The Middle Road to Conservation
Brent Loken maneuvers between academia and activism in his efforts to save Borneo’s rainforests
In 2011, Brent Loken led an expedition deep into the Wehea Forest, a protected rainforest in East Kalimantan, a province in eastern Borneo. The forest is dense and remote, accessible only via a grueling, three-day trek on rutted dirt logging roads.
Loken wanted to study the biodiversity of one of the last untouched lowland tropical forests left in the world, so he assembled a group of local forest rangers and students from around the world to survey its astonishing biodiversity.
A year later, the crew appeared in headlines around the world. They had found a monkey that people thought no longer existed: a slender primate with a long tail, a small face and big feet, mostly black but with a white underside. The species, called Miller’s grizzled langur, was a victim of deforestation and overhunting for meat.
“We were completely surprised,” said Loken. “Nobody had really ever seen this monkey in the wild.”
Loken welcomed press attention around their discovery. “We used it as an opportunity for engaging and reaching out to a wide audience.”
Unlike many researchers, Loken does not shy away from the world stage. The founder of a non-governmental organization called Integrated Conservation, the 44-year-old native Iowan wants to bring attention to the plight of Borneo’s forests — both the wildlife they contain and the adjacent communities of people who rely on them for their livelihoods. To do so, he juggles multiple roles, engaging in scientific research and community outreach as well as diplomacy with big logging and palm oil companies.
A decade before he rediscovered Miller’s grizzled langur, Loken was in the middle of an entirely different career. After years of teaching at schools all over the world, he was founding a school of his own: Hsinchu International School, or HIS, in Taiwan. He had a progressive vision, one that involved the integration of student internships, a strong focus on the arts and a foundation in environmental science that undergirded the entire curriculum. “We built one of the most innovative schools in Asia,” said Loken.
His path to education started after college, when he decided he wanted to travel and teach. After teaching science in Syria, Bolivia and Pakistan, Loken found himself in Taiwan in the mid-2000s. There, with a few other educators, he built HIS from the ground up. “Our idea was to get beyond the role of memorization, to get beyond the test scores and to have kids work on large projects and interact with professionals,” he said.
His own education was extremely traditional, said Loken, and it never worked for him. A small-town kid, he was always looking for something more. “I always did well, but I felt like I was missing out on the experiential stuff — getting out and actually doing things,” he said.
By 2007, HIS was up and running. During that first year, Loken proudly watched his students get out in the field and make connections between their studies and experiences outside the classroom. But he wasn’t completely satisfied, and he left the following year.
“I left because I still felt that even as far as we took the school, we were limited by the bricks and mortar of the school itself,” he said. “The next step was to create a school without walls.”
Loken’s departure was a “huge loss,” said David Carpenter, a teacher who helped start HIS with Loken. But Carpenter knows that staying still wasn’t an option for Loken. “A catchphrase for Brent is really ‘ideas to action,’ ” he said.
In 2009, Loken started a program that took kids from around the world to Borneo. Each trip lasted ten weeks and involved traveling through East Kalimantan. He introduced his students to scientists, people who ran conservation groups, locals who were struggling to protect the forest and also representatives from palm oil plantations and timber companies. He wanted to get his students thinking about some of the challenges of balancing development and conservation.
“Are the two even possible?” posed Loken. “You are working with local people who want to develop the forests, send their kids to schools, get cell phones. How do you do that in a way that doesn’t destroy incredible forests?”
Today, Loken grapples with many of the same questions. Currently in his fifth year of a PhD program at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, he walks the line between academic and activist. In 2009, he founded Integrated Conservation, an NGO dedicated to preserving Wehea Forest. He fights for conservation, but doesn’t pretend he can ignore thrusts toward development.
Earlier this year, Loken published a study suggesting that orangutans seem to be adapting to development by traveling down newly constructed logging roads in Wehea. The project was done in collaboration with a local logging company.
Loken is aware that some conservationists view such collaborations as sacrilegious. But he thinks it’s impractical to reject development completely. “This is a logging area directly bordering the area we work in,” he said. “We knew we had to build a strong relationship with the logging company and have them see science used in a positive way.”
Loken said that Integrated Conservation has never taken money from a logging company, but they have received criticism for other corporate funders, which include Disney and Lush Cosmetics. The unfortunate reality, he said, is that on-the-ground conservation is expensive. “We’re going against logging and palm oil companies that can throw down millions of dollars,” he said. “How do you compete with that unless you have money as well?”
For his doctoral thesis, Loken is looking at what it actually takes to protect an area like Wehea Forest. He believes the answer is to create a conservation plan that protects enough areas to preserve the forest’s diversity while also opening up parts of the forest to logging and palm oil production.
It’s no easy task, said Loken, citing the challenge of supporting a minimum viable population of the native clouded leopard. “We surveyed 38,000 hectares of rainforest and only found ten clouded leopards,” he said. “So now we have to ask, how much forest do we need to protect if we want 50 leopards?”
“Brent is unique in his ability to take the theories he studies and implement them in practice,” said Manny Haider, a professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University and former intern with Integrated Conservation. “He has an uncanny aptitude for interacting with people on a number of different levels, from the bureaucrats in the city to the individual locals of the communities he works in.”
Loken also continues to prioritize education. A major part of Integrated Conservation’s current work involves appointing local students as forest rangers and funding them to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees so they can bring knowledge of sustainability back to their communities.
But Loken is aware that he is racing against the clock. Borneo’s rain forests are disappearing quickly. Last summer a study in PLOS ONE reported that forest cover in Borneo has declined by as much as 30 percent over the last 40 years. “We’re really focusing on the next generation,” said Loken. “The problem is whether or not there’s time.”