Photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash

Locally led collective alternatives to save Borneo’s rainforest

Sarah Campbell
5 min readSep 5, 2022


We board a colourful well made Klotok (house boat) that is to be our home for the next 4 days. While we wait to get the next leg of our trip sorted, I sit and chat with Fardi Pardi the owner of Orangutan HouseBoat Tours. He’s a smiley guy with excellent English and clearly passionate about providing a quality service to his customers.

There are a multitude of houseboat operators in Tanjung Puting National Park, who offer multi day tours, slowly chugging up the river on a ‘Klotok’ into the national park that is one of the few remaining homes for wild and semi wild Orangutans in Borneo. Whilst sifting through them in preparation for the trip, it was Fardi’s business that caught my eye.

He is a local, born and bred in the area. When he was young his parents had no option but to work in the logging industry; there was not much else in the way of work. Fardi was lucky to receive an education and whilst at school he worked for a Houseboat company and learned the trade.

He learned about the Orangutans, the impact of logging on their habitat and he wanted to find a different way so went on to set up his own business. He’s passionate about employing local people and keeping money in local hands, witnessing the pillaging of Indonesia’s rich resources benefitting international rather than local people. He also wants to demonstrate that locals have the ability to do it too.

Fardi did not get the chance to go to business school, he learnt all he knows through practice. Trying different things and learning as he goes. I was taken by the pride in which he described it.

“I was not able to go to business school, but I just try things and learn from it”

Here is a man clearly proud of his achievements and rightly so. Despite not being able to get the level of education he was wanting, he has been successful anyway — through sheer determination, learning through doing; trial and error.

We spent a wonderful 3 nights and 4 days chugging up the river, sleeping and waking to the sounds of the rainforest and watching the wildlife as we chugged by. Stopping when we saw endemic Proboscis Monkeys or wild Orangutans from the Riverside. The service was excellent; Fardi is a man who puts a lot of thought and effort into his business and work.

As we learned more about the national park from our guide we detected hints of disappointment at the government. How the land where the orangutans (for now) roam free, is still at risk despite it being designated a national park. How in earlier times, the department that oversaw national parks was run by someone who had interests in palm oil companies.

Despite all of the warnings of climate change, deforestation for palm oil is still a real threat. In under 2 decades, 80% of the total habitat for Orangutans has been decimated. Endemic to Borneo and Sumatra the Orangutans are now critically endangered.

As mentioned in other blogs, this is not only devastating for Orangutans (and countless other species that live here - many of which endemic to Borneo), but it also poses a threat to us all as rainforest trees store significantly larger quantities of carbon (taking it out of the air) but when felled, release dangerous amounts back into the atmosphere. Bad news globally.

Tanjung Puting is home to Camp Leaky. Set up in the early 60s by a pioneering young woman, Biruté Galdikas who braved the Borneo jungle to set up the first centre of research for orangutans, it is renowned for its expertise on these fascinating primates. She helped put the plight of the orangutan on to a global stage, setting up The Orangutan Foundation International to further the work. Her better known counterpart did similar for the Gorillas of Rwanda (both women were mentored and supported by famous paleo anthropologist Louis Leakey). The Orangutan Foundation International continues to campaign to protect the forest and saves captured orangutans (often stolen from the wild to sell as pets or the entertainment industry).

As we chug along we stop at feeding stations where semi wild orangutans that are gradually being rehabilitated into the wild come for supplementary food (if they need it). It’s what makes the area so popular, you are more than likely to see an Orangutan chowing down on some bananas. And when you do, it’s an honour to behold — these human like creatures (who share 97% of their DNA with humans) spend most of their time swinging in the trees, or just sitting, watching and ponderously scratching.

Despite all the incredible work, the threat continues to loom large. In response to this, Fardi has set up a collective of workers in the tourism industry in Tanjung Puting to contribute money to buy some of the land adjacent to the national park preventing it from being sold to encroaching palm oil companies. They don’t trust that the national park will be protected so they are taking action now to save and develop alternative, more sustainable uses of the land.

Fardi is passionate that this needs to be led and owned by local people. He wants to demonstrate that they too can lead this type of work and is wary of ‘outside forces’ who don’t know the area, getting to influence the development of it.The lack of trust is palpable and reminds me of similar locally led projects closer to home where there is an inbuilt distrust of larger organisations and government. He’s taking the slower and harder path of raising money from locals themselves so they have ultimate control and avoid getting caught up in unnecessary bureacratic processes.

Like with the village in Merabu, sustainable approaches take time. We must be patient, but perhaps this is the biggest lesson and culture shift of all. To live more sustainably we need to slow down. Being less speed boat and more klotok.



Sarah Campbell

Head of Participation and Advocacy for JRF. I lead our work on participation and co-design approaches to policy development and influencing.