Willie Smits’s personal revolution began in 1989 when he encountered a caged baby orang-utan in a market in the province of East Kalimantan, Indonesia. It had, he told a TED audience in 2009, the saddest eyes he had ever seen. He rescued that orang-utan, and then set about saving others.
The threat to the orang-utan, he knew, came from a combination of factors that included the hunting of the animals for sale or food, and the destruction of their habitat by local people who had little alternative income.
More than 20 years later, Willie Smits has saved thousands of orang-utan, created thousands of hectares of forest out of degraded land and, incidentally, claims to have developed a source of energy that delivers prosperity to tropical communities, preserves vibrant and diverse habitats and has the potential to power the world with sustainable biofuel. Is this the fantasy of an environmental activist or a proposition grounded in science?