Author: Steve Zwick
24 July 2014 | Todd Lemons hadn’t grappled since his days on the collegiate squad at Sewanee: The University of the South, but he knew the playful look of an athlete ready to wrestle, and these orangutans had that look in spades.
They were all adolescents, and he encountered them in the forest behind Orangutan Foundation International’s (OFI) orphanage in Pangkalan Bun, on the island of Borneo. All of them had witnessed the murder of one or both of their parents, and all of them owed their lives to the woman he’d come here to meet: OFI founder Birute Galdikas.
But now they wanted to play, so Lemons crouched to engage them. One reached out to test him, and Lemons reached out as well. Soon he found himself, at the age of 40, engulfed in a gaggle of rowdy red apes, all rolling and wrestling and – yes – laughing.
“It was at once the most amazing experience of my life and one of the most heart-wrenching,” he says. “Amazing because they’re better than us in many ways: They’re generous and intelligent, but they’re also naïve, and they have an amazing sense of humor.” Heart-wrenching, he adds, because they don’t belong in an orphanage.
Lemons had shown up on Galdikas’s doorstep unannounced just hours earlier, after flying in from Hong Kong on a hunch. That first spontaneous encounter with orangutans in the forest behind the care center provided what Lemons calls “an early point-of-no-return” – his first emotional engagement with the orangs of the hutan – the “people of the forest” in the languages of both Indonesia and Malaysia. It also provided Galdikas with an opportunity to learn a bit about this hyperactive businessman from Hong Kong who’d called her with a crazy plan to save the forest.
“I realized then that Todd loves the orangutans,” says Galdikas. “He still gets down and wrestles with them and rolls around like they do – it’s the most wonderful thing.”
Lemons would return to the care center scores of times in the coming years – sometimes alone, and sometimes with his Indonesian partner, Rusmin Widjajam, or with his American partner, Jim Procanik. Often they’d come for business, but as their effort to save the forest grew into an epic David and Goliath struggle that cost Lemons his savings, they’d come more and more to remind themselves what was at stake.
“In my darkest hours throughout our epic five-year battle, I went back to the care center many times to strengthen my resolve,” says Lemons.
Muddling Through It
Impressed by the way Lemons connected with the orangutans, Galdikas asked him to accompany her on a boat ride to Camp Leakey, the rescue facility she built in the early 1970s with the support of her mentor, primatologist Louis Leakey. Lemons soon found himself teetering along underwater balance beams that served as a sort of jungle boardwalk in the dry season – which this wasn’t.
“I was surprised at the grace with which Birute navigated the slippery, unseen boards knee-deep,” he says. “I kept slipping off and spent half my time up to my chest in swamp water.” It was, he says, a visceral re-connection with the elements he’d always sought as a child but only found intermittently as an adult.
“I got my start in the Amazon, but I’d spent the past five years of my life manufacturing widgets in China,” he says. “Now I was back in the forest with a meaningful purpose, with wild-born orangutans, and with a world-renowned scientist who had made the cover of National Geographic twice.”
It was, he thought, a life his grandfather would approve of.
How the World Works
He and Galdikas spent the evening at Camp Leaky under a solitary solar-powered light bulb – in a setting that Lemons describes as “epic”.
“Up to then, I had looked at this from an academic and economic viewpoint,” he says. “Now, it was taking on profound philosophical tones. I began to feel like I could really make a difference in the world that my kids would inherit.”
Galdikas, however, still wasn’t sold. She’d hosted more than her share of wide-eyed idealists and overconfident businessmen over the years, and very few of them ended up doing anything of value for the orangutans. With the Seruyan Forest disappearing just over the horizon, she needed someone who not only wanted to make a difference but had the smarts to get it done and the fortitude to see it through.
“I could feel Todd’s sincerity, but I still thought he was naïve,” says Galdikas. “Nobody who’s not a native-born person will ever understand a new country completely.”
Lemons begs to differ. In his mind, Galdikas is more Indonesian than anything, even though she grew up in Canada. “She sometimes calls me ‘Mr. Todd’ – the way Indonesians call someone ‘Pak’ so-and-so,” he says. “She loves this country the way certain immigrants to the United States love their adopted home.”
She lectured Lemons on the value that Indonesians place on politeness, hierarchy and rules; and she warned him that the brashness that gets you to the top in California would come across as oafish on Kalimantan, the Indonesian word for Borneo. Lemons told Galdikas about his career in forestry, and how he’d navigated the cultures of Latin America and China. He said he was tired of the rat-race and was looking forward to working with conservationists and other civilized folk. Her response took him aback.
“She read me the riot act,” says Lemons. “She told me that compared to doing business in China, doing conservation in Indonesia was a snake pit.”
Galdikas told him not to idealize the world of conservation. “There are some wonderful people in this field – some of the best I’ve ever met,” she says. “But I told him that when you start dealing with some of the big conservation groups, the fundraising tail is wagging the conservation dog.”
What’s more, she added, those dogs only see one pie of funding. “They’re all fighting over that pie behind the scenes,” she says.
Lemons countered that REDD would change all that because it would make the pie bigger.
A New Conservation Paradigm
REDD, he said, was part of a whole new economic paradigm built on the premise that our economy depends on our ecology, and that good land stewardship delivers a higher economic value than palm oil does. While some blamed market mechanisms for all the world’s ills, Lemons saw markets as a powerful but amoral tool that sometimes needed direction. REDD, he said, directed the power of the market into conservation.
“I loved what he was saying, but I wasn’t convinced it would work,” she says. “I knew there’d be opposition from people who don’t like markets, and so did he, but I also knew that a lot of the traditional conservationists would see him as treading on their turf.” As an anthropologist, she told Lemons, she’d learned a few things about turf wars, and she warned him it wouldn’t be pretty.
“It was an amazing lecture, about NGO culture and business culture and about Indonesian culture and North American culture,” says Lemons. “She was married to a Dyak chief, and as an anthropologist who straddles two cultures, she really understands the cosmology of the Indonesian people and how that cultural and historical worldview shapes the way they behave.”
As a Canadian, she also understood where Lemons was coming from, and she pointed out how his own cultural and historical worldview conditioned him to seek consistency, while Javanese cosmology embraced paradox.
“She gave me amazing advice early on that I didn’t even understand at the time,” he says. “But it rang clear and true as I found myself immersed in a very complex and foreign culture.”
Still, it was the ideological differences between the business world and the nonprofit world that he found most challenging – differences that he says he should have seen by the way REDD had evolved.
Chasms and Camaraderie
Long before there was REDD and its efforts to pay for the protection of trees based on their carbon content, there was the timber trade, which paid for forests based on their “merchantable” wood content. In order to pay for that merchantable wood, they had to measure it, and they became incredibly adept at doing so. After all, millions of dollars were at stake on every transaction, and they wanted to get it right. Lemons came from that world, and when he heard of REDD, he assumed the powers-that-be would just adopt the calculus of timber to save the forest rather than destroy it. He was wrong.
Galdikas, meanwhile, was beginning to think Lemons might actually be able to get the job done – not because of anything he said, but because of something he did.
“As we sat around barefoot on the floor with the Camp Leakey staff, Todd immediately picked up on the cultural taboo of exposing the bottom of ones feet to the other guests,” says Galdikas. “Also, they have a custom that when somebody in the group gets up, they kind of hunch over so as not to tower over the other guests.”
Like the ubiquitous Western handshake, the Indonesian hunch is a modern custom with traditional roots: the Dyaks of Indonesia always kept their heads lower than that of the king’s, and today it’s just good manners. Galdikas says that Lemons picked up on that right away, too. “That’s when I realized he might have a chance at navigating the complexities of Indonesian society,” she says.
But Lemons had questions of his own.
The Peat Bog Wild Card
His questions weren’t about Galdikas – after all, she was a public figure, and he’d researched her thoroughly – but he’d been spooked by those scraggly trees that dominated the landscape. “I came from a forestry background, and I knew those trees didn’t hold enough carbon to cover the cost of measuring them,” he says.
He had a list of criteria that would have to be met if this thing was going to work commercially: the forest would have to be in danger (check). It would have to be home to an endangered species (check). It would have to contain massive amounts of carbon (question mark).
Lemons knew that Kalimantan’s carbon was locked in peat bogs, because those bogs made headlines around the world when the El Niño draught lit them up in 1997 and 2003. On satellite images, those bogs looked like smoke bombs, and scientists estimated they pumped 200 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere in 1997 alone. That translates into 734 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in the air, or the equivalent of 180 million extra cars on the road.
“I know there are peat forests on Kalimantan,” Lemons told Galdikas. “But where are they?”
“We’ve been knee-deep in one all day,” she laughed. “Well, I’ve been knee-deep; you’ve been neck-deep – but it’s the same forest, just on the other side of the park.”
And that, says Lemons, is when it all finally fell into place. “Somehow, I had stumbled into a peat swamp forest that provided a critical buffer zone to a national park, home to one of maybe four remaining forests with high-density relic populations of wild orangutans,” he says. “My potential partner was a conservation rock star, and if there was ever a forest that met the definition of being under ‘imminent threat’, this was it.”
This forest, he told her, had environmental value, and REDD made it possible to convert that to economic value. Economically, he said, it wasn’t worth more alive than dead, but it was worth enough alive that they could use REDD to save it.
“We’ve been trying to save the Seruyan for seven years, and I’m out of options,” she said. “They’ve given it to palm oil, and in five years, it will be gone. If the entire eastern border goes to palm oil, they’ll deforest half the national park. They’ve already illegally deforested 2,000 hectares of the northern quadrant.”
“OK,” she said. “Let’s do it. If you can save this forest, you’ll make a believer out of me.”