This Was Going to Be a Palm Oil Plantation. Now, it’s the World’s Largest Orangutan Sanctuary

“Nature protects us, so it’s our duty to protect nature,” says Ajie Dewanto. As technical director of Indonesia’s Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve, he and his team of conservationists are doing just that. On the island of Borneo, Rimba Raya occupies more than 140 square miles of the Seruyan peat swamp forest, which had been slated for development into an oil palm plantation. Instead, the preserve continues to provide critical habitat for orangutans that have been reintroduced. And by focusing simultaneously on climate, biodiversity and community through a holistic design (tackling the root causes of deforestation while improving the livelihoods of locals in the surrounding areas), it also has become the first REDD+ project project to meet all 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Ajie’s first job offer was for a palm oil plantation. But “the rainforests are one of the most majestic sites I’ve ever visited,” he says, so he sought a path in conservation instead. Through Rimba Raya, Ajie hopes the forest that was once at risk of destruction will outlive him for centuries.

A Forest on the Brink

In 2007, the Seruyan forest seemed set to disappear. A palm oil company had secured the rights to the land, and had already begun cutting in the diverse ecosystem, replacing it with oil palm monoculture. Identifying Indonesia and this region specifically as an area, conservationists Todd Lemons and Jim Procanik partnered with the Orangutan Foundation International and formed InfiniteEARTH. Together, they hired a team and purchased the land back, working to manage the forest and develop a conservation plan, creating the Rimba Raya reserve. The project receives its funding through REDD+ carbon credits, which are divided by the development team, the financiers, the Indonesian government and local communities. Fifteen years later, thanks to carbon offsetting purchases and the work of team members like Ajie, the peat forest still stands.

Saving Endangered Orangutans

Biologists have recorded an astonishing 602 species of flora and fauna—over 50 of which are endangered and threatened—at Rimba Raya. These include proboscis monkeys, pangolins, hairy-nosed otters, and Borneo Bay cats. But the most emblematic resident of the reserve is the last remaining population of wild orangutans in the region.

“The greatest threat these curious monkeys face is illegal poaching and deforestation,” says Ajie. Through camera-traps monitoring, rehabilitation practices and feeding platforms, Rimba Raya is giving these intelligent apes—whose Malay and Indonesian name translates to “person of the forest” and who share more than 96 percent of our genes—a fighting chance. “I’m amazed at how the orangutan's behavior is really similar to humans, it’s incredible.”

Since 2017, Rimba Raya has reintroduced 25 rehabilitated orangutans back into the wild and seen the births of three wild orangutans. Rimba Raya also plans to reintroduce 300 more orangutans once government regulations clear.

Battling Climate Change through Offsetting

Rimba Raya’s ecosystem captures and holds carbon while reducing the impact of greenhouse gasses. If ecosystems like the peat swamp forest are damaged, enormous amounts of stored carbon are released into the atmosphere. In simple terms, carbon offsetting allows organizations like Rimba Raya to protect and restore forests, which results in fewer carbon emissions. That in turn, emphasizes Ajie, results in “fewer natural disasters and higher quality of life. Nature is our biggest ally in tackling global warming, and its survival is essential to our own.”

A Sustainable Alternative to the Palm Oil Industry

The Rimba Raya Reserve is home to 14 local villages and indigenous community members, many of whom earn their living as fishermen. Yet because of the multi-billion dollar oil palm industry, explains Ajie, “both wildlife and local residents are under constant threat from flooding, fires and exposure to pollution,” noting that runoff, which enters the rivers, destroys the fishing habitat as well.

“We believe that transparency and collaboration with local communities is really important. The local communities participate in the planting program, giving them employment opportunities. We’ve seen what happens when they cannot fulfill their basic needs… they will go to the forest and chop trees to sell because it’s easy money for them, which is why we offer alternative livelihood.” Rimba Raya works directly with the indigenous communities, providing economic opportunities, increasing access to education, distributing clean water, providing solar panel electricity systems, as well as other projects.

Medical Treatment for All: A Floating Health Clinic

“There is no proper healthcare… they don’t have doctors or nurses. Or, if they come, it’s only once every two weeks,” explains Ajie. Adding to the complications is the fact that there is no proper road network to local communities either. Rimba Raya’s solution: a floating health clinic. “The goal of our clinic was to fill these gaps in medical staffing, and the most reliable transportation network is the river.” The organization created seed banks, so anyone who cannot afford healthcare in monetary terms can do so with endemic seedlings. The organization has also introduced high protein and nutritional meals prescribed by doctors for local children. In this year alone, Rimba Raya’s medical staff has saved the lives of four severely malnourished babies. By next year, they hope to help 75 percent of the local babies they serve cross above the malnourished line.

A Model for Others

Rimba Raya has been approached by many organizations asking how to emulate what they’ve done. “There is a saying in Indonesia: ‘you will not embrace it until you experience it.’ Now that the communities are experiencing fires and floods, there is greater support for the programming.”

After all, he notes, Rimba Raya is “a forest for the people.”

Indagare supports Rimba Raya through our carbon offsetting partnership with Sustainable Travel International. Learn more about Indagare Impact, and how we’re making our members’ travels as sustainable as possible, here.

Published onJune 14, 2023

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