Wrestling With Orangutans: The Genesis Of The Rimba-Raya REDD Project

Steve Zwick

In 2007, businessman Todd Lemons had a hunch that anthropologist Birute Galdikas could help him rewrite the rules of conservation finance and save the Seruyan Forest. He followed that hunch to Borneo, where the two embarked on a five-year ordeal that would take them from the swamps of Kalimantan to the pinnacles of Indonesian society.

This article is the fourth in a series. You can also view the previous installment here.


24 July 2014 | As a former collegiate wrestler,  Todd Lemons knew the look of an eager athlete ready to grapple, and  these orangutans had that look in spades.

He encountered them in the forest behind Orangutan Foundation International‘s (OFI) orphanage in Pangkalan Bun, on the island of Borneo. All were  adolescents who had witnessed the murder of one or both of their parents, and all of them owed their lives to the woman escorting him: OFI founder Birute Galdikas.

Instinctively, Lemons crouched to engage the first one to step forward. They waddled around in circles, each looking for an opening in the other’s defense. Finally, the orangutan lunged; Lemons intercepted; others loped into the fray. Soon, at the age of 40, Lemons was engulfed in a gaggle of rowdy red apes, all of them 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 naí¯ve, and they have an amazing sense of humor.” Heart-wrenching, he adds, because they don’t belong in an orphanage.

 Todd Lemons and an orphaned infant

Todd Lemons and an orphaned infant.

Emotional Engagement

Lemons had flown from Hong Kong to Borneo just hours earlier, and that first spontaneous encounter with orangutans provided what he 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 who’d called her just a week earlier with a crazy plan to save the forest and had now shown up on her doorstep unannounced.

“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 orphanage 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 just as often they’d come for respite from the David and Goliath struggle they found themselves enmeshed in as they struggled to save the forest.

“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”.

 The Trimates: Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Birute Galdikas..

The Trimates: Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Birute Galdikas.

“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 both 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 naí¯ve,” 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.”

 BirutÄ— Galdikas, Siswei, and Todd Lemons share a rambutan lunch.

BirutÄ— Galdikas, Siswei, and Todd Lemons share a rambutan lunch.

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 Nií±o 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.”

She paused.

“OK,” she said. “Let’s do it. If you can save this forest, you’ll make a believer out of me.”

Next Installment: Birute visits the Minister of Forestry while Todd dives into the calculus of REDD.


Steve Zwick is Managing Editor of Ecosystem Marketplace. He can be reached at [email protected].

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About This Series

We all use palm oil every day, and nearly half the world’s supply comes from Indonesia – with devastating results for the country’s forests and the global climate. Fixing it is no easy matter, and in Palm Oil vs The Peatland Forest, we examine efforts underway to shift palm oil development from forests to degraded land – an act that requires nothing short of a complete restructuring of Indonesia’s rural economy. We begin by speaking with Heru Prasetyo, the man charged with overseeing this massive land-swap. Then we go small – and follow one conservation project in Borneo as it struggles to get off the ground, which brings us into the highest levels of Indonesian government and the challenges of creating sustainable supply chains in the face of global demand.

Part One:
Can This Indonesian Official Execute The Largest Voluntary Land-Swap In History? We speak with Heru Prasetyo, the man charged with developing a national regulatory regime for Reducing greenhouse gas Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, plus other changes in land-use (REDD+).

Part Two: The Primatologist And The Entrepreneur We learn how palm oil development threatens Borneo’s Seruyan Forest, and we meet the primatologist and the entrepreneur intent on saving it.

Part Three: Todd Lemons: Ecosystem Entrepreneur We meet Todd Lemons and learn how he became acquainted with forest carbon — learning in the process a bit about forest carbon ourselves.

Part Four: Wrestling With Orangutans: The Genesis Of The Rimba-Raya REDD Project We listen in on the first face-to-face meeting between Birute Galdikas and Todd Lemons, and learn what drove them to form their historic partnership.

Part Five: Rimba Raya Takes Shape We follow Birute Galdikas as she navigates Indonesia’s political structures and Todd Lemons as he reaches out to businesses and scientists to lay the groundwork of what became the Rimba Raya REDD project. Meanwhile, we learn of steps that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is taking to meet the challenge on the national level.

Part Six: The Challenge of Sustainable Palm Oil We examine the demand side of the equation and learn why past efforts to promote sustainable palm-oil development have failed. We then learn how current efforts differ from those of the past, and see how they dovetail with Indonesia’s efforts to execute the largest land-swap in history.

Part Seven: The Land Swap We conclude by wrapping up the various strings and seeing how they all converge in the government’s REDD+ Agency. We take stock of the agency’s efforts to-date, and examine the challenges that lie ahead.