Growing Trees, Growing People

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Hemmed in oil palm plantations and the Kinabatangan River, pygmy elephants no longer have full access to forage in the forests of Kinabatangan. These five-ton creatures are prisoners within their degraded secondary forest habitat. After sustained efforts by the WWF and conservationists, a total of 26,000 hectares were gazetted in 2005 as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. But the sanctuary – which carves out a ribbon-like corridor of forest for migrating elephants – remains fragmented.

In view of this, Albert Teo, the managing director of Borneo Eco Tours (BET) has initiated a tree-planting program years ago at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge. This project has a unique goal: to replant trees where there are “gaps” in the corridor to ensure a safe passage for pygmy elephants as migrate or forage for food.

For Teo, replanting trees to rehabilitate a fragmented forest corridor isn’t just about growing trees. The act of growing trees is intertwined with the art of growing people. It all starts with what is unseen: the roots.

Teo believes that four leadership attitudes can help to grow a person’s character even as they grow trees:

 

1. Persistence

“Initially, all my managers told me to stop the tree planting project,” Teo says. The ground was too hard. The hot sun killed the young seedlings. And elephants, for whom these trees were being planted, came every few months and trampled the seedlings. It seemed futile. “I was the only stubborn one; I insisted on carrying on with the project,” Teo says. Through his persistence, SRL has now replanted trees to fill three major gaps in the forest corridor.

 

2. Care

Growing trees entails caring for them. Many young trees perished because of the floods. It’s what you do during such times that matters most. The same goes for people. At BET, Teo set up CARE FUND, a staff trust fund for the purpose of aiding staff in times of crisis. “I make it a point to budget for this — whether or not BET gains profits or makes losses,” he says. In 2010, a BET staff member’s house was burnt down. BET gave him a cash donation to help cover his losses. In this way, Teo was able to engage his staff to care for one another in crisis. “But caring for them doesn’t mean digging a bigger hole of debt for them if they fail to spend within their income level or live a lifestyle beyond their means”, he emphasized.

 

3. Great ideas

Growing trees in adverse terrain requires constant adaptability. The staff chose fast-growing trees to reestablish the forest. Then a student at Edith Cowan University who interned at BET introduced a unique way to dig into the shallow rocky soil that enabled the young trees to survive. Elephant dung and water weeds were used as mulch for the plants. Such ideas ensured the survival of the trees. “It’s ideas that make money,” says Teo. In this spirit, he has gone on to implement an ‘Idea of the Week’ program at BET. Recently, one staff member suggested the idea of introducing an electronic checklist system to improve operations. She was awarded RM1000 for that idea.

 

4. Hard work

Another breakthrough emerged in the tree replanting program thanks to the student intern from Edith Cowan University. “The student regularly gathered elephant dung, used it as fertilizer for the trees, and nursed every single tree back to health. She did this twice a day with two members of staff,” Teo said. “Projects that are hard to do usually require a lot of effort. It takes time.” For several years, tourists were also given the opportunity to plant trees and donate to the effort.

Now, when guests cruise down the Kinabatangan River, guides routinely pause by the tree planting sites. “Look at these tall trees,” said Fernando Alverasian Albrasin, our guide. “It includes the tree planted by Prince Henrik of Denmark.” That same evening, a herd of thirty pygmy elephants were spotted foraging for food nearby the lodge. It’s hard to know whether the tree-planting project has made a distinct difference for these elephants. But for sure, this project has played a significant role in reshaping the capacity of BET staff to persist, care, generate ideas and work hard to achieve breakthroughs.

 

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