Masarang Foundation, founder
The Amazing Power
of Sugar Palms
A trained forester, conservationist and animal rights activist, Willie has lived and worked in Indonesia for almost 30 years. His lifelong goal is to save the global environment for future generations by providing real life examples of living harmoniously in balance with nature.
Willie Smits, a trained forester, conservationist and animal rights activist, has lived and worked in Indonesia for almost 30 years.
Smits was a former personal advisor to the Indonesian Minister of Forestry and team leader of the tropical forestry research project “Tropenbos”. He founded both the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and the Masarang Foundation and was the director of the Schmutzer Primate Centre and the Gibbon Foundation.
Smits' lifelong goal is to save the global environment for future generations by providing real life examples of living harmoniously in balance with nature. He also believes that we cannot save the environment if we do not simultaneously take care of the people's needs.
Smits has opened a brown sugar factory in Tomohon, which uses leftovers from geothermal gas production as fuel. Everyday, about 6,200 farmers produce nira—the white sap obtained from the sugar palm, a tree that is also effective in preventing landslides—for the factory, which is managed by the Masarang Foundation.
Smits believes that his “productive, environmentally friendly factory” could become a model for other regions in Indonesia. “There are no less than eight provinces that have abundant sugar palms, but they have not done much with them,” he says. He believes that if Indonesia made the most of its sugar palms, the need to import sugar would disappear in two years. “In Tomohon, a farmer who has three sugar palms in his field can earn at least Rp 70,000 (US$6) a day by working less than two hours sapping the trees.”
Smits is also known in Indonesia for his work with orangutans, having devoted more than 20 years to helping to save the endangered species despite receiving numerous threats from illegal traders and even government officials. His efforts include founding Borneo Orangutan Survival, establishing animal rescue centres across the country and setting up orangutan rehabilitation centres in East and Central Kalimantan.
We cannot save the environment if we do not simultaneously take care of the people's needs.
The rehabilitation centre has returned hundreds of orangutans to their natural habitat thus far, replenishing the 233–hectare man-made Samboja Lestari forest in Balikpapan, which is now home to at least 233 orangutans and 52 honey bears.
Published in five languages and proficient in many more, Smits is in popular demand as a speaker at events and universities around the world. He has been guest lecturer at more than 25 universities, including the prestigious Harvard and Cambridge universities, and a speaker at the annual TED Technology, Entertainment and Design conference in California.
Smits has been knighted in the Netherlands and received an Ashoka Fellowship in 2009. Ashoka Fellows are leading social entrepreneurs who are recognised to have innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society. His expertise in tropical forests and sugar palms has also earned him the prestigious Satya Lencana award.
Willie and his wife Syennie, with whom he has three sons, live in the tropical mountain village of Tomohon, Indonesia, where Syennie serves as vice mayor and was chosen as tribal queen. A motion picture about Smits' life is currently in production.