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Willie Smits, Social Entrepreneur, Biography,
Social Entrepreneur

Willie Smits: Champion of Orangutan Conservation and Sustainable Development

Early Life and Education

Willie Smits, born on February 22, 1957, in Weurt, Gelderland, the Netherlands, is a renowned forester, microbiologist, conservationist, animal welfare activist, wilderness engineer, and social entrepreneur. Since 1985, he has resided in Indonesia, where he became an Indonesian citizen. Smits married Adrienne C. Watson in March 2016.

In 1994, Smits earned an MSc in tropical forestry, tropical soil science, and genetics, followed by a PhD in tropical forestry from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. His doctoral research focused on the symbiosis between mycorrhizas and the roots of Dipterocarpaceae trees in the rainforests of East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Willie Smits

Career and Contributions

Smits’ career in Indonesia began in 1985 at the Wanariset Tropical Forest Research Station near Balikpapan, East Kalimantan. In the early 1990s, he led the Tropenbos Kalimantan Project, an international collaboration between the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry and the Tropenbos Foundation.

Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

In 1991, Smits founded the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS), the world’s largest organization dedicated to the protection of Bornean orangutans. His inspiration came from a life-changing encounter with a baby orangutan in a market in Balikpapan. He rescued and nursed the orangutan back to health, naming her Uce. This experience spurred him to establish BOS, initially funded by contributions from schoolchildren in Balikpapan.

BOS’s mission expanded beyond rescuing and rehabilitating orangutans to include reforestation, sustainable farming, and forest monitoring. The foundation’s work demonstrated how environmental conservation could benefit both wildlife and local communities. Smits’ efforts garnered recognition and led to his role as a senior advisor to Indonesia’s Ministry of Forests and his knighthood in the Netherlands.

Samboja Lestari

In 2001, BOS began purchasing 2,000 hectares of deforested land near Wanariset Samboja. The goal was to restore the rainforest and create a sanctuary for rehabilitated orangutans while providing income for local communities. The Samboja Lestari project involved planting hundreds of indigenous tree species, transforming the landscape. By 2006, over 740 different species had been planted. Smits claimed that reforestation efforts increased cloud cover and rainfall, though this assertion faced some scientific scrutiny.

To finance the project, BOS launched the “Create Rainforest” initiative, allowing donors to symbolically adopt square meters of rainforest, with progress viewable via Google Earth.

Masarang Foundation

Smits co-founded and chairs the Masarang Foundation, dedicated to restoring forests and empowering local communities. In 2007, Masarang opened a palm sugar factory that uses thermal energy to produce sugar and ethanol, providing sustainable income for local farmers. The factory, located in Tomohon, North Sulawesi, utilizes waste steam from a geothermal power station, benefiting around 6,200 farmers.

Smits advocates for the widespread use of sugar palms, highlighting their environmental benefits and economic potential. He designed and patented the Village Hub, a model for community-based production and environmental conservation.

Advocacy and Recognition

Smits has been instrumental in the confiscation of illegally kept orangutans, despite facing threats to his life. He also designed the Schmutzer Primate Centre at Jakarta Zoo, offering a naturalistic environment for orangutans that cannot be released into the wild.

Smits’ work has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Satya Lencana Pembangunan Award, a Dutch knighthood, and election to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009. In 2018, he was featured in Jennifer Skiff’s book “Rescuing Ladybugs,” which highlighted his contributions to rescuing orangutans and establishing conservation projects across Indonesia.

Willie Smits’ dedication to environmental conservation and sustainable development has made a significant impact on both wildlife and human communities in Indonesia, showcasing the profound interconnectedness of ecological and social well-being.


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