30 Mar
  • By Tim Fijal
  • Cause in

Tim’s Giving a Dam

Over the past 8 years of working at Green School Bali, I have had the privilege to connect with and be inspired by a great many individuals who are tackling issues related to sustainability.  In October 2015, it was the Borneo Nature Foundation that came to our community of learners to screen a hastily produced documentary titled ‘The Heart of the Haze’. Their message was delivered with a tone of urgency as they informed us of the catastrophic fires that were devastating the forests of Central Kalimantan and the two-decade-long history of deforestation in the region. We were shocked by how so little was known outside Borneo about the destruction of these precious eco-systems that are so important on a global scale as some of our planet’s most massive carbon sinks. So in May 2016, our family ventured to Palangkaraya in the heart of Borneo to learn more about the issues affecting forests there and to connect with some of the people who are working in one way or another to restore or to protect them.

After touching down at the Palangkaraya airport, we went directly to a riverbank on the edges of the city and boarded a skinny shallow boat called a ‘klotok’. Buzzing past grassy reeds and narrow channels for 20 minutes in the coca-cola colored water, we arrived at the Borneo Nature Foundation research station in the Sabangau Forest.  Over the past two decades alone, about 85% of this nearly 600,000-hectare peatland forest, home to one of the last stands for Bornean Orangutans, has been lost to illegal logging and rampant fires. But we were now in the heart of what remains of a wetland eco-system, albeit depleted, but still a thriving and bio-diverse wonder.

After a brief orientation at the camp, we waded into the forest with a team of BNF researchers, sometimes sinking up to our waists in the wet loamy peat. Slowly, silently, and deliberately we moved through the dark water.  As the sweat started beading down our faces in the heavy heat of the forest, we suddenly sensed movement and heard the crackling of branches overhead. Gazing upwards in a state of awe, we experienced our first sighting of wild Bornean orangutans: ten meters above us, a mother stretching impossibly from one tree to another with her baby clinging to her neck.  We stared speechless, deeply moved at the sight of our near primate cousins in a moment frozen in time.

Making our way to a clearing, we boarded another klotok and bumped our way a couple of hundred meters up a narrow illegal canal. These waterways were dug with hand tools, some stretching more than 10 kilometers into the dense forest. For lack of better ways to earn a living for their families, Dayak locals that otherwise treasure their sacred connection to the forest, resorted to harvesting timber and floating it out to market using what has become an extensive network of canals. One of our Dayak guides was once one of those illegal loggers, but at present, he was leading us up this canal to proudly show us his new way of earning a living: as a dam-building conservationist and forest patrol for the BNF team.

We disembarked the klotok and after a few minutes of pushing our way on foot through low-lying scrub and bushes next to the canal, we encountered a simple wood and earth dam. Cool rusty-red water rushed around the dam, spilling over the banks of the canal allowing water to seep back into an otherwise tinder-dry peatland. Our guides explained how these simple dams rehydrate deep and ancient peat forest floors, protecting them from the ravages of the annual fire season. Who wins from this dam-building effort?

1) A still thriving population of critically endangered Bornean orangutans.

2) Millions in the region who would otherwise be suffering from the smoke and haze caused by peat fires.

3) Every living creature on Earth, since keeping these rich carbon sinks from burning is a mitigating action against climate change.

Something clicked for my then 14-year-old son Ben and I as we sat on the sides of the dam cooling our feet in the flowing water. We realized that rehydrating this forest with these simple wood and earth dams protects vast tracts of trees as well as the irreplaceable peat below them, up to 20 meters deep in areas and thousands of years old. And here we were with a former illegal logger turned into a conservationist, protecting forests so critical to the preservation of his indigenous Dayak roots.  The orangutan encounter still freshly etched on our minds, we realized this dam-building effort was a project we wanted to get behind!

So in 2018, we started a campaign we call “Give a Dam” through our social enterprise, TRI Upcycle.  We’re asking people to care about Indonesia’s forests and to understand why these precious peatland ecosystems matter to them no matter where they live in the world. When we partner with businesses or schools that purchase a custom-designed branded bulk order of TRI products, we work in a profit margin equal to $400US, or the cost for the Borneo Nature Foundation to build, maintain and patrol a dam in the Sabangau Forest. In this way, not only will they get some beautiful and functional products for their school or company, they learn about what it means to be a conscious consumer.  Not only that, they also take meaningful action on mitigating climate change and contribute to the preservation of biodiversity in Indonesia too!

Over the past 8 years, the BNF team has built 671 dams, 17 of those donated by TRI Upcycle. But there’s hundreds more to install on the thousands of kilometers of illegal canals that criss-cross and dehydrate the peatland forests of Central Kalimantan.  As a father and son team, there are only so many dams we can build. What meaningful role can we play in safeguarding Indonesia’s biodiversity? It is easy to feel defeated by the monstrosity of the challenges facing Indonesia’s forests and indigenous peoples whose land and livelihoods are being so rapidly encroached upon.  

But by growing our TRIbe through TRI Upcycle, we have started to realize the potential we have to bring people together to have a meaningful impact.  We are not experts in anything in particular, but we know people who are and more and more they are coming our way eager to join forces and show support.  We have realized that by using the resources that we have available to us (our hearts and minds more than anything), and by acting where we are with what we have learned, single meaningful actions can morph into larger impactful movements.

And so to keep the momentum of TRI Upcycle growing, we have realized an opportunity to open a Conservation Hub in Bali, Indonesia.  At this all-hands-on-deck juncture in the history of our species, we feel the time is ripe to create a space for education, collaboration, innovation, and conscious consumption all under one roof.  The Conservation Hub will be a place for individuals to come together to learn and share what they know about Indonesia’s forests, about biodiversity, indigenous issues, waste reduction, conscious consumption, and more.  It will be a space for uniting various social enterprises and sustainability initiatives under one co-working umbrella where a collaborative and giving spirit will be nurtured. It will also be a space for innovating products and solutions for waste reduction and a marketplace for conscious consumption too.  But most importantly, the Conservation Hub will be a place for any individual to realize that they do not need to wait to be empowered to do something about climate change or species extinction. We are each already empowered to play a role in contributing solutions to these critical issues that are shaping the future of human beings.  

If not us, then who?  If not now, then when?

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