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Parts of Willie Smits TED Talk challenged

At TED2009, Willie Smits gave a talk titled "How to Restore a Rainforest." TED has recently heard criticisms of this talk from a number of sources. In response, we invited the critics to point us to a scientist who could give a written critique. That has led to this letter from Erik Meijaard, who has worked as a forest conservation scientist in Indonesia since 1992, and a response from Willie Smits. Both letters are below.

If you have comments or information you'd like to add, please write to contact@ted.com with the subject line "Willie Smits comment."

Erik Meijaard's letter

Dear Chris Anderson,

I am responding to your request about input regarding a TED Talk by Dr. Willie Smits (How to restore a rainforest) delivered in Long Beach in February 2009. I’ve reviewed individual statements in this talk, and agree, as do others, that some appear questionable.

Specifically I found that:

1. Dr. Smits states that 3,000 jobs have been created for local people, thanks to his project. He also says that the project created a 100-meter ring of sugar palms surrounding the Samboja Lestari preserve. From what I gather, this ring still had not been established, or is at most only partly planted. Since the sugar palm was presented as a major source of income for local farmers, it raises the question of how these incomes have actually been generated. The jobs created are likely to be substantially lower.

2. Dr. Smits claims that children suffered a 12-point decline in IQ after local forest fires. I could not find any information supporting this. I would be interested to read scientific reports supporting this claim.

3. Elsewhere (see this link) I had questioned Dr. Smits’ statement that nine species of primate live in Samboja. In Dr. Smits' reply, he justifies this figure by including species such as humans and siamangs (a primate species that does not naturally occur on Borneo) among those primates. I assume Dr. Smits realizes that in his TED Talk, he implies that these nine species of primate were now freely roaming the forest his project had replanted. It is, however, more likely that only four or five were actually wild (and generally common), and the rest kept in cages, living on the orangutan islands. Or sitting behind desks.

4. In that same link above, I expressed concern about statements made by Dr. Smits about the impact replanting Samboja had had on the local climate (i.e., “the Samboja rain machine”). The climatic data presented by Dr. Smits in the TED Talk would have little chance of standing up to scientific scrutiny. That might be a reason why, to my, knowledge, none of this information has been published in the scientific literature. With regard to these climate data, Dr. Smits seems to confuse correlation with causality. The fact that it rained more in the Balikpapan area after Samboja had been replanted than before was more likely related to broader climatic patterns than to the localized effects of the Samboja replanting. Increased rainfall occurred in the entire South East Asian tropics from 2007 to 2009. These are global weather patterns, not just local ones. I lived and worked in Borneo during those years, and know for a fact that those years were particularly wet in many parts of the island. For example, four rain stations from northern Borneo (some 500-750 km from Samboja) reported average annual rainfall of 259 and 282 mm in 2005 and 2006, but 350, 358, 352 mm in 2007, 2008 and 2009, showing that these were indeed wet years compared to 2005 and 2006. Dr. Smits thus produced no convincing evidence substantiating the “Samboja rain machine” effect.

I am not in a position to judge the veracity of other statements in Dr. Smits’ talk, but the above examples suggest that some further scrutiny is warranted. This is important because it allows us to better judge how realistic the purported win-win-win solution (for people, the environment, and orangutan rehabilitation) of Samboja is, and thus whether it is a cost effective conservation solution. This is a crucial issue in conservation, where funding is always scarce and real progress equally rare.

I am also concerned about Dr. Smits’ statements because of the general impact these could have on the credibility of conservation. Dr. Smits tries to tell a good and compelling story, and we need spokespeople like that who can motivate the public to support conservation. But there is a significant risk associated with over-embellishing or making up facts to substantiate a story. We have seen how the public pounced on the global climate science community for some relatively minor scientific transgressions and several damaging email communications, and this seems to have significantly undermined the public belief in the veracity of global climate change (see this article about Climategate 1.0 and 2.0).

As a conservation scientist, I try to stick to scientific evidence as much as I can. One way to do this is to go through a process of scientific peer-review. At least then there are some checks and balances that force us to carefully distinguish between what we hope and what we can prove to be true. It would therefore be helpful if Dr. Smits and his team could publish more information about their findings. Dr. Smits mentions in his TED talk that "literally hundreds of research studies on biodiversity, carbon, climate, costs etc." have been published, presumably about Samboja. However, a careful literature search by me resulted in only a handful of publicly available reports written after the establishment of Samboja, with none encountered in the scientific literature.

Conservation is hard enough to achieve as it is, and we completely depend on the trust and buy-in from the public to make progress. TED's devotion to Ideas Worth Spreading is an inspirational approach to building up trust and informing and inspiring the public, but it would be good if TED speakers could stick to the facts and thus not risk undermining that trust.

With kind regards,

Erik Meijaard

Willie Smits' response

Dear Editor,

Thank you for informing me about the letter from Dr. Erik Meijaard. I would like to contribute the following comments:

1. The ring of sugar palms: Indeed the ring was only partially planted when I was still in charge. After “the takeover” where all operational management and many of the people I trained were replaced, planting was virtually stopped by the new decision makers. The part of the sugar palm ring that was planted however does already produce a very significant income for the local people (17 million rupiah/hectare a month which is more than 15 times the minimum income in East Kalimantan, which itself is higher than what farmers normally get), showing the feasibility of the original approach and the missed opportunities. 648 sugar palm lots in the ring, plus the hundreds of farmers providing organic food to the Samboja Lestari project, and all the permanent staff, and the many spin-off jobs, would have provided more than 3,000 jobs.

2. Loss of IQ due to famine. The study was done in 1998 in the PT KEM gold mining area surroundings in East Kalimantan during the huge El Niño forest fires. The PT KEM environmental manager at that time, Mr. John van der Linden, informed me about the 12-point decline in IQ in the area. The data, according him, were part of the CARE project in cooperation with local companies, including PT KEM. I did not see the information in the published reports of that project. There are however many other reports that show big IQ decline as a result of malnutrition.

3. Species of primate in Samboja Lestari: I do not recall having classified the primates all as common. The Agile gibbon, Proboscis monkeys, Long Tail macaque, Pig Tail macaque, Red Leaf monkey and Slow Loris all do live there. Tarsier may have been heard there, but this still needs visual confirmation. The Orangutans live there free until their release during which period they are followed only roaming through the area. Four of such free-roaming Orangutans were recently released in their permanent release area in East Kalimantan. I had planned to have other confiscated primates without suitable release areas, such as the Siamang, living there in large, isolated forest parts, which would be a kind of ex-situ/in-situ mix. My ideas were not further pursued after the takeover. And indeed I conveniently included humans as the ninth primate species.

4. The Samboja Lestari rain machine: Dr. Erik Meijaard seems to assume that I presented rainfall data for Samboja Lestari over time, showing that rainfall there increased, without correcting for general changes in rainfall from causes other than reforestation. But in fact, the rainfall data used by Yayu Ramdhani to produce the figures I showed were simultaneous comparisons between Samboja Lestari and other monitoring stations in nearby stations, such as Balikpapan and Samarinda, that were in the same general area but not being reforested, so these comparisons cancelled out the secular changes in weather to which Dr. Meijaard refers. We had at least six climate stations in the Samboja Lestari area that were monitored daily from 2003 onward and included such data as wind, evapotranspiration, air humidity and temperature. The rain inducing effect of forests through cloud condensation nuclei and new cloud formation above forests from evapotranspiration are well known. There is indeed a treasure house of data from Samboja Lestari also about biodiversity development, growth and yield and other subjects that have not yet been published.

Dr. Meijaard brings up the issue of “cost effective conservation solutions.” Allow me to express my personal opinion, which I realize is not shared by everyone. My belief is that we first and foremost must have these animal rehabilitation projects in order to support the practicality of law enforcement. Only law enforcement can stop the trade in wildlife and end the need for more costly rehabilitation centers. The goal of Samboja Lestari was to create value from the forest to support the rehabilitation. The Balikpapan water supply project in Samboja Lestari, had it been finalized as I started it, would have created the most sustainable basis possible and made it into the most cost effective conservation solution that I can imagine.

Next Dr. Meijaard goes on to assume that what I call studies have to be peer-reviewed publications. I spoke about studies, not publications. The huge amount of data from Samboja Lestari is indeed too valuable not to be analyzed and published in peer reviewed scientific journals. The articles that did appear in the scientific literature I shall send to you. Furthermore I shall bring this issue up in the next board of trustees meeting of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and propose to have other persons or parties with more time and the right capabilities to participate in those analyses to speed up this process.

I had Erik with me as a young student in Kalimantan. He has my email address and knows my whereabouts. I personally would have hoped to have this conversation directly with him. I would have provided him with more information, if he had asked.

Willie Smits