to buy back land in Borneo. This will assign points to those people in your community and help them scale the leader board and increase their eligibility for special DeforestAction promotions.