Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2009


This profile was prepared when Willie Smits was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
The New Idea
To rebuild orangutan populations, Dr. Smits believes it is crucial to both rebuild their forest habitat, as well as address the social causes of deforestation and orangutan habitat loss by empowering local workers to find alternatives to harvesting forests. Dr. Smits started his efforts with a team of 100 local workers to restore the Samboja Lestari which had been completely devastated by clear cutting. Covering approximately 5,000 acres in Borneo, this healthy man-made rainforest – a first of its kind – is now home to the hundreds of rehabilitated orangutans.

In rebuilding these forests, Dr. Smits attempted to recreate the extreme complexity of nature, impacting even the local microclimate. To grow, protect, and preserve the forest land itself, his solution is simple: he offers local migrants free land to plant crops in the forest. In return for both the land and farming income, the villagers must protect the rainforest and the animals that live there. By improving around 3,000 villagers’ quality of life and building trust throughout the community, Dr. Smits has provided powerful incentives for both long-term ecological and economic restoration.

Key to his model’s success is the use of newly developed and sustained rainforest as a new source for fresh water, by both increasing and retaining more rainfall in the area. This is not only improved the protection from forest fires but also a increased the supply of clean drinking water to more than 30,000 people in surrounding cities. Dr. Smits has also created a water supply company with the local government to improve access to clean drinking water, with the profits being used exclusively to sustain the Samboja Lestari rainforest.

Dr. Smits’ Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation has not only saved hundreds of homeless and mistreated orangutans, it has also provided them a new long-term habitat in the wild. His palm sugar factory has been pledged by the government to be a national project and will be replicated in eight provinces in Indonesia. By providing alternatives and proper incentives for the local community – through the extensive efforts of his Masarang Foundation – he has also achieved both economic and political legitimacy, and has established a model for restoring forest habitats worldwide.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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