Photography and design: Isacco Chiaf
The world’s forests, along with its oceans, absorb enormous amounts of the carbon dioxide that circulates in the atmosphere. They are, effectively, the Earth’s lungs, and protecting those lungs is crucial if we are to defend the planet’s biodiversity and fight global warming.
But, between 1990 and 2015, the world lost 129 million hectares of forests, destroyed by chainsaws, fire and cement. Deforestation is advancing at an alarming pace: about 10 hectares of forest – the equivalent of 14 football fields – disappear every minute, the result mainly of human activities such as agriculture, the extraction of raw materials and urbanisation.
Still, globally, the rate of deforestation has decreased over the past quarter of a century, and, in some regions, such as China and Europe, forests are expanding as reforestation and an increase in tree cultivation takes place.
But, elsewhere, humankind remains a menace to forests. The main rainforest basins in the Amazon, Congo and Southeast Asia lose millions of hectares every year. In 2015 alone, Indonesia lost roughly 2.6 million hectares of forest – the result of one of the most damaging fires in recent times.
“Iknow the fire will be back next year. I know we don’t have the equipment we need and that we’ll have to fight it with our bare hands. But that doesn’t matter: we’ll fight it. Our spirit is the spirit of the forest.” When he speaks of the forests in which he was born and raised, Basuki Budi Santoso’s eyes fill with tears.
Making use of what little means they have at their disposal, Basuki and his small team from the Friends of the National Parks Foundation work to defend the Tanjung Puting reserve from the flames that periodically affect it. The park, which is located in Central Kalimantan, in the southern part of the island of Borneo, has been at the centre of the fires that struck Indonesia throughout 2015. Burning unabated for weeks, it turned about two million hectares of forest to cinder, mainly on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan.
Basuki’s base camp can be reached by navigating the River Kumai. A small dock leads to a path that crosses the forest, where beams of sunlight cut through the humidity and the water in the streams resembles the colour of tea. It takes a few hours of walking to reach the Beguruh reforestation area where Basuki and his men are trying to help the forest come back to life.
Basuki’s men are resting for a moment in the shade of a wooden shed. There are some hammocks, a gas burner for making coffee and an open air shower. A few metres away, pots are lined up. They hold the seedlings of trees. “This is our plant nursery,” explains Basuki. This is where we look after the trees that will repopulate the forest that burned down.”
“The fires come back every year, especially from September onwards, in the dry season. And the fire keeps burning even when it seems to be extinguished, because it’s burning underground, in the peat,” Basuki says. “When the fires come back, we work restlessly to extinguish them. At night, we take turns sleeping a few metres away from the flames; sometimes someone can lose their life, suffocated by the smoke. In times of respite we plant the trees back into the burnt areas instead, and prepare for our next battle.”