Can't Travel? You Can Still Save The World.
Far far away, in a tiny corner of the other side of the world, in the heart of one of the most biodiverse, endemic-rich rainforests on Earth, surrounded by some of the most coral-rich waters in all the world’s oceans, there is a weird looking creature called a Bear Cuscus. Very little is known about this bug-eyed, sloth-koala lovechild, and the Bear Cuscus is just fine with that.
I used to work for a conservation organisation called Operation Wallacea – you may even have visited one of their sites as a student as, in the 25 years that they’ve been in existence, they’ve grown massively in popularity with students of all ages for the experiences they provide in both science and ecotourism.
There are a few cool things about ‘Opwall’ (as they’re known), spanning from the horizon-broadening that they offer to students of school and university age from around the world to plunge headlong into different cultures and experience cutting-edge conservation science. Further to that, Opwall contribute to conservation research and numerous conservation programmes around the world, making a plethora of tangible benefits to life on earth. Suffice to say, I would not be the person - nor the environmentalist - that I am today, if it weren’t for my years with Opwall.
In 2013 I visited Opwall’s field site on Buton island in Indonesia for eight weeks, moving in-and-out-of the village of La Bundo Bundo which serves as the hub for the research programmes operating out there – from where their scientists routinely achieve things like identifying the Bear Cuscus (see above) as a unique species. I can’t say that I personally found anything new to science, but even if I didn’t make much of an impression on Indonesia, it certainly made an impression on me. I still have the scars from scrapes earned trekking over jagged prehistoric coral. I was almost swept-away in monsoon-like storms; experienced three weeks of severe trench-foot; discovered uncomfortably the view from inside an arboreal ants-nest, and got shat-on by a 16-foot python.
I also made lifelong friends, discovered canopy science, saw creatures that were in the process of being discovered by science, learned (very poorly) a new language, helped deliver once-in-a-lifetime experiences to over a hundred international students, deepened my love of ecology, shared my love of ecology, contributed to important scientific monitoring, had my eyes opened in almost every sense and saw a 40m coral reef wall so teeming with every kind of aquatic life it took my breath away (thankfully I was in scuba gear at the time).
Opwall have supported the field site in La Bundo Bundo – and the local community that is generous enough to put them up and offer guide and logistical services for three months every summer – for the last 25 years. So it came as a bit of a blow, to Opwall and to the community of La Bundo Bundo, when their research was grounded like everything else in 2020.
Thankfully, out of the chaos and loss, an opportunity arose.
It was during my summer in Indonesia that I learned some of the most practical and valuable lessons in conservation – about the ways that communities can be the best stewards of nature, when given the appropriate opportunities. On Buton, that generally comes from an encircling of protected areas of forest with communally-owned ‘social forestry’, which is managed by the local communities in whatever ways they see fit. In some places those ‘social’ areas are barely touched, in others they’ve been converted to agroforestry, and in others they’ve been cleared altogether for more-or-less productive grazing.
In reality these areas reach a state of equilibrium between the ‘best’ use of the land (ie. everything wins) and what is most beneficial for the local community – and from a conservation perspective you try to make that equilibrium one that is mutually beneficial for biodiversity and the community.
“If you can get that right,” Opwall’s Director of Operations Alex Tozer told me in a recent conversation, “conservation will win the support of the community. That support is then reinforced simply by social pressure on individuals to avoid doing things that are detrimental to the community – and while it’s theoretically easy to cheat a system like that, it’s very difficult to deforest an area of community land without everyone knowing about it!”
It’s a beautiful example of the ‘triumph of the commons’ prevailing over the potential ‘tragedy’.
Cut back to 2020, in which none of the usual thousands of students and staff could visit the area – which also cuts out the associated revenue for the local communities. The thing about Opwall, and its supporters, is that they’re really driven to make a positive difference, so it wouldn’t be enough to simply send some cash (that wasn’t available anyway) to the area to prop-up the community until the pandemic blows over. Another solution was needed - one which supports the La Bundo Bundo community and also satisfies a global desire to contribute to something positive.
That solution came as one of the most rapidly growing (no pun intended) forms of environmental and social currency – planting trees.
Over the last few years, tree-planting has become a ubiquitous way of easing one’s ecological conscience, of offsetting one’s carbon emissions, and doing a bit of good for the planet for a fairly small cost.
This of course has lead to a justifiable (but lamentably click-baity) recourse of articles decrying (badly-practiced) tree-planting – shitting on the dreams of wanna-be eco-warriors much like that python did on my shirt.
The thing is (as is so often the case with environmental issues) that tree-planting isn’t as simple as just sticking a bunch of trees in the ground – at least it’s not if it’s done well. There’s lots to consider with planting trees, and it starts with considering why you’re doing it in the first place.
If you’re planting trees primarily in response to the climate crisis, ie. with the intention of sequestering as much carbon as possible, then “you’d be arguably justified in planting huge swathes of Oil Palm,” Alex anecdotally told me, “as they’re very efficient carbon sinks.” The trouble is, of course, they’re not good for much apart from oil production – particularly biodiversity.
On another hand, if you’re wanting to plant trees for the sake of tackling the biodiversity crisis, your priority would be to recreate natural forest in an area and to aim to restore ‘pristine’ habitat – habitat loss being the primary driver of species extinction today. Of course, pristine habitat doesn’t necessarily suck the greatest quantity of carbon out of the atmosphere in the shortest possible time (though there are studies suggesting that species-rich ecosystems are the best carbon sinks possible).
In terms of trees as a social/environmental ‘currency’, Carbon Accreditation schemes exist to carefully quantify the ‘bang-for-one’s-buck’ when you invest in tree-planting for the sake of carbon – whatever’s being planted. (Beware supporting carbon-centric initiatives without an accreditation system, as there’s a lot of room for abuse).
Unfortunately, no such schemes exist for biodiversity benefits – “You can’t say ‘spend this much now and in 20 years you’ll have x lemurs’” Alex remarks, “as there’s simply too much complexity in these ecological systems”.
Fortunately, there are still people who are willing to invest in something because it’s inherently a good thing – though that’s not to say that official biodiversity crediting wouldn’t be a welcome asset for conservation!
In La Bundo Bundo, the objective is really quite straightforward – to re-forest an area of cleared social forestry to enhance the natural local habitat. While any supporter may choose to consider, personally, the carbon-benefits of getting fast-growing native tropical trees in the ground, Opwall’s scheme isn’t carbon credited – their priority is biodiversity and supporting a system that fundamentally keeps the Lambusango forest protected.
Working with their La Bundo Bundo partners – many of whom are the same individuals who have been involved with Opwall for decades – Opwall’s 2020/2021 reforestation programme has collected native seeds from the nearby forest and cultivated them in local nurseries, ready for planting in areas that have been clear-cut in the last few years.
Guided by science and best-practice, when planted these native seedlings and saplings are spaced 5m apart to prevent competition – thereby ensuring the greatest possible success rate (ie. the young trees won’t be competing with each other for resources for a good few years), meaning that the money invested in this programme is most-certainly supporting growing trees and no trees are wasted.
Transparency is admirably important to Alex and co., and they make efforts to send regular updates to supporters documenting the success and growth of the plantings – and once COVID is out of the way, Opwall’s volunteers will be visiting and monitoring these new forests for years to come!
I’m really pleased (and not surprised) to see that Opwall are making such efforts to do this properly (locally sourcing native seeds, nurturing them until they’ve 1.5m tall, planting 5m apart, and committing to ongoing protection and monitoring) with all the appropriate caveats: this is a biodiversity scheme with no false promises made about carbon. Opportunities for people to offset their carbon footprint by donating to the project are based on super conservative estimates of how much carbon each tree that is planted will sequester over a 20 year period. This programme will continue to support the local community, and to maintain healthy forest ecosystems in which the Bear Cuscus, Buton Macaque, and other endemic wildlife will continue to thrive.
I’m also really pleased to hear that, if all goes well, this last year’s ‘silver-lining’ opportunity in Indonesia will serve as a pilot project for establishing reforestation schemes around Opwall’s other sites.
While planting trees isn’t the single solution for resolving the climate and biodiversity crises, it remains one of our most powerful and important assets and every effort has to be made to restore as much natural forest habitat as possible as soon as possible, to mitigate the severity of these crises.
My last field season with Opwall took me to a tiny forest fragment in northern Madagascar – an island catastrophically close to complete deforestation, despite being home to some of the world’s most incredible biodiversity. Forest fragmentation, in particular, is a huge threat to Madagascar’s wildlife, as wildlife populations broken into smaller and smaller isolated communities are even more vulnerable to extinction. Reforestation to re-connect these forest fragments is the best hope of keeping Madagascar’s endemic wildlife alive, and not forgetting all the great work that Opwall does anyway to protect these fragile habitats, literally helping to make these forests larger would feel, as a volunteer or supported, like a very tangible and worthwhile contribution.
Watch my film The Evolution of Madagascar - shot on my final expedition with Opwall - here.
Here’s a couple of links if you’d like to know more about preventing deforestation and tree-planting schemes, check out Ecosia and TreeApp to plant trees everyday, but most importantly,
to contribute to Opwall’s La Bundo Bundo tree-planting programme. $10 will plant two trees, and you know they’ll be well taken care of.