Forest Heroes’ Journey of CAN Borneo

By: Danyun Xiong

Every year, about 10 million hectares of forests are destroyed. In Kalimantan alone, more than 6 million hectares were used for palm oil plantations within two decades, which contributed to the major cause of deforestation in Indonesia.

In the face of such an alarming speed of deforestation, protecting and restoring forests have become an urgent task. Paulinus Kristianto (Linus), a Dayak forester, decided to act by launching a project called CAN Borneo in 2017.

CAN Borneo (Conservation Action Network Borneo) is a grassroot organization in Indonesia that is committed to forest restoration and preservation, nature education, animal rescue as well as ecotourism. It is based in Merasa Village, East Kalimantan, in the hope of connecting North Kalimantan and South Kalimantan into a broader activity network, calling for greater efforts into protecting forests and thus building a greener and more resilient planet for both humankind and nature to thrive.

One essential characteristic of CAN Borneo is that it is by the local people, for the people, and of the people. It works tirelessly with local communities to raise people’s environmental awareness by incorporating agroforestry within the framework of forest restoration, educating the younger generation about the importance and richness of nature, establishing a wildlife rescue center, providing tourists with first-hand experiences of the status quo of tropical rainforests.

To learn how it starts and runs to balance economic development and environment protection, what challenges it has met and what impacts it brings to the surrounding community, I have interviewed the founder Linus to unlock the secret of this project.

Initiation: The Passage of Trials

Danyun: How did CAN Borneo come into being?

Linus: CAN Borneo is the culmination of my ten-year experience of working in the field. In NGOs like Sintang Orangutan Center, Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN), International Animal Rescue (IAR), and Center for Orangutan Protection (COP), I have carried out many experiments, which paved the way for the outset of the project. Meanwhile, attending various conferences has opened up chances for to me establish connections. I invite people to go down the field directly to immerse and engage in ecotourism activities. The first few tourists include members of the US Embassy and Consulate in Indonesia. Through this process, I came to know and worked with a group of trusted, reliable, and committed friends, who later became the mainstay of rangers in CAN.

It sounds easy and simple, but should any of these links be missing, CAN won’t be able to take shape or become successful.

Danyun: What is CAN doing right now? What are the major activities, and how are they carried out?

Linus: CAN consists of four major parts of activities: reforestation and conservation, education, ecotourism, and animal rescuing.

First, CAN seeks to increase economic and environmental productivity by agroforestry, so that forests are maintained and forest products like fruits are sold to provide alternative income to the nearby community. Currently, CAN carries out reforestation in two parts of Kalimantan. In East Kalimantan, we emphasize restoring forests and solving the human-wildlife conflict in the meantime. In West Kalimantan, we also have an additional focus on illegal mining.

Second, we have started a Nature School to educate the younger generation through experiences and experiments. Students are taken to the forest closest to the village and are encouraged to interact openly and freely in the field. CAN not only teaches about forests but also culture and arts such as English, traditional Dayak dances, and music instrument. There are 35 Nature School students. Usually, activities are scheduled 3 times a week. In 2020, CAN also established a base camp to carry out volunteering, educational and cultural activities.

Third, ecotourism helps maintain the integrity and authenticity of natural ecosystems and in providing an alternative income for the community. Each year, 300 tourists are visiting Meresa Village. Things developed and covered in ecotourism include food, boat, guide, homestay, forest tracks, watching orangutan feeding, bonfire, traditional Dayak dance, music, and visiting Dayak tombs. Due to the devastating impact of COVID-19, ecotourism came to a halt for the moment.

Last but not the least, partnering with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, a Wildlife Rescue Center (WRC) is under construction to rescue endangered wildlife such as orangutans, hornbills, sun bears. There are now 600 orangutans in the wild and CAN hopes to build a new home for them before they can return to their habitat. In the meantime, domesticated animals like dogs and cats are within our scope of help. As the heavy floods hit Borneo in January 2021, CAN has rescued more than 100 cats in the flooding South Kalimantan.

Impacts: The Boon

Danyun: What impacts (both good and bad) did this project make, at an individual and local level? Have villagers changed and how has the village, including its surrounding environment is influenced? If yes, in what way?

Linus: In the beginning, there were only 3 volunteering villagers who joined us, and now we have grown into an organized team of 10 people to do agroforestry and carry out ecotourism activities- some of them used to be illegal mining workers and hunters. They have witnessed the changes in this village- infrastructure such as road has improved, more tourists have visited, Dayak culture is valued, fruits are sold, and so on. They also come to realize that they don’t have to work for palm oil plantations or illegal mining companies to make a living. At the local level, we have acquired 20 hectares of forests and planned to plant 100,000 seeds and to inspire villagers to perform agroforestry and restoration.

To some people, I’m bad, because campaigning for forest protection and rescuing animals is of long-term action, as opposed to the short-term benefits that those companies promise.

Danyun: What is CAN’s vision?

Linus: Environment protection is not about how many animals we have saved, or how many acres of forests we have protected, but about how many people truly care for the environment. Our short-term goal is to open up an area to educate people about nature and animals. Our long-term goal is to get more people, both villagers and others, involved in this cause. I dream that one day we don’t have to protect wildlife and forests because it will no longer necessary to do it.

Reflections: The Magic Words

Danyun: What are the challenges that you have met and how do you address them?

Linus: To me, saving orangutans and protecting forests is easy, because I have fun doing them. The difficulty lies in changing people’s minds. I want to figure out an effective way other than doing presentations to educate people. Education sounds simple, but in fact, it is hard. Therefore, I invite people to go to the field and show them in reality both the good and bad situations of the forests, to invoke thinking and changes in others. I choose this way not because it’s easy, but it’s hard.

Danyun: How do you perceive the relationship between environment and development?

Linus: It is not a question of “either” and “or”, but of “both” and “and”. To make a green world, the environment and development should go hand in hand. They must be balanced, rather than developing the economy at the cost of environmental degradation. Some adverse environmental impacts are irreversible, such as Indonesia’s forest that killed 100,000 people in 2015, and we don’t want it to happen again before it is too late.

Danyun: What lessons and experiences have you gained from this project?

Linus: What I can do is little, but a small group of thoughtful, committed people can do many more things and change the world. CAN is still young, and we hope to do something different and make more good things happen.

Danyun: Do you have anything else to share?

Linus: When the forest fire comes, don’t take it for another accident, but to think why it would happen; When animals are rescued, don’t think that rescuers are heroes, but to consider why animals would suffer from this fate;

It is because of people and their deeds that cause such results.

It’s because people’s minds have not changed.

Eventually, reforestation and animal protection are about how many people care about them.

The End: A Call to All

Environmental issues are often complicated because natural resources are key drivers of economic growth in developing countries, which yet, in turn, threatens the environment that human beings and wildlife live. Human activities, whether for economic growth or social needs would impact the natural environment to some extent. As it takes thousands of years for natural resources to form their vitality, these resources must be sustainably used to maintain environmental quality. To achieve the aim of sustainable development, stakeholders in different areas, such as NGOs, commercial companies, governments, local communities, individuals, etc., must work together to adopt a comprehensive, balanced, ambitious, and implementable framework of action and building a harmonious world in the earth.

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