Willie Smits and Sugar Palm

Lisa Genasci —  January 30, 2011 — 9 Comments

Recently we were in Northern Sulawesi visiting Willie Smits, an evangelist for sugar palm. I had seen his Ted talk and met him in Hong Kong on a previous visit and we wanted to see his work for ourselves.

We were keen to understand more about both sugar palm as a source of livelihoods for local populations and also his program of ecological restoration built around the trees, which are native to Sulawesi.

ADM Capital Foundation has been working with the Nantu conservation effort, also in Northern Sulawesi, and are looking at ways to help Nantu generate alternative local livelihoods. Clearly we can’t talk about forest conservation without working on the development/education piece for communities, as I have discussed in previous blogs.

Smits, a biologist/forester, has lived in Indonesia for three decades and is married to an Indonesian tribal princess who is also a local politician. Having worked previously for years for the ministry of forestry in Jakarta he has a good understanding of both Indonesia and its political/corruption challenges.

Over the past decade writing about, researching and working with sugar palm, Willie has built a unique store of data on everything about the tropical plant, as well as on deforestation, its causes and consequences.

He spends much of his time working through how to restore land for people and forest-dwelling animals alike, create livelihoods for local populations so they no longer must poach, log or otherwise log to support their families.

Understandably, Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry is focused not so much on conservation in Indonesia, but on how to support development that will sustain a rapidly growing population currently at around 230 million. This was made patently clear in a recent conversation with Jakarta MOF officials.

Understanding this, Willie Smits instead of talking about saving Orangutans from palm oil plantations, talks about community livelihoods, about Samboja Lestari, which is the restoration initiative discussed in his TED talk, about his sugar palm cooperative of 6,285 shareholders in Northern Sulawesi.

Although he now is not directly involved with Samboja, which is administered by the organization he founded but no longer leads, Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, Willie is still a board member of BOS. The principles around which Samboja was built stand regardless of its management: diversified secondary forest that includes sugar palm and at each layer provides income for communities as well as habitat for animals.

Secondary forest that produces income of course also takes the pressure off native forests.

To achieve this, Willie has developed a franchise process and system to sign up local holders of degraded land, provide the palms and training at a cost of approximately US$1000 per hectare.

The idea is that each cluster of about 150 farmers form a “Village Hub” or a cooperative that acts to build the social fabric, as a bank and to consolidate the product. The mini sugar processing plant, the core of the village hub, which is primarily solar driven, concentrates the raw sugar juice from about 20% to above 60% where it is nonreactive and easier to transport.

Each farmer has an account with the hub and this is credited with each container of juice brought in. They can then use the credit to buy goods and services in the village. This removes the use of actual money and the potential for corruption or theft.

The concentrate is delivered to a regional hub that processes the concentrate to various products, including raw sugar, rum, bio ethanol, among many others. Village Hubs are estimated to cost around 350,000 Euros.

Now to the numbers:

Willie claims to be able to plant 70 producing sugar palms per hectare in among other vegetation, with each tree producing 13 liters of sugar syrup, equivalent to 3 kilos of sugar per day. That’s roughly 36.5 tons of sugar or  19 tons of ethanol per hectare per year – according to Willie the equivalent of 82 barrels of oil per hectare per year.

Sugar palm, he says, requires little water, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides (they have their own built-in defenses), creates local jobs for tappers (trees must be tapped twice a day and this keep local people occupied and away from natural forest). They also enhance food security since sugar palms produce sago, sugar (better for you apparently than cane sugar) and fruit.

Sugar palm, Willie emphasizes, is not a crop but a forest and there are already an estimated 10 million existing sugar palms, many of these in Indonesia. Furthermore, there are tens of millions of hectares of grassland or wasteland that could be restored to include sugar palm that would provide local livelihoods, sequester carbon, while producing fuel and food. He is looking at where else in the world sugar palm might be used to generate income.

Some interesting concepts and hard to verify since most of the work around sugar palm has been done by Willie himself.

Certainly, we would be keen to be pointed in the direction of other numbers/thinking connected to community livelihoods and sugar palm.

Lisa Genasci


CEO of Hong Kong-based ADM Capital Foundation

9 responses to Willie Smits and Sugar Palm


    Nice Post . My Comment is : More specifically, the Energy Policy Act (EP Act) of 1993 gave a more in-depth definition of what they consider to be alternative fuels.



    If you contact BOS F and ask if what Smits claims in his TED talk is true, you will find many discrepancies. There IS no ring of sugar palm, the handful of sugar palms are not harvested, there is no data to support his claims about numbers of animal species or changes in climate, there are NOT 3000 people benefiting, etc. BOS F ceased pursuing this venture further when it was clear that the project was failing to achieve what was intended, and was costing too much at a time when funds were needed just to keep the orangutans in their care alive, when Smits claimed his Gibbon Foundation funds had dried up and could no longer support any of the work of BOS F.

      Hugo van den Berg March 24, 2012 at 12:04 am

      Please provide references that support your claims. This is the Internet, where the haters can comment, but do not (have to) show data to support their claims. So without the data, your comment is simply hate speech.


    Hi Michelle,

    Always good to hear two sides of a story.

    Do you happen to have backup for your information, eg email from BOS F stating above?



    Some links to support Michelle’s claims… Please download a Google Earth file of Samboja Lestari in my DropBox and see with your own eyes there’s no ring of sugar palms in/around the area: https://dl.dropbox.com/u/40189813/Samboja%20Lestari.kml.
    There’s also the statement by a close colleague of WS that there is no such ring at http://whatsupdfa.lefora.com/2012/03/02/2-location-of-sugar-palms-ring-in-samboja/0/ (‘The ring as described in the Master Plan for Samboja Lestari is still to be completed’/started).


    Links to support Michelle’s claim:
    Google Earth file of Samboja Lestari to see with your own eyes there is no ring around it: https://dl.dropbox.com/u/40189813/Samboja%20Lestari.kml
    Eduardo’s statement (‘The ring as described in the Master Plan for Samboja Lestari is still to be completed’/started): http://whatsupdfa.lefora.com/2012/03/02/2-location-of-sugar-palms-ring-in-samboja/0/
    Of course, common sense should lead to the following question: if a ‘secondary forest’ can be ‘regrown’ in 7 years (2002 start, 2009 TED talk), why hasn’t CIFOR or ITTO or UN jumped on this? Maybe because a simple timber plantation already takes 8-15 years to mature, and developing the biodiversity of a ‘secondary forest’ would take much longer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s