When conservationist Willie Smits got married in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, in 1980, the dowry cost six sugar palm trees, a fact that intrigued him. The six trees equaled almost one month’s income for most locals. What made sugar palms so valuable?
That question ultimately led Smits on a quest to maximize the tree’s value for Indonesian communities while protecting their land. These communities already understood the dozens of benefits that the sugar palm brought: medicine, fiber, wood, fuel, sugar, drinks, and more. Eventually, Smits discovered additional value the sugar palms add. They stabilize the forest soil, prevent landslides, and resist fire.
In 2001, Smits founded the Masarang Foundation with a mission to conserve nature through collaboration with, and development of, the local population. The sugar palm, or Arenga pinnata, which produces a sap that can be refined into edible sugar or ethanol fuel, plays a critical role in helping to fulfill this mission.
To access the sap, tappers scale the trees twice daily, often using a bamboo pole carved out with an opening large enough only for the big toe. Once in the branches, they cut off the flowers at the end of the stem and collect sap. It’s a skill that takes practice—and, when well-cultivated, it can earn proficient tappers in North Sulawesi up to $2,500 per month, a sum 8.5 times Indonesia’s per capita GDP.
To produce sugar or biofuel from the sap, it is first brought to a mini factory called the village hub, a processing plant constructed with support from the Great Energy Challenge and run by the Masarang Foundation, where Smits oversees operations.
At the village hub, locals turn the sap into a thickened juice and then transport it to a palm sugar factory, strategically located next to a geothermal power plant. The power plant offers up surplus steam, a vital commodity in the sugar-making process, in exchange for water, a by-product of the sugar and biofuel conversion process. This efficiency also saves thousands of trees per year, which are traditionally used as fuel in the sugar-making process.
The resulting sugar is in high demand and the Masarang Foundation has no trouble selling 20 tons per month. They are even beginning to ship palm sugar for sale at Whole Foods. According to Smits, they could sell 20 times more, but they are currently limited by the amount of steam available.
Not to be confused with oil palm, which has led to a rapid expansion of clear-cutting forests to make way for a monoculture environment, sugar palms thrive in a diverse forest ecosystem.
To many people, forests are static. To Smits, they are incredibly dynamic and represent a beautifully interactive system that constantly recycles nutrients from the forest floor back into the trees.
Smits’ journey began in 1980, when he moved to Indonesian Borneo to carry out graduate research. Within a few years, the Indonesian Forestry of Ministry invited him to develop his studies further. Smits left his home in the Netherlands and took up permanent residency in Indonesia.
Today, his work is bringing tangible results. The Masarang Foundation added at least a million trees to the forest in North Sulawesi, including sugar palm trees. According to Smits, this forest now yields more rainfall, generates greater agricultural productivity, and provides more jobs for North Sulawesi. It has also contributed to less flooding, more clean water, and stable water levels year-round.
Those benefits lend value far beyond the market price for sugar, and make Smits optimistic about the future: “There are still opportunities to clear up the mess man has created.”
This story has been changed from an earlier version to reflect that Smits was married in 1980, not 1981.