Livelihood & Community

Willie Smits is planting new forests in different parts of Indonesia, focussing mostly on Borneo and Sulawesi. To do so, he uses plots that are useless to both man and nature, namely grassland that is eroded by previous logging and/or fire. Willie has developed a process with which he can regrow a forest in several years; after 5 years a reasonable forest has already come back. And with that, the ecosystem and diversity of animal and plant life` returns as well.

Sugar Palm is not to be confused with the highly destructive Oil Palm. Sugar Palms only grow in a diverse forest, in which many other animal and plant species live, whereas for monotonous palm oil plantations, millions of acres of precious rainforest are destroyed. In these monotone plantations the original plants and trees do not grow. Climate change takes place, valuable animals and plants become extinct, clean drinking water is scarce. When we protect the rain forest, we can turn these disasters around. The preservation of the forest is the preservation of ourselves.

Willie Smits has built a Sugar factory in North Sulawesi with the support of the Indonesian Government. This factory is powered by residual steam from a geothermal (green) power plant, meaning that the energy used does not damage the environment. The factory collects the sap from the palms and turns it into a sugar with very special properties. Not only is the product eco-friendly and fair-trade, the sugar also has more flavour than white sugar and is much healthier. While sugar can easily lead to obesity and diabetes, the palm sugar does not. Part of this remarkable feat is caused by the slow absorption in the blood which prevents an unhealthy rise of blood sugar levels and enables energy to be gradually released. Also, the sugar contains anti-oxidants, amino acids and vitamins which have a positive effect on one’s health. Willie has been responsible for creating the process which is used to produce the sugar. In the Netherlands, the sugar can be purchased from, amongst others, Jumbo supermarkets. (Imported by Amigos International,, +31(0)317 479 794)

Moreover, when the farmers become more prosperous, they are less inclined to support a corrupt system or cut down the rainforest illegally. The people also do not have to work in polluting industries such as gold and coal mines or in the destructive oil palm plantations. Lastly, the farmers in the Masarang reforestation projects are actively protecting the forest and wild animals that are released there after being rehabilitated in the Tasikoki Animal Rescue Center.

Harvesting the precious sap from the trees is a manual process, providing many jobs for local farmers (one farmer is responsible for about 6 trees). The income of these palm tappers is much higher than that of regular small farmers and they produce completely green and CO2 positive products. Due to the increased income, the children of these farmers are able to study and escape poverty. Furthermore, Masarang has set up a farmers’ cooperative where they have their own democratic elections for certain positions.

To continue to expand the sugar sap production and processing, Willie Smits is now building small, mobile factories to process the sap, with the help of Stichting Doen, the Rabobank Foundation and the Ministry of Economics. These so-called ‘Village Hubs’ can be lowered into the forest by a helicopter. Willie wants to place these hubs in remote villages as well, for instance with the Dayak people in Borneo. The Dayak are traditionally hunters who are seeing their forests disappear due to illegal logging and palm oil plantations. The people are poor, are sometimes forced to work as illegal lumberjacks and there is little schooling and many social problems. However, in what is left of the forest, sugar palms are being planted. By delivering these ‘Village Hubs’ to the people, large quantities of sugar sap can be processed and many people can become sugar palm farmers. They can make a better living and preserve the forest at the same time. Not only do the Hubs process sugar sap, they are also equipped to immediately deliver clean bio-ethanol (healthier to cook on than wood), electricity, drinking water and even have tools for medical care