A Gem in the Depths of Danau Sentarum: How orchids can inspire conservation

Gem in the forest - this photo shows Phalaenopsis doweryensis - one of the orchid species found in Danau Sentarum. Photo courtesy of by Leon Budi Prasetyo – CIFOR.

BOGOR, Indonesia (23 June, 2011)_Forest conservation comes with opportunity costs, both economic and social. But development and conservation are not necessarily tradeoffs, and the two can co-exist as objectives to provide long-term benefits for communities, says CIFOR’s Leon Budi Prasetyo, head author of a study published in the Borneo Research Bulletin.

The benefits of useful forest resources, such as sustainable timber, rattan and resin have been analysed in the context of conservation, but one forest product has been continually overlooked: the orchid.

Between 2006 and 2008, Prasetyo led a team including a a community facilitator, a field guide and orchid-lovers from the community to document orchid species in the Danau Sentarum National Park, just four kilometres south of the Malaysian border on Borneo island. The study,  “Orchids as a catalyst for conservation by the local communities of Danau Sentarum”, lists new-found species and analyses the benefits wild orchids could bring to the communities that depend on the park.

The team found 138 orchid species from 47 genera, finding new specieseach time they visited the 11 research locations. Prasetyo is sure that a thorough inventory of the whole park would unearth many more species.

“The speed at which the scientists can discover new species and their potential uses, however, cannot compete with the speed of deforestation,” Prasetyo said.

“Now the forests around Danau Sentarum are being cleared for oil palm plantations. Immediate action should be taken to document the orchids and to train the communities, so that they could help save the orchids and other important plants before they are completely cleared and burnt for the oil palm.”  recent CIFOR study on orchids in the Danau Sentarum National Park in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, found that conserving orchids, rather than simply uprooting them and selling them, brought significant benefits to communities. Ecotourism, for example, is one way communities can conserve and earn financially.

Orchids have traditionally been of value for their medicinal purposes, but it is their beauty that has captivated so many people from various cultures.

Wild orchid ecotourism

In fact, this fascination for orchids has given way to illegal trade in many countries, as high prices have encouraged over-exploitation and smuggling. In one of several cases of large-scale wild orchid smuggling from Indonesia’s forests, 1,500 lady’s-slipper orchids were illegally exported from Indonesia to the United States in the early 1990s.

But the communities who sustain the forests in which these plants grow are the ones who often benefit least. Villagers in Jambi, for example, are paid only 75 US cents for selling two or three stems of the giant orchid, which is values at $10 to $20 in the Indonesian ornamental plant market.

“The local communities we facilitated have been able to oppose the conventional view that orchids are simply a source of direct cash income through selling. That is the core of our approach – facilitating the community to learn the long-term benefits of conserving orchids,” said Prasetyo, an orchid specialist.

“We strove to instill pride in orchids and their natural habitats as part of the communities’ natural heritage. As a learning theory, it could be categorised as triple-loop learning.

Getting direct cash income from selling orchids is just single-loop learning, a business-as-usual solution.”

The team engaged with local communities and found that they were eager to learn more about the value of these plants. Orchids growing on the trunk of trees – often highly valuable orchids – are destroyed as trees are logged. Many perish in land-clearing fires and monoculture plantations, intensive farming and mining could lead to the extinction of certain species.

After conducting workshops on the benefits of orchids, community members showed enthusiasm to conserve and cultivate orchids. After undergoing training, elders, adults and primary school children have been surprisingly motivated to plant. On their way home from school, children in one area, Piam, have started collecting fallen orchids for planting practice. All materials are available on site: they plant the orchids in tree branches instead of plastic pots, use moss or fern roots for the planting medium instead of coconut fiber, and use rattan, rope, plant roots, fishing line and plastic string to hang the “potted” plants.

“People’s enthusiasm grew for a number of reasons. One is because more guests came to see the wild orchid garden – tourists, scientists, NGOs, journalists and officials. The local communities were convinced that what they were doing was worthy and something they could be proud of. The government has also shown recognition of their activities by granting cultural heritage status to the wild orchid garden and providing a speedboat to take guests there and patrol the area.”