The Fight The Lungs of the Earth

Indonesia's rainforest is shrinking dramatically as farmers and multination companies clear-cut woods to reclaim land for agriculture. Four activists are fighting to stop the destruction using all means available to them from their bare hands to smartphones.
A Multimedia Story By Jacopo Ottaviani (Text) and Isacco Chiaf (Photos/Videos) in Borneo

"I know the fire will be back again next year," says Basuki Budi Santoso. "I know we don't have the equipment we need and that we'll have to fight it with our bare hands. But that doesn't matter. We'll fight it. Our spirit is the spirit of the forest." Tears well up in Santoso's eyes as he speaks of the forests in which he was born and raised.

Making use of what little means they have at their disposal, Basuki and his small team at the Friends of the National Park Foundation are working to protect Tanjung Puting National Park from the flames that threaten it on a regular basis. The park is located in the southern part of the island of Borneo and was hit hard by the large forest fires that rampaged across Indonesia throughout 2015.

Burning unabated for weeks, the fires destroyed more than 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of forest, mainly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The thick white smoke could even be seen from space.

Satellite Image: Forest Fires on Sumatra and Borneo in 2015

The Indonesian forest is shrinking at a dramatic pace. The United Nations reports that more than 27 million hectares of forest area was lost between 1990 and 2015 and if the destruction continues at this rate, not a single square meter of forest will still be standing 80 years from now.

The fires are frequently the product of arson. "A fire is the cheapest way to clear land for agriculture," explains Peter Holmgren, director of the Center for International Forest Research (CIFOR), an organization with offices near the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta. "Fires can be set by individuals who control vast plantations or by small farmers tending their own parcels of land with traditional methods."

But there are also people trying to extinguish the flames and stop the clear-cutting. SPIEGEL ONLINE tells the stories of four individuals who have dedicated their lives to saving the forests. Four people who are trying to stop deforestation with some of the most diverse means imaginable – deploying everything in the fight from their bare hands to modern technologies like drones and smartphones. Four people who want to save a unique habitat.

In The Line of Fire

Basuki's base camp can only be reached by way of the Kumai River. A small dock leads to a path that makes its way through the forest, rays of sunlight piercing the humid air and tea-colored water babbling in the streams. The hike to the Beguruh reforestation area takes a few hours. Here, Basuki and his men are working to help bring the forest back to life.

Basuki's men are enjoying a moment of rest in the shade of a wooden shed. The camp also includes a few hammocks, a gas burner for making coffee and an outdoor shower. Pots containing tree seedlings are lined up in the shade a few meters away. "This is our plant nursery. This is where we look after the trees that will repopulate the forest that burned down," says Basuki.

Video: Fighting the Flames

Jacopo Ottaviani/Isacco Chiaf

"The fires return every year, especially from September onwards, in the dry season. And the fires keep burning even when they seem to be extinguished, because they continue burning underground in the peat," says Basuki.

He and his team work restlessly to extinguish the fires when they return. "At night, we take turns sleeping a few meters away from the flames," he says. "Sometimes someone even suffocates from the smoke and dies. In times of respite, we replant trees in the burned areas and prepare for our next battle," he says.

Basuki spends most of the year in the jungles of Borneo, coordinating firefighting efforts and various reforestation projects. His salary is sufficient to allow him to fly home twice a year to visit his wife and two children in Jakarta.

Where the Forest Is Shrinking

The world lost 130 million hectares of forest between 1990 and 2015, delicate ecosystems destroyed by chainsaws, fire and cement. Data compiled by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) shows that deforestation has advanced at an astounding pace: Around six hectares of forest – the equivalent of eight soccer fields – disappear every minute. The shrinkage is mainly due to human incursions, such as agriculture, extraction of raw materials and urbanization.

Overall, however, the clear-cutting of forests around the world has slowed since the 1990s. In certain regions, such as China and Europe, forests are even expanding – largely as a result of reforestation and an increase in tree cultivation.

In other parts of the world, however, mainly in the tropics, humankind is still an ever-present threat to the forests. The main rainforest basins in the Amazon, Congo and Southeast Asia continue to shrink each year.

Indonesia alone recorded more than 120,000 fires in 2015, according to Global Fire Emissions Database, a website funded by NASA and the European Union. The blazes produced almost 2 billion tons of greenhouse gases – an amount greater than that produced by Germany and Japan combined over the course of an entire year.

Enormous clouds of smoke have spread to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand as a result of the conflagrations, exposing 43 million people to toxic gases. The Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics described the fires as a "crime against humanity of extraordinary proportions."

But such forest fires are in no way exclusive to the region – they are a global problem. "According to NASA and the Global Fire Emissions Database, an average of 4.5 million hectares of rainforest go up in flames every year," says Guido van der Werf, an earth and life sciences researcher at Amsterdam's VU University. "Almost all fires in tropical areas are caused by mankind. In temperate areas, both natural fires and fires caused by humans are detected, whereas the primary cause of fires in the boreal forest belt is lightning."

Forests, along with the oceans, absorb enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. At the same time, they are also home to 80 percent of all terrestrial species of animals and plants. As such, protecting forestland -- the Earth's lungs -- is also key to efforts to preserve the planet's biodiversity and combat global warming.

Eyes in the Sky

Another emerging tool in efforts to monitor and combat deforestation are drones, relatively inexpensive devices that are proving effective in the fight. Conservation Drones is an organization that provides support and training to environmentalists and ecologists, especially in developing countries, in using drones in efforts to preserve biodiversity.

"The drone's hardware can be bought for about 2,000 US dollars, and the software for flying it is open source and available for free," says Keeyen Pang, director of Asian operations for the organization. As he speaks, Pang's son prepares a small drone for flight and programs its flight mission. "All you need to do is install a micro-camera on the drone to obtain high-definition mapping of the forest," Pang explains.

Jacopo Ottaviani/Isacco Chiaf

"Our drones are a cheap and effective instrument against deforestation and they support nature conservation efforts," says Lian Pin Koh, a professor of applied ecology at Australia's Adelaide University who co-founded the non-profit Conservation Drones together with Swiss biologist Serge Wich.

"We've been helping many environmental organizations fly drones since 2012. It's important to supply low-cost technology to fly over difficult to access areas and monitor their state of conservation," says Koh.

The organization's drones are in the air in Tanzania, where they are used to monitor chimpanzee conservation. They fly in Suriname, where a project for monitoring the virgin forests is underway. In Indonesia, they observe the endangered orangutan population. And in the rest of Southeast Asia, they map oil palm cultivation, one of the primary causes of deforestation in the region.

Before and After Drone Pictures
Before and After Drone Pictures

Before and After Drone Pictures

Foto: Conservation Drones

The flight missions are already producing tangible results. "In 2014, for example, images taken by our drones detected an illegally deforested area in a natural reserve in Sumatra," Koh says with pride. "Our images have been used as proof by the Indonesian authorities, and the perpetrators of this crime have been put on trial."

The Forgotten Bears

In a remote corner of the Sabah rainforest located in the Malaysian part of northeastern Borneo, a small team of zoologists is working to save a little-known animal: the Malayan sun bear. By its own account, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center is the only institution in the world dedicated to the rescue and preservation of sun bears. One of its primary focuses is freeing bears that have been captured as pets.

Video: Sun Bears in the Rain Forest

Jacopo Ottaviani/Isacco Chiaf

Because many people are unaware that these bears live in the rainforest, "we have taken to nicknaming them 'the forgotten bears,'" says Tee Thye Lim, the man responsible for the care of sun bears that have been freed of captivity. "Unfortunately, even though they are not well-known worldwide, or perhaps because of this, they are endangered. In the past 30 years, we have lost about 30 percent of the population."

There are three reasons for this development:

  • In some Southeast Asian regions, sun bear cubs are captured and kept as pets, only to be abandoned once they get too big.

  • In Chinese medicine, the bear's gallbladder is believed to have healing powers and its paws are also an expensive delicacy, which has led to illegal poaching.

  • Deforestation has also resulted in a considerable reduction of their natural habitat.

There's a real danger that the sun bear's extinction could trigger a chain reaction in the rainforest's fragile ecosystem. "Plants and animals live in harmony, and the removal of a single species can disrupt the jungle's balance. Sun bears, for example, are true engineers of the forest," says Lim. "When searching for the honey they feed on, they create cavities within the trees where other animals, such as the great hornbill, then find shelter."

The sun bear of Borneo is but one of our planet's many endangered species. The Red List Index compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) documents at least 24,000 species of plants and animals currently at risk of extinction. But the situation could be even worse: The data included in the Red List is incomplete given that not every species of animal and plant has been examined by biologists.

Species on the Red List

The destruction of natural habitats, commercial exploitation of lands, pollution and climate change are some of the main culprits of biodiversity loss.

"We are in the middle of a biodiversity crisis. We are losing about 1,000 species of animals and plants every year," says Professor Henrique Pereira, head of research at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research at the University of Leipzig. "Biodiversity is fundamental to the planet's equilibrium, but also for the health of humankind. Many of the medicines we use come from compounds extracted from plants or animals. Every time a plant or animal becomes extinct, we lose our chance to discover compounds which can potentially be useful in the creation of new medications."

Guardians of the Forest

Smartphones are another tool deployed in the latest efforts to save rainforests. One organization, Rainforest Connection, attaches solar-powered smartphones with microphones to tree trunks in the tropical forests. Topher White, a young engineer and physicist from San Francisco, wants to use the device to save the planet's forests.

Video: A smartphone in a Tree

Jacopo Ottaviani/Isacco Chiaf

"The device created by Topher allows us to listen to the sounds of the forest remotely, using a simple smartphone," says James Reed, whose organization Tree Monkey works together with Rainforest Connection. He fiddles with an odd plastic box with an antenna as he stands, strapped into a climbing harness. "I'm here to help Topher construct the devices here in the forests of Borneo. I'm also teaching the local communities how to climb safely, so that they can install and look after the devices themselves in the future."

Rainforest Connection's devices transmit incoming audio to the cloud, where they undergo computer analysis. If the computer detects any unusual sound, such as the rumble of a chainsaw or the shot of a rifle, an alarm is automatically sent to the local authorities, who can then take action to stop illegal deforestation activities or poaching.

"We're testing Rainforest Connection in all the world's tropical forests," says inventor White. "Our objective is to protect 20 to 30 million hectares using Rainforest Connection within the next two years." White spends half his time in his San Francisco lab and the other in rainforests around the world.

"It's crucial for us to set up partnerships with local communities and organizations working to defend the forests," White says. "Initiatives such as Reed's Tree Monkey are essential for us. James and his team help us to physically install the devices and organize climbing lessons to teach the local communities to climb the tallest rainforest trees safely."

White says a single device can detect the sound of a chainsaw within an area of about three square kilometers (1.16 square miles), meaning that large swaths of forest can be monitored using only a few strategically placed devices.

The inventor came up with the idea for the device during a trip to the rainforest. "In 2011, I was in Borneo," White recalls. "I was walking through the jungle with my local guide when we came across an area which had been cut down illegally. The enraged local guide told me how hard it was to stop these activities despite the presence of forest rangers." That's when White came up with the idea of using smartphones to guard the forest. He spent several years developing the technology.

The phones are also helpful in studying animal migration patterns or to better understand the rhythm of the ecosystem. In a service available exclusively to those who make donations to Rainforest Connection, the smartphones also feed an internet radio station broadcasting the forest's orchestral sounds. The recently launched service "allows anyone, anywhere in the world, to listen to the live sounds of the forest," White says.

There you have it: Four people with very different ideas, but also the singular goal of saving Borneo's forests and the animals whose habitat it provides. Globally, deforestation has slowed compared to the 1990s, and this offers reason for hope. But at the same time, warns CIFOR researcher Holmgren, "in certain regions of the world such as Indonesia, Brazil and Central Africa, we are still losing forests at a worrying rate."


Author: Jacopo Ottaviani

Photos und videos: Isacco Chiaf

Video editing: Alberto Abbate

Editing: Holger Dambeck und Jule Lutteroth

Fact-checking: Almut Cieschinger

Programming and information graphics: Chris Kurt, Michael Niestedt, Isacco Chiaf und Philipp Seibt

Coordination: Anna Behrend, Philipp Seibt und Christina Elmer

This report is part of the Expedition BeyondTomorrow project .

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