I’ve just returned from visiting Hutan, one of the organisations we support in Sabah, Borneo. I went because at its heart, it is about orang-utans, and at my heart, one might say I’m about orang-utans too. I’ve met many of our project partners – we are lucky to be based in London, a city so many people pass through – I’d even had the pleasure of meeting Isabelle Lackman, Hutan’s founder in our offices. Over the years I’ve learned about the threats to the important biodiverse region that Hutan works in which include logging, oil palm and in some instances, wildlife trafficking. Leading up to my trip, I was briefed on our research and provided with a deeper-dive into Hutan’s vital role in Malaysia.
And yet, with all of that knowledge, with all of that insight, no amount of information can compare with being in a place, and getting a sense of the work from the inside out.
Ask any conservation practitioner, and they will suggest the same. It’s not that I was so naive as to not know in advance that I would be changed by my experience; it’s that it highlighted the crucial need for thoughtful, considered conservation within the context of the project’s locale. It also highlighted that often times the most important elements of a project are not ones that can be measured; they are the ones that we can only know through conversation, experience and by – dare I say – intuition.
Synchronicity Earth has built its entire approach to conservation philanthropy with this gentle wisdom in mind. Now I have ‘seen it’ in action.
A primatologist, Isabelle arrived in Sabah to study, work with and protect orang-utans: she never left. Now, 20 years later, it is clear that she has earned respect from and is an important part the fabric of the local community.
Threats to the region have changed over the years from logging to tobacco to oil palm. Politics continuously shift and environmental concern seems to change with the wind. Despite this, Isabelle’s determination remains resolute.
Hutan’s work is vital. It runs the only conservation project restoring the once highly biodiverse area of the Kalimantangan River basin which was degraded by heavy logging in the 1950s. The logged areas are now primarily oil palm plantations: Hutan works closely with the forestry department, and over the years has secured a significant amount of land to reforest and protect. However, it is not enough – significant corridors are missing, meaning key species can’t migrate so populations stagnate. Hutan spends a great deal of its time in negotiations with oil palm plantations and small-holder farms trying to piece together a significant wildlife corridor. Hutan knows that if it isn’t oil palm (a very lucrative commodity), it will be some other form of agriculture: it is witness to a long story that we, in the West, often don’t see in full. Hutan’s success is in finding common ground, even with the most unlikely characters.
So what was it about Hutan that affirmed my work and left me so inspired? Was it that after all of these years following a path I never anticipated, I finally saw orang-utans in the wild? Well yes, of course, that was a huge part of it – as if all was right in the world. I have Hutan to thank for that.
But Hutan wouldn’t be Hutan without its people. All of them. Every single one of the 50 or so staff is totally committed. Take reforestation, a programme that we supported through our Regeneration portfolio: it is strenuous, backbreaking work, and the team (mostly middle-aged Muslim women) works all day, six days a week. The conditions are variable, the temperature is very hot and whether it is the monsoon or the dry season, the women are out there planting trees – some days using heavy machinery to clear thick brush, or moving hundreds of seedlings by boat and then on their backs to the sites, which can be very far away. Sometimes work involves digging holes and planting trees all day long; until the seedlings are established (about three years old), the women monitor their growth, keeping the weeds at bay – always learning, measuring and testing different species of trees in different soils and conditions. They want to be sure that the orang-utans will like the fruits of their labour.
While crucial to Hutan’s work, reforestation is only one component. Other key work includes wild orang-utan monitoring and protection; elephant-conflict resolution; community and youth education; and protecting swiftlets and the caves in which they nest. The point being, Hutan will do whatever it takes. It embodies is a culture of nurture and care; each member of its team is empowered to do their work, and to bring new ideas and strategies to the table, as long as they benefit the whole and enrich the environment.
I knew, but now I know, that we can only really comprehend the whole story from the ground up; we need to go beyond our comfort zones in order to attain true understanding of the problems that face our planet. We need to experience life, and then witness for ourselves how life is diminishing all over the world. We need to meet people in their homes, in their forests, and on their coasts, in order to truly understand how we, on the outside looking in, can try to help make change happen.