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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 Willie Smits
Willie Smits

Willie Smits (born February 22, 1957, in Weurt, Gelderland, the Netherlands) is a trained forester, a microbiologist, conservationist, animal rights activist, wilderness engineer and social entrepreneur. He has lived in Borneo since 1985 and is an Indonesian citizen.

While working as a forest researcher in East Kalimantan, Indonesia in 1989, Smits encountered a baby orangutan in a cage in a market, and later returned to find it abandoned on a rubbish heap. This was a turning-point in his career: taking the orangutan home, he nurtured it back to health. He was soon given other orangutans to look after, and the work of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing orangutans into the wild developed into what was to become the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. For over twenty years Smits has worked for the survival of this threatened species of ape, during which time his work has also broadened out into the related areas of sustainable farming, reforestation and remote monitoring of forests. He travels widely, raising awareness of the issues surrounding deforestation in Borneo and the plight of the orangutan, also showing how it has been possible on a relatively small scale to reverse the great damage that is being done to the orangutan and its environment. He became a senior advisor to the Ministry of Forests in Indonesia and has been knighted in the Netherlands.

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This is a man-made forest. It can spread over acres and acres of area, or it could fit in a small space -- as small as your house garden. Each of these forests is just two years old. I have a forest in the backyard of my own house. It attracts a lot of biodiversity. (Bird call) I wake up to this every morning, like a Disney princess. (Laughter) I am an entrepreneur who facilitates the making of these forests professionally. We have helped factories, farms, schools, homes, resorts, apartment buildings, public parks and even a zoo to have one of such forests. A forest is not an isolated piece of land where animals live together. A forest can be an integral part of our urban existence. A forest, for me, is a place so dense with trees that you just can't walk into it. It doesn't matter how big or small they are. Most of the world we live in today was forest. This was before human intervention. Then we built up our cities on those forests, like São Paulo, forgetting that we belong to nature as well, as much as 8.4 million other species on the planet. Our habitat stopped being our natural habitat. But not anymore for some of us. A few others and I today make these forests professionally -- anywhere and everywhere. I'm an industrial engineer. I specialize in making cars. In my previous job at Toyota, I learned how to convert natural resources into products. To give you an example, we would drip the sap out of a rubber tree, convert it into raw rubber and make a tire out of it -- the product. But these products can never become a natural resource again. We separate the elements from nature and convert them into an irreversible state. That's industrial production. Nature, on the other hand, works in a totally opposite way. The natural system produces by bringing elements together, atom by atom. All the natural products become a natural resource again. This is something which I learned when I made a forest in the backyard of my own house. And this was the first time I worked with nature, rather than against it. Since then, we have made 75 such forests in 25 cities across the world. Every time we work at a new place, we find that every single element needed to make a forest is available right around us. All we have to do is to bring these elements together and let nature take over. To make a forest we start with soil. We touch, feel and even taste it to identify what properties it lacks. If the soil is made up of small particles it becomes compact -- so compact, that water cannot seep in. We mix some local biomass available around, which can help soil become more porous. Water can now seep in. If the soil doesn't have the capacity to hold water, we will mix some more biomass -- some water-absorbent material like peat or bagasse, so soil can hold this water and it stays moist. To grow, plants need water, sunlight and nutrition. What if the soil doesn't have any nutrition in it? We don't just add nutrition directly to the soil. That would be the industrial way. It goes against nature. We instead add microorganisms to the soil. They produce the nutrients in the soil naturally. They feed on the biomass we have mixed in the soil, so all they have to do is eat and multiply. And as their number grows, the soil starts breathing again. It becomes alive. We survey the native tree species of the place. How do we decide what's native or not? Well, whatever existed before human intervention is native. That's the simple rule. We survey a national park to find the last remains of a natural forest. We survey the sacred groves, or sacred forests around old temples. And if we don't find anything at all, we go to museums to see the seeds or wood of trees existing there a long time ago. We research old paintings, poems and literature from the place, to identify the tree species belonging there. Once we know our trees, we divide them in four different layers: shrub layer, sub-tree layer, tree layer and canopy layer. We fix the ratios of each layer, and then we decide the percentage of each tree species in the mix. If we are making a fruit forest, we increase the percentage of fruit-bearing trees. It could be a flowering forest, a forest that attracts a lot of birds or bees, or it could simply be a native, wild evergreen forest. We collect the seeds and germinate saplings out of them. We make sure that trees belonging to the same layer are not planted next to each other, or they will fight for the same vertical space when they grow tall. We plant the saplings close to each other. On the surface, we spread a thick layer of mulch, so when it's hot outside the soil stays moist. When it's cold, frost formation happens only on the mulch, so soil can still breathe while it's freezing outside. The soil is very soft -- so soft, that roots can penetrate into it easily, rapidly. Initially, the forest doesn't seem like it's growing, but it's growing under the surface. In the first three months, roots reach a depth of one meter. These roots form a mesh, tightly holding the soil. Microbes and fungi live throughout this network of roots. So if some nutrition is not available in the vicinity of a tree, these microbes are going to get the nutrition to the tree. Whenever it rains, magically, mushrooms appear overnight. And this means the soil below has a healthy fungal network. Once these roots are established, forest starts growing on the surface. As the forest grows we keep watering it -- for the next two to three years, we water the forest. We want to keep all the water and soil nutrition only for our trees, so we remove the weeds growing on the ground. As this forest grows, it blocks the sunlight. Eventually, the forest becomes so dense that sunlight can't reach the ground anymore. Weeds cannot grow now, because they need sunlight as well. At this stage, every single drop of water that falls into the forest doesn't evaporate back into the atmosphere. This dense forest condenses the moist air and retains its moisture. We gradually reduce and eventually stop watering the forest. And even without watering, the forest floor stays moist and sometimes even dark. Now, when a single leaf falls on this forest floor, it immediately starts decaying. This decayed biomass forms humus, which is food for the forest. As the forest grows, more leaves fall on the surface -- it means more humus is produced, it means more food so the forest can grow still bigger. And this forest keeps growing exponentially. Once established, these forests are going to regenerate themselves again and again -- probably forever. In a natural forest like this, no management is the best management. It's a tiny jungle party. (Laughter) This forest grows as a collective. If the same trees -- same species -- would have been planted independently, it wouldn't grow so fast. And this is how we create a 100-year-old forest in just 10 years. Thank you very much. (Applause)



In 1994, Willie Smits received his doctorate in tropical forestry and soil science at the Wageningen University in The Netherlands, based upon his research in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, Indonesia on the symbiosis between mycorrhizas and the roots of Dipterocarpaceae tropical rainforest trees.[1]

Wanariset Research Station

From 1985 Smits worked on the Wanariset Tropical Forest Research Station near Balikpapan in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan. In the early 1990s he was team leader of the Tropenbos Kalimantan Project Indonesia, an international partnership between the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry and Tropenbos Foundation.[2][3]

Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

In 1991 Smits founded what was soon to become the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS), in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), the world's largest organization for the protection of the endangered Bornean orangutans. Two years before, Smits had had his first encounter with an orangutan in the market. It was a life-changing event and Smits often retells the story:

"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." [4][5]

He nursed her back to health and named her Uce for the laboured sound she made while gasping for breath. A few weeks later he was given another sick orangutan to look after, which he named Dodoy.

With the help of thousands of schoolchildren in Balikpapan contributing small amounts of money, Smits was able to set up what became the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation to rehabilitate orphaned and misused orangutans and return them to a safe place in the wild. Wanariset became home to hundreds of confiscated orangutans, rescued from illegal animal smuggling, kept as pets or exploited in other ways.

The Dutch orangutan-scientist Herman Rijksen recalls Smits creating the facility: "In no time he set up the most fantastic oversized quarantine facility, better than any hospital in the whole area, because that's typical of Willie. He wants to do it very, very good."[6]

Smits quickly saw that protecting orangutans in their habitat not only benefits orangutans but also the environment, biological diversity, the poor in Borneo and all the world’s people. The activities of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation expanded from rescuing, rehabiliting and releasing orangutans to monitoring, conserving and rebuilding rainforest, along with the social engagement that made this sustainable. Smits also took on an increasing campaigning and advocacy role, to make the plight of the orangutan and its habitat more widely known, along with the message that something could - and was - being done.

Samboja Lestari

In 2001, BOS started purchasing land near Wanariset (1°2′44″S 116°59′15″E / 1.04556°S 116.98750°E / -1.04556; 116.98750). The 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres) area it acquired had been deforested by mechanical logging, drought and severe fires and was covered in alang-alang grass (Imperata cylindrica). The aim was to restore the rainforest and provide a safe haven for rehabilitated orangutans while at the same time providing a source of income for local people. The name Samboja Lestari roughly translates as the "everlasting conservation of Samboja".[7] Wilderness engineering in the form of reforestation and rehabilitation is the core of the project, with hundreds of indigenous species planted. By the middle of 2006 more than 740 different tree species had been planted.[8][9]

The Orangutan Reintroduction Project at Wanariset was moved to Samboja Lestari. "Forest Schools" were established, areas that provide natural, educational playgrounds for the orangutans in which to learn forest skills. Here the orangutans roam freely but under supervision and are returned to sleeping cages for the night. "Orangutan islands" were created where the orangutans and other wildlife that cannot return to the wild are nevertheless able to live in almost completely natural conditions.

At his 2009 TED talk Smits stated there had been a substantial increase in cloud cover and 30% more rainfall due to the reforestation at Samboja Lestari, the rainfall increase data being consistent with the absence of trade winds.[5] When challenged, Smits cited the production of cloud condensation nuclei by rainforest[10] as a possible mechanism to account for the observed data.[11]

To finance the nature reserve, BOS created a system of "land-purchasing", a "Create Rainforest" initiative where people symbolically adopt square metres of rainforest.[12] Donors are able to view and follow the progress of the purchase with their donation in the project area with Google Earth satellite images from 2002 and 2007 with additional information overlaid.[13]

Masarang Foundation

Smits is one of the founders of, and the chairman of the Masarang Foundation,[14] which raises money and awareness to restore habitat forests around the world and to empower local people. In 2007, Masarang opened a palm sugar factory that uses thermal energy to turn the juice tapped daily from sugar palms (Arenga pinnata) into sugar or ethanol, returning cash and power to the community in the attempt to move toward a better future for the people, forest, and native orangutans, while saving 200,000 trees per year from being cut down as fuel wood.[15]

 Tapping the sugar palm
Tapping the sugar palm

In 1980, when Smits proposed to his wife, Syennie Watoelangkow (of royal blood) in Tomohon, North Sulawesi, he was surprised by the dowry: six sugar palms. At that time, a mature sugar palm that was ready to sap cost about as much as a chicken. Nevertheless, the people of Tomohon wanted sugar palms ("pohon aren") instead of gold as the dowry. "I wondered why it was that cheap," Smits says. Later he learnt the answer, calling the sugar palm a "magic tree".[16][17] He says of the sugar palm. "From the roots to the leaves, every bit is beneficial for people. Those who eat palm sugar will live longer than those who use cane sugar." During his years of research in North Sulawesi and other places in Indonesia where sugar palms grow, he has learned that people are not making the most of the tree and its properties.

In North Sulawesi's capital, Manado, people sap the trees only to make their traditional alcoholic drink. People in other places sap the trees to make palm sugar or cut them down for sago. But the tree offers more. For one, nira, the white sap obtained, can be processed into ethanol. "My research shows no tree can produce alternative fuel as well as palm trees," Smits said. "Sugar palms can also help the environment. They are effective in preventing landslides, even on really steep land." The high-quality fibres from sugar palms are also widely used; Smits exports them to Europe, where they are among the materials used in the bodies of luxury cars.

Smits has opened a palm sugar factory in Tomohon, managed by his brother Theo Smits, which uses as fuel leftovers from the state energy company Pertamina’s geothermal gas production. Everyday, about 6,200 farmers produce nira for the factory, which is managed by the Masarang Foundation. The sugar is sold locally and exported to Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore and Europe, where it is known as Masarang Arenga Palm Sugar. He states his "productive, environmentally friendly factory" could become a model for other places in the country. "There are no less than eight provinces that have abundant sugar palms but they have not done much with them," he says. He believes that if Indonesia made the most of its sugar palms, then in two years there would be no need to import sugar any more. For this purpose, he designed, prototyped and patented the so-called Village Hub.[18]

According to Smits' talks for Qi Global[19] and TED,[5] both Samboja Lestari and the Masarang foundation have evolved on the principles of People, Planet, Profit. Smits has demonstrated how community capacity-building and community empowerment can promote economic development while conserving the natural environment.

Orangutan confiscations

With a team of BOS staff and forestry officers, Smits confiscates orangutans kept illegally as pets.[20] When an orangutan is confiscated from a home the family is given medicines to fight the parasites they may have contracted from the orangutan. (Smits himself recalls three days in hospital on chemotherapy to fight the lungworms and other parasites that threatened his life.[citation needed]

Confiscations are inevitably confrontational at times, and there have been numerous death threats made against Smits.[21]

Primate Centre at Jakarta Zoo

 The Schmutzer Primate Centre, Jakarta
The Schmutzer Primate Centre, Jakarta

Smits designed the Schmutzer Primate Centre at the Ragunan Zoo which opened in 2002 [22] so that the orangutans have freedom and privacy in a habitat with a variety of forest trees and plants, a waterfall and water with turtles and fish, and small animals like porcupines and deer mice.[23] Thick dark glass allows visitors to see the orangutans while being invisible to them.

Smits initially had no interest in zoos, but now sees it as a sanctuary for sick, injured and blind confiscated orangutans (the healthy ones are taken to Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation rehabilitation centres for eventual release into the wild).

Other work

Smits has continued to be involved in the study of the mycorrhizal fungi that improve the uptake of water and nutrients from the soil by the meranti tree. By using this fungus he has achieved faster growth of young seedlings. He is beside his current work for the orangutans at Wanariset, the chairman of the Gibbon Foundation[citation needed] and consultant for the Indonesian Orangutan Survival Program.

In 2006 Smits launched TV 5 Dimensi, commonly referred to as TV5D, a North Sulawesi local television channel, based in Tomohon. His wife's family in North Sulawesi manages a beach about ten kilometers long, where sea turtles grow and visitors may see coral. Smits also rescues tropical birds from the illegal pet trade.

An increasing amount of Smits' activity has been in disseminating information, outreach, education, and public awareness-raising, his talks for Qi Global[19] and TED,[5] being examples of this.


Smits received the first non-Indonesian Satya Lencana Pembangunan Award (1998). He has the equivalent of a knighthood from the Netherlands for his conservation work.[24]

Smits was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009. Ashoka Fellows are leading social entrepreneurs who we recognize to have innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society.[26]


Thinkers of the Jungle - The Orangutan Report: Pictures, Facts, Background[27] gives an account of the life, behaviour and fate of orangutans. Alongside a wealth of information about this endangered species based on the latest research, authors Willie Smits and Gerd Schuster outline the threat to the orangutan's survival: economical and political interests, exploitation of nature and human ignorance and greed.

The book is illustrated by more than 350 photographs taken by war photographer Jay Ullal.[28]

In August 2007 the publisher Herbert Ullmann set off via Singapore and Jakarta for Balikpapan in Borneo. There he visited two orangutan rehabilitation centres run by Dr. Willie Smits. He was impressed both by the orangutans themselves and by Smits' work in rescuing and rehabilitating them: "There are books that can be published, and books that have to be published."


Smits and his work appeared in a number of documentaries, including:



  1. ^ Smits WTM, 1994, Dipterocarpaceae: mycorrhizae and regeneration. Thesis. Tropenbos Series No. 9. Backhuys Publishers. Lead.
  2. ^ Tropenbos International , a Netherlands-based NGO working to improve tropical forest management.
  3. ^ Katharine Farris (2005). "Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation". Retrieved 28 March 2010. : " Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo is the former Minister of Forestry of the Republic of Indonesia and is on the board of directors for BOS. While Minister of Forestry, Suryohadikusumo and Dr. Smits created many of the laws that are still in place today."
  4. ^ Nancy Simmons. "No Way to Treat an Orangutan: Willie Smits in Wildlife Conservation Society Magazine". Retrieved 28 March 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c d February 2009 TED talk, "Willie Smits restores a rainforest". Retrieved 28 March 2010. 
  6. ^ Thompson 2010, p186
  7. ^ "BOS Australia website". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  8. ^ "Samboja Lodge website". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  9. ^ Jowit, Juliette (4 May 2008). "Rainforest seeds revive lost paradise". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 April 2010. 
  10. ^ See, for example: Gunthe, S. S., et al. (2009) Cloud condensation nuclei in pristine tropical rainforest air of Amazonia: size-resolved measurements and modeling of atmospheric aerosol composition and CCN activity, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol. 9, no. 19 pp. 7551-7575.
  11. ^ "Willie Smits TED Talk challenged and responded". 2009-07-25. Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  12. ^ "Create Rainforest website". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  13. ^ "''"Google Earth Hero: BOS, Borneo rain forest"'' on YouTube". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  14. ^ "Masarang Foundation website". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  15. ^ "Smits's profile on TED". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  16. ^ Tarko Sudiarno (2009). "Visions of sugar palms dance in his head". taken from Jakarta Post. Retrieved 3 April 2010. 
  17. ^ [1] Archived January 24, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  18. ^ "Village Hub: nature conservation through sugar palms on Vimeo". 2013-04-22. Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  19. ^ a b "Willie Smits' presentation at Qi Global 2009". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  20. ^ Thompson 2010, p191
  21. ^ Thompson 2010, p193
  22. ^ The page on the Primate Centre on the Jakarta Zoo Website
  23. ^ Thompson 2010, p196
  24. ^
  25. ^ Ode Magazine: "Willie Smits: Hanging around with orangutans"
  26. ^ "Ashoka Fellowship profile of Willie Smits". 2009. Retrieved 3 April 2010. 
  27. ^ Schuster, Smits and Ullal 2008
  28. ^ Labonita Ghosh (February 29, 2008). "Jay Ullal and his life on the planet of the apes". DNA India. Retrieved 31 March 2010. 
  29. ^ "BBC One - Panorama, Dying for a Biscuit". 2010-03-01. Retrieved 2014-01-17. 


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This page was last edited on 16 July 2017, at 14:03.
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