Borneo's rainforests are under siege. Then why are we so hopeful for their future?
As I write, I am drifting through the Tanjung Puting National Park, a Bornean rainforest. Our first group of travelers has finished their days in Sukadana, and we are now on a traditional klotok boat navigating the rivers of the park between stops at orangutan feeding stations. In preparing for this leg of the journey, I kept imagining the gloomy story and setting of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel set in the depths of the Congo at the height of colonialism. While we are not being bombarded with the arrows of nearby people or running our boat aground in treacherous and murky waters, now that we are here, I am finding one true comparison.
Much like Conrad’s protagonist, I am floating through an awe-inspiring wilderness discovering a place that has been degraded and pillaged of its natural resources. The riparian zone next to the river is lush and alive with proboscis monkeys, herons and crocodiles, but I can see through the thin segment of trees to wide, cleared spaces beyond. Our guide tells us about government concessions to palm oil companies and local efforts to buy and conserve the land one hectare at a time. I hear chainsaws in the background.
Last week, Lori, Karin and I had the opportunity to hike into the Gunung Palung forest near Sukadana. We explored Lubuk Baji, the section of forest ASRI’s Sedehan reforestation program attempts to reconnect to the main Gunung Palung. We were amazed at the stunning blue and black butterflies, the red leaf monkey we saw soar above us and the tiny fish that nibbled at our toes when we stopped for a swim. I sat for a few minutes by a clear stream at the top of the hike, and from deep inside I heard the message “This place needs to exist.” Though surprised at its suddenness and urgency, I felt the certainty of the statement etched in my bones, the same truth I feel in the wild places I grew up. It is as though the humid air I breathe in is not only oxygenating my blood, but imbuing it with a sense of connection to the respiring trees around me.
A few days later, we sit in another forest, at a feeding station, waiting for orangutans. Karin begins a conversation with a fellow tourist, and I have to smile as I hear her explain, in German, Health In Harmony’s mission. There may be darkness here - I worry about the future of these places that now course through me - but the heart of these forests is light. I have hope that if the story of saving the forest with a stethoscope can be translated around the world, that light will only grow brighter.
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