Emails from Borneo
By: Deepa Agashe, Recent Volunteer.
Too often and in various ways, our species has trampled over other life forms, perhaps forgetting that we are all intimately connected. I do not use “connected” in a hippie-holistic way – I say “linked” in the scientific sense, with a long legacy of previous research supporting my choice of word.
We are all pieces in the intricate ensembles that are ecosystems, and none of us are mere decorative elements. Each species has evolved through millions of years of dynamic coexistence; in this melee, our pasts and our futures arise from each other. As we mend the cracks in our present, we need to weave this interdependence into our solutions. If not for poetry and justice – if only for the sake of our children’s desire to live.
By the end of 2011, I had lived in the US for more than seven years for my PhD and subsequent research. I was preparing to move back to India, where I would head a lab at a fabulous research institute in Bangalore. Things were looking great! But I needed a break from academics first, and I had this very strong sense that I must lay down the foundations for something different before I started my new position in India. After a few years of scientific tinkering to whet my curiosity, I was finally ready to start working towards a goal where my science would have direct application. Eventually, I wanted to begin a research program that would help to preserve our natural habitats. But I didn’t know where to start, because I had no real training or experience in this field. Rather than wander around aimlessly on vacation, I wanted to observe and contribute to an organization that started with the premise that the fates of forests and people are intertwined. Over the years, as I’d thought about vanishing forests it had become clear to me that that was the only way forward.
I first heard about ASRI from a friend who had worked in Malaysian Borneo earlier. Reading about ASRI’s work on its website, I was intrigued by the idea that cementing the connection between the health of people and of forests could be a way to insure the future of both.
I was hesitant at first about approaching ASRI- how could I possibly convince them that a laboratory ecologist and evolutionary biologist would be worth inviting? A single medically trained volunteer could save tens if not hundreds of lives in a few weeks; my skills didn’t even speak in lives. I spoke the language of experiments and statistics, and the probabilities I could promise would come to fruition too far ahead in the future to see.
Luckily the ASRI conservation team had gathered a ridiculous amount of data from their reforestation plots since 2009. These data needed to be analyzed so they could make informed decisions about how to proceed. Here was a task where I could contribute! I would still be pretty useless for people’s direct health needs, but I could at least help give direction to the efforts for the forest’s health. I was of course, also ecstatic at the chance to see Bornean forests- one of those fabled places where one could be tripping over fifty species on a little morning walk.
All is not rosy with the forests of course, which is why ASRI and a few other NGOs are hard at work in this area. There is a long history of intense logging and pressure from various sources that has been pushing the forests into ever-smaller fragments. What remains is fragile, wont to disappear silently into the early dawn. Hopefully the people who live around the national parks can persuade themselves and the government that the trees are their irreplaceable treasure. If not, the day the last ancient Dipterocarp is chopped down is not far away.
I volunteered with ASRI in Sukadana, West Kalimantan, for six weeks. I organized the existing data into a database, and then did some analyses to figure out which treatments (e.g. cardboard mulch, fertilizer, weeding) best increased seedling survival and growth. These seedlings were painstakingly collected, planted and tended by the conservation team and local villagers. Ten years from now, I hope that these few hectares of seedlings will be a beautiful patch of trees nestling against the original forest.
The ASRI team is an unbelievable collection of warm and dedicated people from across Indonesia and abroad. I lived in the “Girls’ House” with four Indonesian women working at ASRI; with them I shared many interesting conversations at work and home, a dance party or two, plenty of good food, and more. I was also lucky that my time there was filled with many volunteer US doctors who were wonderful people.
My memories from Sukadana are so vivid and so numerous – which ones shall I share with you here? Watching hundreds of flying foxes against a round moon in a dusk-blue sky? The sounds of huge cicadas in the Girls’ House vehemently bashing into our tin roof in a mad rush to get out? Gorging on more than a dozen different tropical fruits, and discovering completely new taste dimensions? Or witnessing the most spectacular tropical thunderstorms – massive productions with full sound and lights, followed by a frog chorus?
Beside these beautiful images also stand those of devastated forests, enormous chopped tree trunks; the unapologetic waste left behind after logging; the daily sounds of chainsaws in nearby hills. Surely the proper setting for a grand tropical storm is not a valley decimated for oil palms?
Borneo was a unique experience, with so much beauty and so much devastation mixed together. Although watching the forests disappear is enough to numb one’s heart, it was heartening to see hundreds of children planting trees for ASRI’s Green Day event, and know that ASRI team members begin work each morning determined to make a difference.