Willie Smits: Visions of sugar palms dance in his head
By Tarko Sudiarno , THE JAKARTA POST ,Saturday, 28 March 2009 00:00
Twenty-eight years ago, when proposing to his girlfriend – of royal blood – in Tomohon, North Sulawesi, Willie Smits was surprised by the dowry: six sugar palms.
At that time, a mature sugar palm that was ready to sap cost about as much as a chicken. Nevertheless, the people of Tomohon wanted sugar palms – or pohon aren – instead of gold as the dowry.
“I wondered why it was that cheap,” Smits says.
Now Smits, 51, knows the answer. Indeed, he is an expert on the subject, having completed a doctorate in tropical forests in the Netherlands and studied sugar palms for years. His expertise even earned him the prestigious Satya Lencana award from the government when he was an adviser at the Forestry Ministry.
“It’s a magic tree,” he says of the sugar palm. “From the roots to the leaves, every bit is beneficial for people. Those who eat palm sugar will live longer than those who use cane sugar.”
During his years of research in North Sulawesi and other places in Indonesia where sugar palms grow, he has learned that people are not making the most of the tree and its properties.
In North Sulawesi’s capital, Manado, people sap the trees only to make their traditional alcoholic drink. People in other places sap the trees to make palm sugar or cut them down for the sago. But the tree offers more. For one, nira, the white sap obtained, can be processed into ethanol.
“My research shows no tree can produce alternative fuel as well as palm trees,” Smits said.
“Sugar palms can also help the environment. They are effective in preventing landslides, even on really steep land.”
The high-quality fibers from sugar palms are also widely used; Smits exports them to Europe, where they are among the materials used in the bodies of luxury cars: Good result and environmentally friendly, Smits points out.
Smits, an Indonesian citizen, has opened a brown sugar factory in Tomohon, which uses as fuel leftovers from the state energy company Pertamina’s geothermal gas production. Everyday, about 6,200 farmers product nira for the factory, which is managed by the Masarang Foundation.
Smits says his “productive, environmentally friendly factory” could become a model for other places in the country. “There are no less than eight provinces that have abundant sugar palms but they have not done much with them,” he said.
He believes that if Indonesia made the most of its sugar palms, then in two years there would be no need to import sugar any more.
“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.”
Despite his sugar palm crusade, Smits is generally better known in Indonesia for his work with orangutans, having devoted more than 20 years to helping save the endangered animal, including establishing orangutan rehabilitation centers in East and Central Kalimantan.
The center has returned hundreds of orangutans to their natural habitat, including to the 233-hectare manmade Samboja Lestari forest in Balikpapan, which is now home to at least 233 orangutans and 52 honey bears.
Smits, who grew up on a farm in the Netherlands, has been “close to animals since I was very young”. Once, when he was just 18 months old, he disappeared. His parents looked for him for hours before they found him sleeping under the watchful eye of the fiercest dog in the area.
Once in Indonesia, his love for animals grew stronger. He founded Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) and several Animal Rescue Centers across the country.
But protecting endangered animals turned out to be dangerous work, with illegal traders and even some government officials trying to stop him. He and his wife, Syennie Watoelangkow, who is now Tomohon deputy mayor, even received death threats.
“Once, when my wife was on the road, she was threatened that her whole family would be killed if she could not stop my activities,” he said.
“I often feel sad…It is as if I see that in the future they will suffer because of what I have done… It seems that I am required to live better than an angel.”