About Willie


I am an Indonesian national but was born in The Netherlands. I studied tropical forestry and got my PhD in forestry and microbiology from Wageningen, The Netherlands. I live for about 30 years now in Indonesia and am married to the queen of the Tombulu tribe in North Sulawesi. We have three sons and two granddaughters. I work much in nature conservation (including orangutans and many other protected wildlife species for which I was knighted) and reforestation and am a lecturer at a number of universities. My latest project involves sugar palms for a true people planet profit win win solution.

TED Conference


Areas of Expertise

Nature Conservation, Forestry, Microbiology, remote sensing, Modeling and Simulations, animal behavior, Sugar Palms

I'm passionate about

I'm passionate about justice and fairness in our dealings with people and nature. I believe that there is no such thing as a conflict between the needs of people and preserving nature.On the contrary!

Talk to me about

Sugar palms, orangutans, Indonesian nature conservation, multi species forest restoration

People don't know I'm good at

designing buildings, facilities and landscaping.

My TED story

I was recommended by both Richard Zimmerman of Orangutan Outreach and by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute to the TED organizing committee to be invited as a speaker for TED 2009. I had no idea what I was getting myself involved with, but after arriving in Long Beach and meeting Frans Lanting I quickly understood what a special group of people was gathered here. A group of people that wants to make a change for the world and have the power and means to do so. I truly enjoyed the experience of attending and getting so much feed back to my talk. Definitely hope to be back with a lot more worthwhile ideas!

Comments & conversations

Willie Smits
Posted over 6 years ago
Willie Smits: How to restore a rainforest
I want to thank all the people who have commented on my talk. I also would like to take this opportunity to address three issues brought up in the comments. Biofuels, indeed now seen in a very bad light and through oil palms the single most important reason for the present suffering of the orangutans. But Sugar Palms are a completely different story. They do not need fertilizers or pesticides, do not grow well in monoculture and can also not survive in an old rainforest. FAO calls them the poor people palm because they basically mostly grow on land of local people, the main reason why big companies never invested in them besides the technical issues of how to grow them effectively, how to preserve the daily sugary juice and the need to have a very skilled labor force (we need 20 times more people per hectare than oil palm or sugar cane) since the manual tapping does take a lot of know how. Through an invention of mine, the Green Village Box, we can now solve the processing of the juice on a daily basis in the remote villages and provide the villagers with income, electricity, local ethanol fuel to replace fuel wood, drinking water, feed for animals and satellite based communication means. All based upon the palm juice which is available year round. So there are actually good biofuel possibilities that also can work economically for investors, but the only way to develop them is through working with cooperatives of the local communities. An other issue that was brought up was how was this project financed and how much did it cost. It was financed from donations and adoption of square meters through the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. Total costs over the last 7 years for the almost 5000 acres have amounted to some 2.5 Million Euro. This included buying the land. This land was actually still expensive due to its proximity to an economically important oil city. So the model is quite feasible, but does take well educated people to execute. sorry, out of space!