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Winter 2009/2010

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Willie Smits Shares Methodology for Sustainable Forests

photo of Willie Smith"We can use technologies such as GIS to save biodiversity. We can still help local people retain their cultures and traditional means of existence." This is the message of Dr. Willie Smits, founder of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and the Masarang Foundation, which raise money and awareness to restore habitat forests around the world.

Smits, a keynote speaker at the 2009 Esri International User Conference, is a biologist dedicated to rebuilding orangutan populations and improving forest habitats worldwide. His campaign has two fronts. One is a zealous battle against deforestation and habitat destruction, and the other is the promotion of sustainable agribusiness that benefits both species of primates, human and orangutan. "We cannot save the environment if we do not simultaneously take care of people's needs," maintains Smits.

In recent decades, palm oil plantations have become prevalent on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra where, for thousands of years, colonies of orangutans have thrived in lush tropical forest. The main goal of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation is to protect orangutans and their natural habitat, but the desecration of this habitat has become so pervasive that the foundation has taken into its care more than 1,000 orphaned orangutans. Scientists estimate that wild orangutans are disappearing at the rate of 2,000 a year and will be extinct in 10 years.

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Tube network gravitationally transports sugar palm ethanol product from village production centers to the coast for shipping.

Smits identifies the harvest of palm oil as the main cause of the destruction of Indonesia's ecosystems. Palm oil, easily grown in these areas, is used in a wide range of products from cookies to cosmetics. Demand is high, making the oil palms a major cash crop for Indonesia, but it is not a sustainable product to harvest. Illegal logging, clear-cutting, and uncontrolled burning associated with oil palm operations destroy the tropical rain forests and severely threaten the orangutan population with extinction. "Destroying forests leaves orangutans with no food and no place to run," says Smits. Furthermore, oil palm tree cultivation provides an easy inroad for illegal logging of other valuable rain forest timber and opens access for the atrocities of animal trade.

Smits combines satellite imagery and GIS to show changes both on forests and on humans. It is used to challenge the hypothesis that Borneo can indefinitely continue to support oil palm plantations; show the profit and cost factors of these sites and their proximity to transportation and shipping; assess the precision farming factors of soil, elevation, and climate and their relationship to and infringements on local communities; and disclose property ownership disparities. In Sumatra, he deployed SPOT imagery at one- by one-kilometer resolution to show how forests are receding and ground cover is changing from trees to shrubs and weeds. It is also used to reveal corruption by showing where companies say they are cultivating palm oil but are, in fact, clear-cutting high-quality rain forest. Some images reveal conspiracy between timber and oil palm businesses running covert timber operations. Flyovers above suspect areas provide aerial images that pinpoint logging equipment in areas where it should not be. The eye-of-satellite imagery and the analytic ability of GIS reveal these schemes and force the hand of law enforcers to take action.

Moreover, imagery and GIS are proven tools for convincing various governments of the world that palm oil consumption is indeed destroying these precious forests. "By using GIS, I was able to demonstrate in a very convincing way that people were misusing oil palms to get their hands on timber," says Smits. "More than half of permitted oil palm plantations are located on unsuitable land for oil palms. They are located in areas where other highly profitable timber grows. GIS is extremely important for visually relaying this information. I don't need to give complicated explanations of the problem because people can easily understand what is happening from our maps. They see how fast the forest has shrunk in just 3 years. This leads them to wonder what the rest of the world will look like in 10 years."

The Advantages of Sugar Palm Trees

Because the Indonesian economy is so tied to the cultivation of palm oil, Smits must do more than preach conservation—he has to promote an economically feasible alternative. Smits studied sustainable options and cited the sugar palm tree, which is a multipurpose plant that is edible and can be used for creating ethanol. "It uses little water, needs no artificial fertilizer, and is six times as productive as sugar cane," claims Smits. Since harvesting processes tap the juices of the sugar palm's flowering branches rather than destroying the entire tree as does palm oil harvest, the process retains the forest's integrity.

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GIS combines Landsat, flyover route, and aerial imagery data to reveal locations of probable illicit timber operations (yellow circles).

GIS is part of the sugar palm remediation plan. It helps direct the activities of a cooperative of more than 6,200 farmers and shows them where and when to extract the palm's liquid. It also shows the best roads for oxcart and automobile transport, processing points in the village hubs, and pipeline placement for gravitational transmission of the product down to the coast for export. GIS shows microclimates and different soil types, as well as predicts yields. These outcomes become the source for determining the amount of labor needed for planting and cultivation.

"We have mapped all of Borneo's forests to study the suitability of sugar palms," Smits explains. "We are using these same processes in other parts of the world, such as in Colombia, where we have a pilot project that includes one million sugar palms. We are looking at the worldwide potential, looking where the temperature and rainfall are sufficient, the infrastructure is in place for cultivation, and the human resources are large enough to perform the labor-intensive tapping processes. We have located many places throughout the world where sugar palms can be planted without depleting the soil. Among the GIS design tools are models for assessing site suitability and predicting impact on local hydrology, carbon storage, and the biodiversity of the area. GIS also indicates the best location to plant the palms and when it is seasonable to do so. GIS is a valuable tool for showing what has happened and designing plans for change."

More Information

Read more about the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation at and the Masarang Foundation at

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