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It’s been over a year since a wildfire devastated our 23 ha reforestation site in the village of Laman Satong. Since then, two durian seasons and a particularly terrible dry season have passed (For awhile, if you looked up the weather in Sukadana on an iPhone, the status was “Smoke”).
We have been vigilantly monitoring the reforestation site for signs of life, with low expectations. Incredibly, life has re-surged from the ashes. The trees are re-growing. Lots of them. And, wow, do they grow FAST.
We have collected data on over 5,000 re-growing seedlings across the site. And incredibly, we found that 33% of all 4-yr old saplings alive before the fire are now re-growing. They are re-sprouting (coppicing, in forestry terms) from the roots. The numbers drop off slightly as the saplings get younger: only 16-17% of saplings aged 1-3 years seem to be re-growing after the fire.
Most re-growth comes from the same batch of five pioneer species, but there have been a few surprises. The best surprise has been our Merbau trees. Merbau is a valuable timber tree native to Papua where it is highly targeted by illegal logging operations and smuggled to China. We thought they were all wiped out in the fire, but during our second round of monitoring 6 months post-fire we came home to camp each day with datasheets filled with records of Merbau re-growth.
After only a year, some of the re-growth stands at over 4 meters tall. A few of the regrown trees are now taller than the original parent tree whose charred remnants still remain. Many trees have been able to re-grow so quickly because they have strong, established root systems that were not damaged in the fire combined with a plentiful supply of charcoal and ash to serve as fertilizer and no competition with noxious weeds.
This re-growth has been an amazing gift, because it has meant that years of hard work were not erased in a single disastrous event. In fact, we have learned which species are “fire resistant”, i.e. have a high probability of naturally re-growing after a wildfire. This kind of knowledge is hard to come by -- you can't really get permission to due a controlled burn experiment in a tropical rain forest the way we conduct controlled burns in the U.S. As a result, surprisingly little is known about the resilience of tropical rain forest trees. Armed with this knowledge, if we continue to successfully exclude fire from the site, Laman Satong will become a forest someday.
But for me, one of the highlights of the year has been our new reforestation site coordinator, Juliansyah. Pak Jul, as he is known, was our Forest Guardian in Laman Satong. A former illegal logger, he was one of our first reforestation workers when we started this project, and has attended every single planting activity since 2009. A month before the fire, he experienced his own personal tragedy – his young wife passed away suddenly from a respiratory illness (Yet another reason why we need a hospital – she came to be treated at our clinic and we had to send her to Ketapang to get an X-ray. She died before she could get that X-ray). Pak Jul was left with two young children to care for alone, in a crowded house he shared with his extended family.
When we hired him, we invited him to live at the nursery with his children. We thought the site would be safer from fire with someone always nearby to keep watch. On his first day,* he walked around the nursery saying, “I’m going to fix this, I’m going to paint that, and I’m going to rebuild that…” And he transformed it into a home where – yes – he enjoys frequently blasting dangdut music at 4:30am for all to enjoy (a surprising, but common morning activity in Borneo). I am continually amazed by his drive and initiative. Every time I visit the nursery, he has made some kind of industrious improvement whether it be redesigning the water piping system, building more furniture out of scrap wood, or more recently – adding fish into the bakmandi where he draws his bathing water (Why, remains a mystery).
Pak Jul has been the perfect person to lead the site in the year following the fire. Like the trees re-growing in the site, he is facing the tragedies that life has dealt with a fearless and entrepreneurial spirit. It is amazing to witness – he and the site are mutually supporting each other in building new lives for themselves. And who knows? They say that plants respond well to music, so maybe the dangdut dance parties will have a net positive effect on seedling growth. We should do a controlled experiment and collect data on this.