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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Alum’s life passion to combat deforestation

His journey to Indonesia and beyond

Published: April 1, 2011
Section: Features

Steve poses with his stuffed monkey during his application video. Photo courtesy of Steve Patriarco

“I could walk right over [to the counter] and come back with 30 different things that include palm oil as an ingredient,” Steve Patriarco ’08 said as we sat in Einsteins on Wednesday evening. Palm oil is the cheapest oil to produce and is used to make many products used every day such as packaged foods, fruit juices and beauty products. It is also one of the leading causes of deforestation in Indonesia and the foreseeable extinction of the orangutan.

Ninety-two percent of all deforestation in Indonesia is illegal and, if this continues, the orangutan will be extinct in the wild within 10 years. While this was all news to me and probably to many of our readers Patriarco has been, in his words, “eating, sleeping and breathing this” issue for the past seven years of his life.

Orangutans share 97 percent of humans’ DNA and are what is called an umbrella species. If a forest can be rehabilitated to suit their needs, then close to 10,000 other species can also survive in that forest.

“They’re brilliant; if you can look into their eyes for one minute—you know they need saving,” he said.

Although he began his Brandeis career with the hopes of being a wildlife veterinarian, this all changed when, as an environmental studies minor, he was introduced to the loss of bio-diverse habitats around the globe. He soon realized that veterinary medicine might not be the most efficient way to help the world’s most extraordinary animals.

“Wanting to be absolutely certain of my graduate path, I took a year off between my sophomore and junior years to work full-time in domestic and wildlife hospitals. What I witnessed was a steady stream of wildlife affected by issues beyond the control of even the most brilliant veterinarians with whom I worked. I returned to Brandeis in 2006, committed to learning all I could about the causes, effects and alternatives to deforestation,” Patriarco wrote in an e-mail.

Since graduation, Patriarco has devoted all of his time, both in and out of his day job (working for a non-profit organization that is funded by U.S. Homeland Security and deals with natural and man-made disasters) to his passion for saving wildlife and their habitats. In his day job he has become an expert in Geographic Information Systems technology that is now being used to monitor illegal deforestation and report violations to the local authorities.

In the past two years he has run more than three dozen public awareness campaigns notifying close to 300 companies about the issues regarding palm oil, paper and timber in their supply chains. He has also raised funds and awareness for orangutan rescue and rehabilitation projects in Indonesia.

In September, he met with his career role model and longtime inspiration Dr. Willie Smits, conservationist, forester and orangutan expert, and Richard Zimmerman, the executive director of Orangutan Outreach, to discuss Patriarco’s move to Indonesia and the work he could do while living there. He became extremely interested and invested in a project the two men were working on: Sintang Lestari.

Patriarco was immediately sold on the project; it was everything he had been longing to do. First it would focus on reforesting a badly degraded rain forest ecosystem in Indonesian Borneo. Then they would work with local Dayak communities to build a sustainable economy through innovations in forestry and agriculture, and lastly the project would build a permanent sanctuary on the land for scores of displaced orangutans.

“This project was everything I was looking for. It exemplified the innovative, multi-disciplinary approach that was needed to balance the environment with people’s needs in Indonesia, for the benefit of wildlife and people alike,” Patriarco wrote.

Smits had already proved this was possible on a smaller, but still extremely significant scale in his Samboja Lestari project. In this project Smits was able to prove that through facilitating legal ownership of the land by the natives and not the state, as well as building cooperatives with the natives that respected the cultural norms of the region—it was possible to both rebuild the natural habitat and give economic stability to the area.

Through a series of complex procedures, Smits and his team were able to give the people of Samboja Lestari a network of jobs, crops and sustainable sugar palms used to make ethanol while also creating a safe and lasting forest for the orangutans. As if that weren’t accomplishment enough for his team, the work in Samboja Lestari was able to reverse some effects of climate change.

In February Patriarco, who was saving for his move to Indonesia by tutoring at night and working as a physical trainer on the weekends, was notified that the project he was so committed to working on had gained major support in the form of $10 million from various organizations: Microsoft Partners in Learning, TakingITGlobal, Virgo Productions and National Geographic Entertainment.

Project Sintang Lestari was becoming Project Borneo 3D. Virgo Productions and National Geographic would be filming a 3D movie starring 10 “Action Heroes” and Smits’ team for five months starting in June.

“Given that I was already set on working in this location with my own hard-earned funds, I naturally thought it’d be foolish not to apply! Candidates were asked to upload a 90 to 120 second answering [of] what deforestation meant to them, why they want to save the orangutans, what they have done for the environment, and why they should be in a 3D movie,” Patriarco wrote.

Anyone can vote on the applicants videos on Project Borneo 3D’s website, but Patriarco feels that the majority of his fellow applicants are “ talented eco-minded people with their heart’s in the right places,” while in comparison this has been, is and will continue to be his life’s singular focus and goal.

Patriarco isn’t the only one sure of his potential. The International Fulbright Program also has confidence in Patriarco’s goals and abilities. On Tuesday Patriarco was awarded a Fulbright grant to study in Indonesia and work with the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program.

“I ended up applying to a Fulbright research grant because I know that living, working and studying the situation on the ground in Indonesia is absolutely essential to my future success in helping to craft solutions that better balance the environment, the local communities, and the need for economic growth in the Indonesia and Malaysia. It is all too easy for environmental NGOs or other groups to over-simplify the problem and its solutions (e.g., “just stop the deforestation”). It’s a whole other thing to live and breathe the economic difficulties that the locals are experiencing. I applied for a Fulbright so I can better understand these difficulties in the hopes of providing practical, sustainable alternatives to them,” he wrote.

Only one day after receiving his award, Patriarco was more than modest and instead wanted to focus on Project Borneo 3D saying, “ I need this to complete my Fulbright to its best. I’m ill equipped to handle all of these problems right now … This is a necessary precursor … so that I can learn and make the most impact,” he said.

Patriarco believes that eventually he will need to return to school to receive a JD/PhD in environmental law and policy and tropical natural resource management. He realizes, however, that being in school for 10 years, when the orangutans may not have that long, is simply not an option for him.

“Going [to Indonesia] is going to teach me what I need to do to fix things there, and I’m willing to charter into uninhabited territory to do it,” he said as he laughed about the challenges and adventures on his horizon with the Fulbright grant and hopefully his participation as an action hero in Project Borneo 3D.

In his applicant profile on the Project Borneo 3D website Patriarco wrote, “Sintang Lestari is a project I have long been excited about and pursuing ways to take part in (e.g., fund-raising through working extra jobs this past year) prior to the announcement of Project Borneo 3D. The prospect of being able to do this project and now share the message with the world through film too, is just a whole lot of frosting on what was already an unbelievably amazing ‘cake,’ so to speak! I hope and pray this exciting opportunity will become a reality for me so that I can make tangible impacts for the people, wildlife and economy of the Sintang district.”

Voting for the 10 action heroes ends on April 10. Patriarco is currently in the sixth place for most-watched videos out of 179 videos. While popularity is not the only consideration for producers when choosing the heroes, Patriarco is sure that the extra votes don’t hurt.