08/17/2012 05:47 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2012

What Will It Take to Win the Gold in Rainforest Defense?

I just returned from a trip to Indonesia that was filled with thrilling wildlife encounters and inspiring visits with allies fighting deforestation. I'll admit it, I feel smug that this is my job.

There was another side to the trip too: the flights over miles and miles and miles of palm oil plantations that are a forest-like shade of green but act like biological deserts, and stories like the one the fearless Indonesian forest activist Dr. Bayu Wirayudha told me of communities that are watching palm oil companies set fire to their forested land intentionally, willfully ignoring the inevitable chain of extinction and climate impacts set in motion by the billowing clouds of smoke.

But I like to think of myself as an optimistic soul, and I returned to the U.S. feeling wholesome, informed, and ready to get back to work at Rainforest Action Network running seriously good campaigns that go after the causes of tropical forest loss on the other side of the world. When I reunited with an Internet connection, I started to see the U.S. news.

Searing drought in the Midwest, dismal election dramas and... wait, here was something exciting, the Olympics! The whole world seemed gripped by the thrill of watching human beings pushing themselves to extraordinary feats of physical prowess. One glance at the otherworldly power of Usain Bolt's legs, or the incredible drive of the U.S. women's soccer team, and it's not difficult to understand why everyone was riveted by the action.

These two things might sound unrelated, Indonesia's rainforests and the Olympics, but here's where they connect: people can do almost anything they set their minds to, and they can't do it alone.


Tarsier image by Flickr user Wandering Angel.

Amidst the flood of Olympics coverage, two pieces of news flashed in front of me that brought this connection home. One detailed the rapid demise of the tarsier, one of the smallest primates in the world—a rare monkey that I had the privilege of seeing in person while I was in the forest of Northern Sulawesi. Recent studies show that 60% of the tarsiers' remaining population is seriously threatened by deforestation. The other was an article about rare Sumatran rhinos (also the smallest rhino species in the world, and no I didn't make that up), until now feared extinct in the wild, that had just been caught on a hidden camera making their way through a national park.

Both the tarsiers and the rhinos are eking out survival inside protected areas that are themselves under threat by encroaching deforestation. The habitat that these creatures depend on has been relentlessly chipped away by palm oil producers and pulp and paper companies—both of whom are feeding the huge international markets that voraciously consume palm oil and paper. Surrounding communities, once interdependent with the forest ecosystem, are faced with paper and palm companies dangling promises of fast money in front of them for the liquidation of their trees. And it's a double bind, because if they say no, chances are the companies will bully them into it anyway. Just look at the community intimidation and human rights violations committed by one the major palm oil producers and traders, which also happens to be one of Cargill's palm oil suppliers.

It is both impressive and crucial that Indonesia continues to have these incredible protected areas that truly are the last resorts for a huge proportion of planetary biodiversity. For a country that has just 1% of the world's land area, Indonesia contains more than 10% of the world's known plant species, 12% of mammal species and a whopping 17% percent of all known bird species. The protected reserves are exquisite arcs floating within very threatened and contested rainforest lands.

But a new study published in Nature shows that protecting the land surrounding these areas is every bit as important as the health of the reserves themselves. The authors say: "Crucially, environmental changes immediately outside reserves seemed nearly as important as those inside in determining their ecological fate, with changes inside reserves strongly mirroring those occurring around them." Meaning that, even with the best will in the world, the conservation of discreet pieces of park land cannot maintain healthy and vibrant habitat for wildlife if the ecosystem right outside the boundaries of the park is being devastated.

Which brings me back to the Olympics. The feats performed by Olympic athletes are nothing short of miraculous -- according to his own ego, and by most measures, Usain Bolt is the fastest man alive. If you ask him, I would guess that he would credit his own extraordinary motivation for his success. And if athletes can train to exceed world records again and again, surely we can find that kind of motivation to protect the systems that support life on our planet. Consider it a race in reverse: we want to slow things down. Right now an acre of tropical rainforest is coming down every second, and we need that number to be much, much smaller until it reaches zero.

The people like Bayu in Indonesia and the communities he works with are the Olympic athletes of forest defense -- they are profoundly motivated, and working every day to protect their homes and the homes of the rhino and tarsier, as well as the Sumatran tiger and the threatened orangutan. But even the Usain Bolts of the world rely on a vast network of people to support them in their efforts to achieve the impossible: their families, communities, the people who feed, encourage and train them, not to mention their fans. So too our Indonesian allies need a network.

Here in the U.S., far from the burning forest fires, we have our own role to play, one that involves shifting the rules of the market so that palm oil producers and traders, and their close relatives in the pulp and paper industry, can no longer raze the last living forests to the ground for cheap crackers, books and shampoo. In the Olympics of forest defense, protection of natural rainforests from destruction by the companies feeding voracious markets is what will make the difference between a gold medal and unimaginable loss... and optimistic it may be, but I'm putting my money on a win.