Is DeforestACTION– a reality movie and TV series about saving the forests of Borneo– really a path to global conservation, or is it possible that they are falling into one of the most common traps in conservation– ignoring the rights of the indigenous people who live on the land?
Over the last few months, the Borneo conservation community has been abuzz with word of DeforestACTION, a reality TV meets forest conservation meets orangutan rehabilitation extravaganza, complete with a 3D movie, a 6 part TV series, and world-wide online tie-ins where kids and schools can raise money to save the rainforest.
I know I got excited about it; they were going to take 10 people under the age of 35 and bring them to West Kalimantan to monitor an existing national park, to help with rehabilitating orangutans, and replanting a rainforest. Among others, the project is being run by Dr. Willie Smits, who has decades of experience working with orangutans and recently gave a very well acclaimed TED talk outlining how he succeeded in regrowing a diverse rainforest in East Kalimantan. The technological tools at play are amazing; supposedly, you will be able to go online and actually find your piece of land that you bought, and even measure how much the trees are growing!
This is an area I spent a lot of time in as a child, an area sorely in need to rehabilitation and reforestation. It’s also an area where indigenous Dayak communities live, and practice traditional agriculture (which involves small-scale swidden agriculture, which is totally sustainable when practiced on a traditional scale). Of course the DeforestACTION team, folks that have been involved in on-the-ground conservation for decades, wouldn’t fall into the same traps as the national governments and big greens (think WWF and Conservation International), right? Right?
The answer isn’t so clear. In looking at their online materials and watching their information sessions, it seems like there are a number of ways where it looks scarily like DeforestACTION is not taking into account the needs of the local communities. Now, I am hoping they are just skimping on this information on their website (local land rights issues are less sexy than orangutan babies). So, I wrote them. Here (in summary) are some of the questions I asked:
- The land for DeforestACTION is on long term lease from the government. Who owns it during the project time, and has anything been planned for after the project is over?
- Are there any local communities that are in conflict over the land with the government? Has the DeforestACTION staff actually talked to people in the villages about this (instead of just the government officials?)
- The Willie Smit’s plan for reforestation includes giving local communities access to sugar palm so they can make cash income. However, this isn’t how local people have ever traditionally made a living, and ties them into the (super unstable) world market. Has DeforestACTION considered what they will do if community members don’t want to change their livelihoods?
DeforestACTION has yet to get back to me. I’ll post again when they do.
DeforestACTION, with it’s money, it’s online presence, and it’s big names has the potential to really lead the way in terms of plotting a new course for tropical forests. Nothing makes me happier than to see regular folks getting excited about saving the rainforest. At the same time, they need to be leaders on all fronts, and that includes human and indigenous rights. Come on DeforestACTION, show us that you know that conservation without the communities just won’t work, and lead the way in a really long-term sustainable future!