Rainforest's Rebirth

Heat rises from the wet ground and pulses down through black shade cloth. I can feel thermal energy surrounding me in waves. Welcome to the tropics.

Meranti saplings.

I am standing in ASRI’s lokasi reboisasi, the reforestation nursery. Black plastic pouches, known as polybags, stand in rows like toy soldiers. Each is filled with a measure of native loam, scooped from the forest floor, and a single sapling. The soil here is fine-grained, rolling into a ball between my fingers like playdough. It’s not ideal for plants because it holds water like a sponge and, when dry, forms a rock-hard barrier to roots, but it’s what these trees evolved for, so it’s what they grow in. After all, this nursery is not preparing saplings for an easy, domestic life in a garden. These saplings have a destiny: they will become the rainforest.

Native loam rolls into a ball like playdough.

We arrived to the Laman Satong nursery after an hour of swerving around potholes and bumping over stones in the dirt road. I’m here with three capable guides. Ihsan is ASRI’s Reforestation Coordinator. Juliansyah is the Nursery Manager. And Dika is the new Director of Conservation Programs. He’s in the process of defending a PhD in tree population genetics from Copenhagen University, and he arrived at ASRI one day before I did.

Ihsan tends his flock.

Dika scrutinizes the baby trees.

Here at the nursery, we are standing on a plot of ground donated free-of-charge by the Catholic Church. The surrounding land was forested until the year 2000, when private timber companies cut the trees and left grassland. Usually, timber leases are meant to follow a 35-year rotation, in which the first plots to be cut will have regrown with native trees in time for the next round of logging. Unfortunately, Dika explains to me, these rotation requirements are often violated. The company will simply log the entire lease at once, sell the timber, and abandon the land, which is then sold into palm-oil plantations. That’s what happened to most of the private land around the nursery.

ASRI's Laman Satong reforestation nursery.

Yayasan means "Foundation." Alam Sehat Lestari translates to "Sustainable Healthy Nature."

Alam Sehat Lestari is abbreviated as "ASRI," itself an Indonesian word expressing the fresh, green beauty of flourishing nature.

Then, lacking a source of legal timber, loggers were compelled to illegally move their activities inside the boundaries of Gunung Palung National Park. Across the road, I can see the degraded margin of the park. That’s the area ASRI aims to restore.

This widening road is the border of Gunung Palung National Park.

On the private-land side, three men build a house next to a small rubber plantation.

First, Ihsan shows us around the nursery. Some of the saplings were provided by patients as payment for their medical or dental care. This noncash payment system is a cornerstone of ASRI’s commitment to providing affordable healthcare.

This list, posted at the cashier's desk, displays the cash value of each species of rainforest-tree sapling when provided as payment for medical services. Notice the top two, belian (ironwood) and meranti, both pictured below.

The rest of the saplings were collected, with permission, from intact areas of the National Park where a natural seedbank still exists. The collection puts only a minor strain on the forest’s regeneration ability, because the vast majority of saplings never survive to adulthood. Competition for sunlight and attacks by herbivores and disease would weed out most of these baby trees if they were left in the forest, whereas the relative safety of the nursery allows almost all to survive. Someday, the team might switch to gathering seeds instead of saplings to further reduce impact on the forest and stress of transplantation, but coaxing seeds to germinate is not easy. For now, the nursery staff lets the forest give birth to saplings. Learning how to germinate tropical hardwood seeds will be a task for another day.

Ihsan shows off a belian (ironwood) sapling.

From above, the nursery almost looks like a forest floor.

Dika plucks a leaf from one of the robust display trees. “See that line of pores along the central vein?” he asks, pointing tenderly to the leaf’s underside. “That tells us the species, Shorea leprosula. This genus is a big complex and you need to look closely to tell them apart.” What Dika calls Shorea leprosula, everyone here knows as meranti. The nursery is also home to uba, a hardwood timber favorite, and belian, the famous ironwood. Then there are the fruit trees: sweet cempadak, gas-leaky durian, bitter jenkol and patai.

Dika points out pores on the underside of a meranti leaf.

I weigh a heavy belian (ironwood) seed in my hand.

Ihsan tells me the saplings don’t struggle against many diseases, but ants have a habit of making their nests in the polybags and occasionally stripping young leaves. Because they’re transplanted right before the rainy season, the saplings don’t require watering. The hardest part of running the nursery is, Ihsan tells me without hesitation, “Weeding!” A stiff grass erupts from any patch of soil left untended, smothering the slow-growing trees. “When the tree is taller than the weeds, then it is safe,” Ihsan explains. I imagine that day comes as a relief for the nursery manager, like the feeling a nervous parent gets while watching her child walk across the stage at high-school graduation. The journey isn’t over, but at least the aggressive grass has been outgrown.

Moss coats a logged stump in the reforestation plot.

ASRI has reforested 22.5 hectares so far at this site. I ask Ihsan how many hectares he’s aiming for. He looks puzzled. “Our goal?” he asks. “There are many open areas. Our goal is to plant them all.”

Black shade-cloth protects the tender saplings from direct sunlight.

My straw hat bumps against the shade-cloth roof as I stand from the sprout I've been examining. I may be average height in America, but here, I’m just a bit too tall. We walk out to the parking lot, where water vapor is steaming from puddles. A turquoise butterfly slowly folds its pointed wings with black, scalloped edges like a pair of 1950s cat-eye glasses. A small orange butterfly shows off bauble-tipped antennae, like a Martian, and a pale yellow one rests on a sapling. It’s time to explore the new forest.

The purple blossoms of cengkodok (Melastoma sp.) reminded me of Washington's native azaleas.

A tengkawan planted in 2015. This tree can bring $5,000 per cubic meter of timber.

Within five minutes, a cloud of mosquitoes has descended. They seem to ignore Ihsan and Juliansyah, but Dika and I are going crazy. We roll down our sleeves and spray on deet. We're passing through a semi-wild orchard of jackfruit and durian when an enormous stump confronts us. Two chainsaw slices indicate how this rainforest giant, a thousand-year-old ironwood, met its death. “Normally this tree can put out new sprouts from the stump,” Dika explains. “It’s very resilient.” He runs his fingers over the blackened bark. “But not this time. It was burned for charcoal, so it died all the way down.”

A thousand-year-old belian (ironwood) stump.

A chainsaw delivered the first blow; fire finished it off.

A lanky, teenage belian (ironwood) sprouts from a stump that was cut but not burned.

The first saplings were transplanted here in 2009, and more are being added every year. The forest is a teenager now. It still sports those awkward sunny patches of grass and lingering invaders, like guava and acacia, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Dika models Bellucia pentamera, an invasive weed with wide, sun-gobbling leaves.

Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) hangs from a transplanted fruit tree.

For an eerie instant, this log makes me feel like I am home in the Hoh Rainforest of Washington State.

Ihsan places his hand on the flaky, reddish bark of an acacia. “You’re probably wondering how this big tree got here,” he tells me, giving me more credit for my observations than I deserve. “It’s not old, just fast growing. An acacia from Australia. Non-native. But we won’t cut it down. We let these trees provide shade for the saplings, and they’ll die within forty years. Fast to grow, fast to die. But the native trees will live for a thousand years or more.” This long-view logic makes sense to me. Why cut a tree when you could let time do the work for you?

Two fast-growing acacias, introduced from Australia.

Back at the nursery, I open my lunch: rice, chicken liver, and eggplant curry folded into a cone of waxy brown paper.

We packed our lunches at a warung (cafe) this morning. 

Juliansyah points to a mural of black squares labeled with indecipherable numbers and X’s. It’s a map, he explains. Each square is a reforestation plot, twenty meters on a side. The X’s are controls, left to their own devices with no saplings added. Through careful monitoring, ASRI is finding an answer to the question on my mind: does all this effort – collecting saplings, tending the nursery – make the forest come back faster than it would if mother nature were left to her own devices? Does reforestation make a difference?

Juliansyah explains the number-and-X map.

Before I lose my chance, I ask Ihsan about the boxes labeled X. “The control plots?” he asks. “They’re sunny and grassy. Just ferns.”

Ferns and sunshine dominate a control plot.

Today, at least, I have learned that nine years of dirt under the fingernails makes the difference between a cool, moist canopy of teenage forest and a sunny meadow. For orangutans, hornbills, and all the rainforest organisms of Borneo, that’s a difference worth noticing.

Ihsan walks beneath the canopy of a rainforest reborn.