The reforestation of areas near Gunung Palung National Park is one of ASRI’s main conservation projects. Due to a variety of extractive uses – including logging, conversion to industrial oil palm plantations, and other forms of intensive agriculture – large swaths of primary forest are now little more than stumps, grasses, and other fast-growing species, many of them invasive. These deforested areas offer little in the way of viable habitat, and are mostly ineffective at providing future ecosystem services for the surrounding communities.
ASRI’s reforestation efforts have, over the past five years, centered largely around one site: Laman Satong. Located about an hour’s (typically harrowing) drive from Sukadana, Laman Satong is a 50-acre beacon of hope in a region known for insidious deforestation.
Reforestation at Laman Satong is equal parts labor, love, and data. Rather than dispersing seedlings at random and hoping for the best, specific varieties are planted at carefully measured intervals and regularly measured. Growth data is especially helpful in deciding which trees to plant each year, and provides quantitative evidence of the work to donors and granting organizations.
It’s no surprise, then, that a recent fire at Laman Satong has been a devastating loss felt by all involved. Likely spawned by a cigarette tossed from a car window or motorbike, the fire spread rapidly and burned nearly the entire reforestation site.
We visited the burned forest recently to survey the damage and identify next steps. Although disheartened, the reforestation team is already at work cutting a bigger fire break, collecting dead leaves from the tallest trees to see which grew tallest, and preparing seedlings for planting as soon as possible.
Felled trees crumble underfoot, releasing little puffs of ashy dust as we wind through crooked burned foliage and blackened soil. It’s already hot, but the blackened soil and absence of a canopy amplify the equatorial sun. Brittle branches snap as we push them aside. Once-healthy seedlings, now little more than skinny stumps, crunch into bits like the crumbs at the bottom of a bag of chips. Papery brown leaves, once pliant and shiny, crackle like old parchment.
When we emerge, we’re covered in soot and ash and dust, the fire detritus plastered to our clothes and skin with a layer of sweat. Etty, who runs ASRI’s conservation education programs, adds that she’ll no longer host field trips at Laman Satong.
Once an exemplary prototype of strategic reforestation and a fun-filled field trip for fourth- and fifth-graders, the site is now a depressing reminder of the many threats such initiatives face. Bleached carcasses of land snails and giant centipedes, PVC pipes melted like marshmallows held over a campfire, and rough charred terrain don’t exactly paint a picture of hope for the next generation!
A community meeting held last week confirmed that, while disappointed and in a sort of mourning, the stakeholders vested in the reforestation site want to continue their efforts. Some ASRI staff members liken the fire to losing five years of work when your computer crashes. In either case, there’s little more you can do than practice resilience, and start from scratch.